The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the Animation
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe | Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader | The Silver Chair
One of the most successful children's television adaptations of the 1980s was the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the classic novel by CS Lewis. The award-winning, highly regarded, critically acclaimed serial was not only given a peak viewing time, it was successful enough to lead to three more Narnia adaptations over the coming two years.
It is 1940 and Britain is at war! The Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, are evacuated from London to keep them safe and sent to the countryside, staying in a big house with the eccentric Professor Digory Kirke. In the house Lucy discovers a wardrobe leading to a magical world called Narnia1, where it is always winter and never Christmas. She learns from a friendly faun named Mr Tumnus that Narnia is inhabited by talking animals and mythical creatures, ruled by the cruel Wicked White Witch2 who lives in fear of the coming of humans and turns anyone who angers her into stone. For it is prophesised that two 'Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve' will end her rule, aided by the mythical lion king, Aslan.
None of her siblings believe her at first. Even after Edmund enters Narnia and meets the White Witch he denies Narnia's existence, though he has secretly been bribed by the witch with promises of Turkish Delight if he brings his family to her. He also inadvertently reveals that Mr Tumnus aided Lucy before.
When all four children enter Narnia, will Edmund betray them? Will they be able to survive the White Witch's anger, and endure long enough to meet Aslan? What sacrifices will be called for and what will their consequences be?
Characters and actors whose names are in Bold appear in other stories in the Narnia series:
|Lucy Pevensie||Sophie Wilcox|
|Edmund Pevensie||Jonathan R. Scott|
|Peter Pevensie||Richard Dempsey|
|Susan Pevensie||Sophie Cook|
|The White Witch||Barbara Kellerman|
|Mr Beaver||Kerry Shale|
|Mrs Beaver||Lesley Nicol|
|Ronald Pickup (Voice)|
|Dwarf||'Big Mick' Walter|
|Mr Tumnus||Jeffrey Perry|
|Professor Digory Kirke||Michael Aldridge|
|Father Christmas||Bert Parnaby|
Of the children, Richard Dempsey alone has continued acting and played regular character DC Nicky Robson in Crime Traveller (1997) and has been in a variety of minor roles since. Barbara Kellerman, who had previously been in Quatermass (1979) and Kerry Shale have also continued to act with numerous appearances in small roles. Lesley Nicol is perhaps best known for her regular role as Mrs Patmore the Cook in Downton Abbey (2010-15).
Since 1970 Ronald Pickup has enjoyed a highly successful acting career, playing characters in film and television, including Prince John in Ivanhoe (1982) and Norman Cousins in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films (2012-15). 'Big' Mick Walters is perhaps best known as Grumbly in Psychoville (2009).
Ailsa Berk is an actress/choreographer who since 2005 has specialised in instructing actors how to move like monsters or march like Cybermen in Doctor Who and had played a bounty hunter in Return of the Jedi (1983). William Todd-Jones is a highly experienced puppeteer, performing in films such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Michael Aldridge is perhaps best known for playing Seymour Utterthwaite in 1986-1990 in Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010).
Behind the Novel
CS Lewis famously was close friends with JRR Tolkien when writing this novel. While Tolkien adopted a highly detailed, layered approach to creating his fantasy Middle Earth, Lewis' approach was to add in ingredients from numerous mythologies, legends and fantasy tales and mix them all up with a dose of the Easter Story to stick it all together. So there are Greek and Roman mythical creatures such as fauns, satyrs and centaurs combined with strong elements from Masefield's The Box of Delights, giants and even Father Christmas.
Major influences include Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen inspiring the White Witch – as the Snow Queen turns people to ice, the White Witch is a queen who can turn people to stone. Similarly, E Nesbit's 1908 short story 'The Aunt and Annabel' is about Annabel who finds a magical world through 'Bigwardrobeinspareroom', which is not unlike Lucy finding a magical world inside the big wardrobe in the spare room3. Other influences include Edmund Spenser's poem The Færie Queene (1596), the talking animals in The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame and the work of George MacDonald4, particularly Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895).
The Easter story with themes of divine sacrifice purifying sin leading to resurrection can be seen in the scenes set at the Stone Table, with Lucy and Susan representing Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus being first to see the resurrected Aslan. Although Aslan is a representation of Jesus5, his original inspiration came from CS Lewis' childhood copy of Tales from the Arabian Nights.
