Motion-Picture Illustrations

According to my mother, there are people who think that, because they have seen the Narnia movies, they do not need to read the books. They know what happened. After all, it’s not as if the White Witch wins in the book, or a major good character dies. Mrs. Beaver does come out better by a sewing machine in the book—but that sort of thing hardly seems important enough to change that once you have watched the movie, you don’t really need to read the book.

Viewing this as very untrue, my brother and I have the opposite problem. While recently watching the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we have never quite suspended our criticism: I think it is part of our Vanderpol Family Pride and the way that we consider ourselves as seeing books. Throughout both movies, we have been commenting to each other, our eyes often meeting as we both react to the same egregious incident—‘That’s not the way it really happened!’ ‘What are the Death Eaters doing? They can’t fly without broomsticks!’ ‘It wasn’t like that!’ ‘The Witch’s castle isn’t that close to the Beavers’ house!’ ‘Peter wouldn’t say that!’ ‘It wasn’t Cho—that was completely unnecessary!’ ‘That definitely—did—not—happen in the book!’ ‘They skipped good stuff there!’ ‘Not polar bears!’

Some authors’ words can say more than any thousand pictures taken and replayed in close succession; and I don’t think that anyone is right with the idea that they can just watch The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and get the same things out of it as those who read the book. Still, in watching these movies I have been trying to suspend such criticisms as come toward hostility. Instead, I am trying to view these movies as aids to the reader, like very complicated illustrations. Of course they cannot approach the wonder and the beauty and the rich meaningfulness of the book. (Though, of course, they could have done better.) There are some things so wonderful in the seeing that they cannot be communicated except with words. Still, good movies, like good illustrations, can be nice. It can be helpful to have someone help you visualize the clothing, or the scenery, or the pageantry, or the faces. (Though whether this is always a boon could be debated—sometimes it’s nice just to have your own idea of what Aragorn or Peter looks like.) And as you can’t illustrate every page, every event, of a long, rich book, so in creating a motion-picture illustration, some things have to be left out.

The unfortunate part is that the movies convey an illusion of completeness: unlike someone who sees a book of Dore’s illustrations to the Comedia, someone who watches The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does not realize that all they have received is a tantalizing glimpse of what lies further up and further in.