Speaking of which, does anyone in the UK have the later Wild Cards books that they could sell/loan me? I need Jokertown Shuffle, Turn of the Card, Card Sharks, the one that came after Card Sharks, and Deuces Down...Some of the Bantam Press ones are now selling for very very silly money.
In the meantime, here's my Narnia piece for the Times Literary Supplement.
We all have, embedded in our minds so deeply that they seem like memories, certain moments from the books of our childhoods. Sometimes, as with the Pauline Baines illustrations to the children's books of C.S.Lewis, this effect is achieved as much by a picture as by the words that inspired it - a child standing in the snow beside a lamp-post in the woods and a faun trotting past with brown paper parcels. When that moment and that image is to be colonized by Hollywood, we feel deep unease, almost as much as when we see a biopic that involves people we actually knew.
That unease, absent from Peter Jackson's realization of 'The Lord of the Rings', say, occurs rarely, but still too often, in Andrew Adamson's film 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. The wood, a suitably icy forest in Czechoslovakia, is perfect; the lamp-post is imaginatively shown to have Deco-ish roots of iron and to be both an artefact and a grown thing. Georgie Henley is gap-toothedly personable as the child Lucy and has a sense of innocent wonder that goes a long way towards making us believe.
Perhaps the trouble is the faun Tumnus - not so much his appearance, a get-up that plausibly combines prosthetic makeup and computer generated imagery, as his manner. Where Lewis's faun was a scholarly eccentric, a decision was made to make James MacAvoy as Tumnus entirely unthreatening, which, in Hollywood terms, means camp enough to be annoying and not camp enough to be amusing.
Andrew Adamson has come up from the technical side of modern film-making - his two earlier outings as director were the animated features 'Shrek' and 'Shrek 2' - but his self-evident love for the material makes 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' an acceptable version of a children's classic. One of his strengths is that he does not get in the way, that he regards himself as the servant of Lewis' vision. He and his screenwriter collaborators generally stick to the text, and their additions - a spectacular rendition of the London Blitz as the film opens, some adventures for the children on their way to meet Aslan, a general opening out of the climactic battle - are sensitive and sensible pieces of adaptation. This was never going to be a masterpiece, but it is quietly and honestly competent.
In one absolutely crucial area, Adamson gives one of his adult actors free rein. Tilda Swinton as Jadis, the Witch Queen of Narnia, is far more effectively terrifying than one could have hoped. All of the great moments Lewis gave her in this book are here - the seduction of the boy Edmund, the casual selfish brutality - and much that is Swinton's own. In the climactic scene of Aslan's sacrifice, she turns the line 'Despair and Die' into something that in its vocal swoop and intensity resembles grand opera. Physically her performance has an athletic grandeur that reminds us that the character is supposed to be a child of Lilith, a descendant of giants. She is aided in all of this by costume design that draws eclectically on Alexander McQueen, Erte and William Blake; in the battle, she is an evil Boadicea and in the sacrifice an elegant Goya-esque nightmare guaranteed to traumatize a generation of young cinema-goers.
Aslan, Lewis's Christ figure, is, as we are told at one point, not a tame lion. There was real cause for concern here that a lion that was largely a virtual image, and intermittently a glorified animatronic puppet, could never live up to the raw power of the original character, let alone the burden of theological implication laid on him. Generally speaking, and in spite of momentary lapses, the worst never happens and the best is usually achieved -there is a grandeur to the visual conception here. It helps that Adamson has entirely avoided the decision, made by Baines in some of her illustrations, to make Aslan occasionally bipedal - the King of Beasts should never be a man in a suit. The handling of all this is neither excessively reverent nor secular - those children and adult viewers aware of Christian mythology will notice its presence here, and others will either be able to ignore it, or at least not feel leaned on.
It also helps that the Lion does not so much talk as think very loudly - it is a near impossibility for even virtual animal jaws to move convincingly in articulate speech. In Adamson's film, the only creatures where this works are the Beavers, who are the ones closest to being pure animations rather than computerised quintessences of real beasts. Ray Winstone and Dawn French, who provide their voices, entirely capture Lewis's snobbish benevolence about Other Ranks - these are performances straight out of 1940s films. Liam Neeson has real authority as the voice of Aslan - Michael Madsen, as the evil wolf Maugrim, provides an unlikely, but effective, intrusion from the world of Quentin Tarantino.
Inevitably, one of the problems is that, when menace is as real as it sometimes is here in the hands of Swinton and Madsen, reaction to that menace from even the most personable of child actors is going to seem flat and unconvincing. Adamson's young cast are never less than competent and manage to stay not only in character, which one would expect, but in period, which is far harder. Georgie Henley, and Anna Popplewell as her older sister Susan, are admirable in their mourning over the dead Lion, their joy at his revival; elsewhere, and most especially in the climactic battle scene, disbelief is to some extent inevitable, as prepubescent lads lead a cavalry charge.
This is the point at which comparison with Jackson's film, whose principals are child-like rather than children, or with the various films produced by the Harry Potter industry, are bound to be to the disadvantage of Adamson's film. The later Potter films- Cuaron's 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' and Newell's 'The Goblet of Fire' - have been significantly better precisely because they and the books they adapt are dealing in dark and troubled adolescence rather than the pastel innocence of childhood. Even a lad as talented as Skander Keynes - probably significantly better than the Potter films' Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint- can only do a certain amount with the treason of young Edmund - Lewis is making a moral point about sin, not portraying an especially convincing child. In the end, Adamson's adaptation is faithful enough to be hindered by the weaknesses of the original.
The current issue also contains another review by me which is pseudonymous because the TLS doesn't like running two reviews obviously by the same person in the same issue. A small no-prize for identification by style or transparency of pseudonym.