When I first heard the opening of Harry Gregson-Williams’s score for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I stuffed my fingers in my ears. I sat trapped between my parents in a darkened theater and watched wide-eyed as, instead of the gentle green countryside I expected, the Luftwaffe roared its way onto the screen. They were underscored by Gregson-Williams’s echoing drones and chimes that gave way to dark, grinding strings pulsating along to a menacing drumbeat (you can watch the opening scene here.) I stuffed my fingers in my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. At barely seven years old (though I made a point at the time to tell everybody who would listen that I was seven-and-a-half) I had never seen a movie more violent than Home Alone. This had to be the wrong theater – this could not be my beloved Narnia. This was some R-rated bloodbath and my parents would be upset if I tried to watch it… except there was my mother tugging my hands away from my ears, and there was Edmund Pevensie onscreen, one of the main characters in the book. “It’s okay,” my mother whispered. We were in the right theater after all.
So, what exactly was Edmund doing in the middle of the Blitz?
The book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis focuses on the four Pevensie children, who travel through a wardrobe into the otherworldly Narnia, a magical realm the evil White Witch has condemned to a hundred years of Christmas-less winter. While in Narnia, the children learn that they are destined to become kings and queens and fight alongside Aslan, the Great Lion, a Christ figure. Though much detail is given to their adventures in Narnia, only three sentences give any indication of their prior life at home in London, and they are the first three sentences of the novel to boot:
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office.”
And that’s it. No mention of their mother, or how they would miss her. No mention of their father’s enlistment. Yet both things are highlighted in director Andrew Adamson’s opening scenes.
Adamson had somewhat of an affinity for scaring children before his work reached my huddled form in a cinema seat. He required the musophobic actress Anna Popplewell (Susan Pevensie) to act with mice and for the acrophobic Skandar Keynes (Edmund Pevensie) to stand on a tall cliff (albeit attached to solid ground by a cable). By opening with the Blitz, however, Adamson wanted to create a different result than tears or an impressive shot. He wanted to take the first few sentences of C.S. Lewis’s book and expand them from a small idea to a large one that would resonate with modern children, particularly Americans. C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during WWII for an audience that would have felt immediate menace in the words “air-raids” alone. Adamson felt that kids who had never experienced war might not make the connection that the first time the Pevensies feared for their lives was long before the White Witch appeared on the scene.
And here’s where Harry Gregson-Williams comes in, with a briefcase full of sheet music and a laptop in tow. If his score is any indication, he latched onto the idea of expanding from small to large at once. “The Blitz, 1940,” the piece of music that plays during the opening scene, mirrors this idea. It starts out “slow and low,” but quickly gains tempo and swirls into a controlled chaos, prominently featuring whirling violins and violas, as far as I can distinguish individual instruments. The bittersweet ending of the piece, where the lower drones fade into the background and the strings take on a mournful mood, shows the tragic nature of the Pevensie’s situation.
If I were Andrew Adamson, I would be thrilled to work with Harry Gregson-Williams. The English composer came from a musical family and pursued music at an early age. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. Seven-year-old me could never have imagined that I was listening to the work of a man who earned a musical scholarship to St. John’s College at Cambridge when he was also seven. Later in life, he apprenticed under and developed a longtime friendship with Hans Zimmer, composer for Gladiator and Inception. Gregson-Williams was an ideal composer for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, considering he’d worked with Adamson previously on the Shrek franchise. Also, he fit in perfectly with Adamson’s idea to expose modern American children to wartime because of his composing philosophies.
In an interview with flickeringmyth.com, Gregson-Williams explains how he seeks to work closely with directors to tell a story. He does not want to take the reigns of composition himself – rather, he seeks collaboration. In the case of Narnia, this collaboration undoubtedly lead Gregson-Williams to use his musical talents to match the gray tone of London with a sort of “gray” pitch, the texture of the piece with the chaos of the bombs. Ultimately, as well, he connects the opening scene with the battle against the White Witch at the end of the movie by weaving a few notes and musical structures from “The Blitz, 1940” into his piece “The Battle.” If you click on the links, you can hear the similarities between the two, especially in the ending of both pieces. While not a true leitmotif, the resemblance serves to bring about Adamson’s vision of comparing the fantasy danger to the all-too-real danger that English children often experienced during WWII. “The Blitz, 1940” appealed personally to me for this very reason, once I got past my shock. My family history is wound up in war and fighter planes.
My grandfather fought in the U.S. Army Air Corps in WWII. Whenever I visited his house as a kid, I saw bits of the war everywhere – a poem on the wall about flying. A display case with a piece of his P-38 plane. A cluster of medals surrounding a purple heart in another case downstairs. But I never associated these things with the hardships of war.
My grandfather was one of the lucky few who escaped death when his plane was shot down over Hungary. Often, when men attempted to eject themselves from P-38s, they were hit by the tail of the plane and killed. My grandfather was imprisoned and taken to a Stalag, or a German prison camp (the same one featured in the classic film The Great Escape). I have reserved many of the details of his memoir to protect his privacy, but I was astonished to learn about his stay at the camp. Though it was not as terrible as the death camps, he and his fellow POWs were sometimes reduced to eating spiders. He spent time in solitary confinement, during which he recited lessons the nuns had taught him at school over and over. He quoted Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained;/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath.”
The seven-year-old with fingers in her ears did not know these things about her own grandfather. She saw the purple heart as a shiny locket with a ribbon, the P-38 relic as a toy she musn’t touch.
Harry Gregson-Williams helped to teach me the hard lesson that war really can damage and alter lives, and that my own family had been touched by its oily fingers. War, though it may seem far off to many Americans, is a devastating modern reality that is not lessened by the number of years between the 1940s and 2016. I normally wish to write about film scores in a “light light,” so to speak, but there is no way to do so here. The screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe accomplished the important task of bringing war to life for today’s generation, if only for a minute. Andrew Adamson could never have done it without the support of Gregson-Williams’s army of instruments – his synthesizers and electric violins, duduks and trumpets, drums and choruses. It was truly Narnia’s film score that gave Aslan his roar.