New Zealand’s Andrew Adamson took a simple novel called Shrek and turned it into a part children’s part adult comic fable blockbuster. Adamson, who also worked on Shrek 2, has now made his foray into live animation, and what a debut it is, tackling the first and most beloved of C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia novels, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which follows the exploits of the four Pevensie siblings–Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter–in World War II England who enter the world of Narnia through a magical wardrobe while playing a game of ‘hide and seek’ in the rural country home of an elderly professor. Once there, the children discover a charming, peaceful land inhabited by talking beavers, dwarfs, fauns, centaurs, and wolves that has become a world cursed to eternal winter by the evil White Witch, Jadis. Under the guidance of a noble and mystical ruler, the lion Asian, the children fight to overcome the White Witch’s powerful hold over Narnia in a spectacular, climactic battle that will free Narnia from Jadis’ icy spell forever. Garth Franklin caught up with the film’s director in New York.
Question: Do you think you were the natural choice to direct this first Narnia adventure?
Adamson: I think I was the natural choice. I don’t know if everyone else does. I don’t know. Walden Media (Perry Moore actually) came to me with it and think what he saw was that in Shrek I had taken kind of a fantasy story with animated characters and imbued it with a lot of human qualities. And I think they felt this was what this film should be — a big fantasy story that’s ultimately a story about human characters with human values. I don’t know. They came to me. I talked about what I wanted to do with the film. I said he didn’t want to contemporize it. I expected them to want to contemporize it, want to Americanize it, and they didn’t. They wanted to be true to the book, which is what I wanted from reading it as an 8-year-old.
Question: Was It Hard To Be True To The Book, Doing The Adaptation?
Adamson: Yes and know. I actually set out really not to make the book so much as my memory of the book because I realized in reading the book as an adult that it was kind of like the house that you grew up in, much smaller than I remembered. And I wanted to catch the more epic story that I remembered which I think was expanded by my experiences over 30 years, by the fact that I had read all seven books, and that the world had actually expanded C.S. Lewis in writing all seven books.
Question: How influential was Lewis’ stepson and did you 2 see eye-to-eye on everything?
Adamson: Douglas Grisham was actually a huge cheerleader. He had wanted to make this movie for 15 years and wanted to find somebody who was gonna to make the book in a way that he felt C.S. Lewis had intended, and we shared that in common. So we always tended to agree on most things. He was a huge asset and at times when I was adapting, particularly in the writing process, when I could call him up and say, look does this take anything away from what Jack intended or does this addition change things too much? The only thing we really debated at any length was what I considered a sexist aspect of the book. It’s when Father Christmas gives weapons to the kids, and says to the girls, I don’t intend you to use them because weapons are ugly when women fight. I just came off doing two films which I think were empowering to girls — the Princess Fiona character I think is an empowering character — and I said to Doug, I understand that C.S. Lewis might have had these dated ideals, but at the same time there’s no way I could put that in a film… He wasn’t really expressing his own ideas so much as C.S. Lewis and the way I got around it, I think, is that I said — he wrote this book before I met your mom. And if you look at his books actually after he met Joy, there are a lot more strong female characters. I think he had more exposure to strong female characters after that point. And Doug really was the one who came to the sort of compromise that worked, which is just Father Christmas saying — I hope you don’t have to use them because battles are ugly affairs. And that could apply to both girls and boys.
Question: Where does your passion for this material come from?
Adamson: I mean — I grew up with the books when I was eight. I think in retrospect, trying to figure out why I liked them so much or why so many people have liked them over generations of readings, is the idea of the possibility of imaginary places existing. That’s very evocative. The idea that you can just find the right door and step into a magic land I think is pretty universal for kids who exist so much in their imaginations. But I think it’s good also that it’s very empowering for children. These kids when they step into Narnia are not kids any more. They’re kings and queens and given a lot of responsibility, and carry a lot of weight. But with that comes a sense of empowerment and to me that’s sort of what the story is about. It’s about a family, disenfranchised in World War two, that’s taken to a world where they’re not only empowered but they are the solution to the problems. And it’s actually through coming together as a family that they overcome evil. So I think that’s a really great story for kids.
Question: Why do you think it was important to respect the Second World War and set the film at that time?
Adamson: First of all, I don’t think the estate would have allowed it to be adapted in a modern sort of different setting which I think that’s one of the reasons they never managed to get it off the ground before. At the same time, in defence of what Paramount was doing, I don’t think that it was the climate — I don’t think people knew or felt or the studios felt that you could take a piece of classic British literature and adapt it in a way that was faithful and have it be commercially viable. I think I’m lucky in the timing, in that Lord Of The Rings has been very successful, the Harry Potter series has been very successful, studios have seen you can take classic English literature or in some cases modern English literature, adapt it in a way that was true, adapt it in a way that was still British, it could be successful and with no stars.
Question: Was it difficult to cast precisely the way you wanted it?