CS Lewis' own life and experience also inspired the tale. Three evacuee girls, Margaret, Mary, and Katherine, were sent to live with CS Lewis for a short time in 1939. Lucy, however, was based on Lewis' goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. Similarly, Professor Kirke was inspired by Lewis' tutor, Professor Kirkpatrick. Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland, where CS Lewis visited in his childhood, is believed to have inspired the fictional castle of Cair Paravel.
Difference with the Novel
The adaptation stays remarkably close to the novel, with only the few minor tweaks here and there for pacing reasons that naturally arise when a novel is turned into a television series. For example, instead of a robin leading the children away from Mr Tumnus and then their being led by Mr Beaver, in the television series they simply follow Mr Beaver and the robin does not appear. Similarly, the White Witch's sleigh is pulled by two horses meant to look like unicorns rather than reindeer as in the novel, however this minor change does not detract from the story at all.
In the television series, Maugrim appears able to become a wolf or manlike werewolf at will, rather than being a talking wolf. This is because the BBC uses both an actor and a wolf in order to portray him. One minor sentence removed from the adaptation is Mr Beaver's discussion of the White Witch. He states that she isn't human, but part giant and part descendant of Lilith6. This is contradicted by CS Lewis' later prequel novel The Magician's Nephew, so despite whether or not this was intended to be rumour, speculation or an early origin story for the White Witch, to simplify matters it simply does not appear in the serial.
Another very minor detail that does not appear in the television series is in Chapter 1 ' Lucy looks into a Wardrobe' of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This states that the only other thing that is in the room that contains the wardrobe is said to be 'a dead bluebottle on the windowsill'. Is the dead bluebottle a talking bluebottle from Narnia that had flown to our world, or was it an earthly fly all along? The bluebottle has confused American readers where the term bluebottle refers to a type of flower.
The phenomenal worldwide success of The Box of Delights in 1984 led to the BBC making more big-budget fantasy adaptations of British children's novels for television. These adopted the serial format and were typically nostalgically set in the early 20th Century and involved occasionally one, usually more, upper-class children encountering something magical. The BBC were particularly keen to adapt CS Lewis' Narnia stories, which had numerous similarities with The Box of Delights, however there were unexpected complications that led to delays, despite the story having been adapted for television twice before7. Anna Home, the BBC's Head of Children's Programmes, described this in her book Into the Box of Delights: A History of Children's Television by saying:
It had taken the BBC a long time to acquire the rights to CS Lewis's books – doing so involved a number of people and organisations, including the American Episcopalian Church Foundation8, but perhaps this was no bad thing. It meant that, by the time the rights were finally acquired, technology had evolved far enough to make a convincing production practical. Paul Stone, the producer, had already pioneered many of the techniques used in the series in his 1984 production of John Masefield's The Box of Delights, which involved a considerable amount of fantasy.
The serial not only shared the same producer as The Box of Delights but also the same writer, Alan Seymour, with many of the same techniques used to bring the story to life.
Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC One, was fully behind the project. In order to raise the funds necessary to make The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, he instructed BBC Enterprises to pre-sell the series internationally in co-production with American television WonderWorks, an American television company co-produced by PBS and Walt Disney.
Most of the animals and mythical creatures were people in costume, however cel animation was used to add mythical creatures such as flying horses, hideous ghosts and ghouls. There was a degree of interaction between the animated characters and live actors, especially in a scene in which Edmund is rescued; he is picked up by an eagles and carried on the back of a flying horse. Actor Jonathan R Scott who plays Edmund had to wear a flying harness for this sequence, while Lucy and Susan wore flying harnesses for the sequence set on Aslan's back. In fact the very first thing the child actors did after being cast was to go for rehearsals in a theatre where there was a production of Peter Pan in order to rehearse the use of flying harnesses. The boys also had to later rehearse sword fight sequences in which they were fighting against nothing, only for the demons to be animated in later.
