If you've been following along, you'll know I've been reading The Chronicles of Narnia books with my son and watching all of the adaptations of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. This week we’ll be reviewing both the animated and BBC adaptations. One reason I think this series of books has stuck with me is that they were some of the first things I read when making the switch between picture books and chapter books. You can find my review of the Disney film, as well as an introduction to this whole project, in a previous post. In my next Narnia post, we’ll go over what I’ve learned about the ITV version and wrap up the adventure in watching these adaptations with my family. Where will your favorite adaptation land in my rankings? Let's first discuss the animated and BBC versions.
As I mentioned in my first post, I was a bit stunned to find out that there was an animated version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe made in 1979. I’m sure it was something I would have enjoyed watching multiple times as a kid, but grew up without ever hearing about it. In attempting to track it down, I was also surprised to find that it was adapted and directed by the famed Bill Melendez. Even if you don’t know the name, you may remember his work on all but one of the Peanuts animated specials. Those were some of my favorites as a kid, and we still watch most of the holiday-themed shows at the appropriate time of year in my household. Had I just struck gold in finding this animated version of Narnia?
To start off, I should mention that there are different voice casts in the American and UK versions, the only exception being Stephen Thorne as Aslan in both releases. The version I was able to track down, not surprisingly, happened to feature the American voice cast. If I'd had a choice, I would have preferred the UK version, but it's a rare find. The original broadcast of this special was in April of 1979 on CBS, and would later win an Emmy Award. It's also important to note that the runtime is only 95 minutes, making it the shortest adaptations. Given the knowledge of Bill Melendez and the Emmy, I tempered my expectations and the family once again dug in on movie night.
This is the only full version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that we were able to complete in one sitting. We may have gotten through it quickly, but surprisingly there is still a lot to say about this one. In a first bit of strangeness, there is no mention of World War II or why the kids are at the Professor’s house. The kids are just there for...reasons? Okay, I guess maybe they had issues with mentioning a war in a cartoon at the time, but isn’t it also probably a bad idea to show kids just hanging out at the mansion of a strange old man whom they don’t really know?
To add to the Scooby Doo vibe, the kids are "dressed up" in "modern day" (1979) clothing. I guess the animators thought it would help children better relate to the characters. It doesn’t stop there though, the children don’t look like they're even related (what was going on in the Pevensie household?) Susan is a redhead, Lucy is blonde, and Edmund has glasses? I don’t think Edmund has had glasses in any other version I’ve ever seen or heard. I think I see what's going on here, though: It has been common in animation (and maybe still is) to make characters look completely different in a silly attempt to "help" children tell them apart. Take a look at stills from The Real Ghostbusters to see what I mean. All four main characters have different colored clothes and hair from what you'd expect. Am I talking about Narnia or Ghostbusters? It applies to both! This strangeness aside, I can say that the witch had sinister appeal, and the animations were in the solid scary 70s "bad guy" style. Perhaps it just continues with the Scooby Doo theme, but I'm okay with this!
As for the story itself, there were also significant changes. When Edmund first meets the White Witch, she just offers him some Turkish Delight (it is not a delight!), as opposed to asking him what he would like. I’m glad for that small punishment, as this version of Edmund is probably the biggest jerk, although it does take away a bit of the magic. The next major change comes in the fact that all four of the children just sort of go ahead and climb in the wardrobe when it's time. They aren’t escaping from the crotchety housekeeper, they just all wanted to hide among some fur? I guess we can just roll with that, after all it finally gets them into the fantasy realm together. We have two other major story changes, though, both related and both are odd ones, at that. The scene where Father Christmas gives Peter, Susan and Lucy their gifts is cut. That is to say, they still get their gifts, but this time it's from Aslan. To make it stranger still, the Christmas picnic scene that's cut from many other versions is kept here. As in the book, this group mentions that Father Christmas gave them the feast. I don’t know why these changes were made, and this scene could have been cut, maybe in favor of maybe putting something regarding WW II back in? The removal of both might have something to do with the Episcopal Radio TV Foundation owning the rights at the time, but I can’t be sure.
The BBC version of the book is one that I thought I remembered very well. This particular adaptation is a whole six-part miniseries, as opposed to a single movie as with the Disney and 1979 animated adaptations. I now know I’d likely been viewing it with nostalgia glasses (possibly borrowed from the animated version of Edmund). It pains me to say this of a childhood favorite, but the costuming and special effects are so obviously dated to be almost laughable. I’m not sure that they would have been cutting edge for their time, but I’m going to imagine that they were. The worst things I can probably say would be about the wolves and the beavers. The giant beavers here are terrifying in their costumes/make-up! I’m sure Lesley Nicol is happy people remember her for Downton Abbey and not this. The wolves are also very, very strange. Sometimes they're humanoid, with very unfortunately phallic noses, and sometimes they morph into real looking wolves. Were they supposed to be werewolves? Men cursed by the witch? Wolves cursed by the witch? I don’t know. At least I can say that the Wolf Captain's performance was sufficiently scary.
The BBC version isn’t all bad, though. I can say that they probably cut the least of any version to date, and took a leisurely approach in adapting the story. Despite the strangeness of the wolves and beavers, and the dated feeling in general, I actually enjoy most of the look of the costumes and props. The animated overlays may be particularly dated, but they bring a bit of magic to the series. The animated bad guys still seem creepy and otherworldly, and the good guys look fantastical - something out of a storybook. While I’m sure many might disagree with me, I still rather enjoy this version of the White Witch. Her look is severe and her acting is perfectly over-the-top, an enjoyment that probably comes from growing up with 60s Batman villains.
Are either of these versions a top pick? I'd certainly give the animated version another try, but so much of it feels... odd. I'm certain that my children and I are bound to watch the BBC version again. I can’t help but gravitate to the version I grew up with, even if those nostalgia glasses are slightly out of focus. If you’re a fan of Narnia and haven’t seen these, you should give both a chance. I don’t know if you’ll end up gravitating towards either, but you just might. As to where both adaptations fall in my rankings, you’ll have to follow up by reading the third and final installment of this series. Don't forget, there's also my review of the Disney version, if you haven't read it already in a previous post. Once again, have courage. For Narnia and for Aslan!