Adamson: Finding the kids was tricky. I wanted very real kids… find a kid who was very like the character, so wasn’t so much about acting as being themselves — not to take anything away from the kids. I think I was very lucky to find a lot of kids who were very empathic — Georgie was eight years old when she started this. She just operated from a very personal point. And she very much is like a Lucy to be. So that was the challenge and It was about an 18-month process to find the children.
Question: What about the religious element?
Adamson: I think the ideas of good, evil, forgiveness and sacrifice are very present in the book, and I think that’s what makes it so universally appealing. I think the idea of forgiveness is a human condition regardless of your belief or religion… it’s just something that — it’s an easy thing to say that the world would be a better place with a lot more forgiveness. I didn’t think a lot about the religious aspect of the film. I know people have interpreted the book in many different ways over different years. I read it when I was eight years old before I even knew what the word “allegory” means. I don’t know if C.S. Lewis really intended it to be allegorical, but he definitely wrote from a place of his own belief. And a lot of people get that from the book. I think because I set out to make a film of the book and I think I’ve stayed really true to the book, I think people can interpret the movie the same way. They can apply their personal belief and interpret the movie the same way they interpreted the book.
Question: What about the religious references in the film’s climatic final battle and that line, ‘it is finished.’ That’s taken straight from the bible.
Adamson: No not intentionally.
Question: It is Finished are words from the Cross.
Adamson: I actually honestly didn’t know that. Seriously, I can’t believe I didn’t know that. The thing that I wanted and the thing I was really going for is for Aslan’s sadness and having to get to this point — there’s a moment where Aslan and the White Witch stare at each other at the end as if they’re both accepting their fate. He’s going to have to kill her. She accepts that she’s going to be killed. And to me I didn’t want to send home the message that war is an ideal solution. I wanted Aslan to actually regret the fact that he’s going to have to kill the White Witch. I wanted a line that he could turn to and really just say — it’s over. It’s done.
Question: Aslan’s return to life — that particular moment — is so reminiscent of the tomb scene in the New Testament. You must have been conscious of that.
Adamson: Oh yes, I was definitely conscious of it. I definitely knew that. I think — it’s interesting. Obviously people look for a lot of those references, particularly because of who C.S. Lewis is. I mean — to me, I don’t think of it as allegory because I think allegory is limiting. As I say, he wrote from his beliefs, he definitely put his beliefs in — the interesting thing is we’re getting a lot of interest in that, particularly from the press. At the same time, The Matrix — a huge commercial film — is the Resurrection story. He’s the chosen one. He goes to his death. He comes back from death and he saves the world. I don’t think the Wachowskis had to answer as many questions about it as I do. But you’re right. An eight-year-old isn’t thinking about the religious allegory when reading this book. Obviously C.S. Lewis wrote from a point of view based on his own personal beliefs. And the resurrection story is there. But I think it’s open to interpretation. I think it’s really up to the individual and their own personal beliefs as to how they will receive this film.
Question: So what about the transition from making an all animated film to live action?
Adamson: In some ways it’s less different than you think. The process is definitely different. In animation, you record the actor and then you do the physical months later and then the lighting months after that. in live action you put everybody together in an environment. You get everything in camera. In animation, as a director, you have to think about everything. You have to think about blinks. You have to think about dust. You have to think about every drop of rain. In live action you get that stuff for free. There’s a certain thing that just happens. If you put a boy in armour with a sword on a horse, he’s going to feel noble. He’s going to look noble. In animation you have to communicate to an actor and say — okay, this is what’s going on — if you’re in a studio isolated from reality. On the other hand you get to work with the actor one on one without the pressure of time and light and those kinds of things. In the end, they kind of balance each other out. And in the end it’s still story time, it’s still about human emotions. This film used a lot of animation discipline. They did have to take animated characters and give them human traits. So what I’d done in the past helped me to do this. At the same time, I was learning a lot working with actors on location.
Question: Talk about the decision to work chronologically.
Adamson: Largely it was a decision somewhat for practical reasons and partly for story reasons. The kids were going to grow. There was nothing I could do about that even though we joked about getting Skandar to start smoking… he grew six inches from when I cast him to when we finished the film. But also with in the story, Narnia does make you more mature. It does make you grow emotionally, and I wanted to portray that physically so even at the beginning I sort of planned in particular with William, keeping him out of the sun, letting him be a sort of soft British schoolboy and then as we got into the production, getting him out training with the stunt guys, getting him out horse riding, getting him out in the sun, and letting him actually physically mature on screen. So shooting chronologically allowed me to get the benefit of both those things.
Question: Are you interested or committed in doing the next book?
Adamson: Not committed to. There was a point a couple of weeks ago when I was committed to never making a film again. After a year of visual effects. If anything that prompts me into making the sequel, it will be the kids. They really formed this real family. They allowed me to be part of their family. If these kids do it again, I’ll probably do it again, because I care too much about them. I can’t imagine letting them go to another director. I’d be worried that he would treat them in a way that I wouldn’t want them to be treated, so that’s probably what would draw me in. I’m taking a long vacation. I have two kids. I didn’t when I started this film, so I want some time with them.