The key effect, of course, was that of Aslan, the legendary larger-than-life lion. It took three months to create Aslan. At the design stage, lions were studied up close at Longleat Safari Park at times when it was closed to the public. The head began as a clay sculpture, then a plaster cast taken was take of this, with the finished head covered in foam. Yak hair was used to create Aslan's glorious mane, with the rest of his fur made from car seat covers. Aslan's voice was brought to life by Ronald Pickup while his face and body were controlled through animatronics and puppetry. Two performers were inside the lion costume, while one operated much of the animatronics outside. Tim Rose designed Aslan's animatronics, making the eyes, which were designed to have a softer appearance than a real lion's, able to wink, blink and look in all directions. The mouth and nose too had a range of expressions, including being able to sniff, snarl and roar. Ailsa inside controlled this, while Tom controlled the back legs. When interviewed in April 2003, Richard Dempsey who played Peter said,
They'd spent a lot of money on creating this animatronic lion. The first time we saw him was in the rehearsal rooms in North Action and he had his head – his body wasn't quite finished – but suddenly you had a real lion in the room and it was real, it was magical…. His eyes were very expressive. Aslan was suddenly there.
Aslan did not only appear in scenes filmed in the studio but also appeared in scenes filmed on location. It was much harder for Aslan to walk realistically in real forests with uneven surfaces and tree roots to negotiate than crossing a perfectly flat studio floor.
Although at the time multi-camera studio filming on videotape was the norm for most BBC productions, especially for series involving special effects, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was made on film9 and extensively on location, including winter location filming in the Forest of Dean and Aviemore in the Scottish Cairngorms.
Location filming in the Cairngorms was very cold and the vast majority of the snow was genuine. Although the children wore real fur coats, they also wore thermal longjohns with flesh-coloured tights to keep them warm despite their characters being dressed in shorts and short skirts. The White Witch's costume was nylon, leaving the actress freezing and relying on strategically placed hot water bottles between her legs to keep her warm. The Scottish snow location scenes were particularly difficult for the actors in the beaver costumes, who kept slipping over. Two men who were tasked with rushing in and picking them up whenever they fell over were soon nicknamed the 'Beaver Retrievers'. Some location scenes did use fake snow, which despite looking authentic on the ground, made the actors' shoes and look like they were covered in soap bubbles.
The Scottish filming was followed by ten weeks at Television Centre and six weeks at Manorbier, as Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire was used as The White Witch's Castle and the heroes castle of Cair Paravel10. Hawkstone Park was another major location, and would be returned to for the following year's adaptation of Prince Caspian. Two stations on the West Somerset Railway were used in order to represent leaving London and arriving in the country - Minehead and Crowcombe Heathfield.
The serial was broadcast on Sunday afternoons from mid-November to December 1988, capturing a family audience of over 10 million. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was nominated for an Outstanding Children's Programme Emmy as well as Best Children's Programme, Best Make Up and Best Costume Design at the 1989 BAFTAs, winning Best Video Lighting.
Of all the screen adaptations of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to date, the BBC's interpretation is the most faithful – far more so than the church's 1979 animation. Though slow-moving at times, it never fails to keep a young audience's interest.
Of the titular characters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan's is the most successful. He has the majestic aura of a large lion combined with an embraceable appearance that children cannot resist. To point out that the animatronic head's mouth movements do not always match what he is saying seems a little unfair as this goes unnoticed by the audience the show is aimed for. Aslan may not be the most realistic lion, yet you will never see any cuddlier, fluffier animal ever. Aslan remains a convincing, solid presence throughout and, while he never looks like a pantomime horse, Barbara Kellerman's performance is very much in the vein of a pantomime witch. Again while it might on occasion seem over the top, this is quite suitable for the show's audience. The actors playing the beavers also perform admirably despite their inflexible costumes' handicaps.
One of the show's highlights is the beautiful map opening sequence. This shows what at first appears to be a flat map of Narnia, yet as the camera comes closer the viewer sees the map become 3D and spring to life, with the flags of Cair Paravel fluttering in the breeze11.
As well as fantasy, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe also benefits from its 1940s period setting. One of the most successful British television programmes of the 1980s was Brideshead Revisited (1981), which like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was set in a large country house, Brideshead Castle, including during the 1940s.
All in all, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains a stunning example of quality children's fantasy adventure from the 1980s that retains an affectionate place in the hearts of many who saw it on first broadcast, and it continues to captivate children today.