Society: Movie: Narnia
by Cal Thomas
NEW YORK - In a Nov. 13 New York Times Magazine story about the movie “Left Behind: World at War” - based on the best-selling book series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye - Peter Lalonde, co-CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures, which produced the film, had this to say about the forthcoming film “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (TLTWTW): “Great film, but there’s nothing Christian about it.”
Perhaps not since the 1981 best picture “Chariots of Fire” has there been a film that so subtly and wonderfully appeals to the spirit and lets the audience decide if it wishes to go further. Compared to the schlock that has been shown in church basements over the years, in which the script would not have measured up to minimal standards in any writing class and the acting and directing were so bad that anyone seeking to make a living in this genre would surely have starved to death, “TLTWTW” is a masterpiece of counter-programming.
Everything those awful movies were, this one isn’t. It faithfully follows the storyline conceived by C.S. Lewis, the Belfast native, gigantic intellect, Christian apologist and Oxford professor, who died 42 years ago, but whose work continues to sell and challenge the self-indulgent and disbelieving spirit of the age. Lewis believed in taking on the popular philosophies of his day on their own turf, not retreating into religious catacombs. In addition to his teaching and writing, during World War II, Lewis delivered lectures on the BBC on marriage, the Christian faith and other subjects. He couldn’t have been more mainstream than that.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” adapted from Lewis’ popular book series, opens nationally on Dec. 9 with one of the largest rollouts in film history. The Walt Disney Company, along with co-producer Walden Media, have faith that the film will not only drive many Christians and conservatives to see it, but that people who don’t share Lewis’ beliefs will buy tickets for the adventure story, the spectacular special effects and the characters who find faith and courage in a most unlikely place: the mythical land of Narnia, where it has been “always winter, but never Christmas” until they arrive.
This is an important film because it offers a better strategy for Christians and conservatives than Hollywood-bashing. Movies have been a source of moral controversy from the first one-reelers more than a century ago. Politicians and religious leaders denounced them for scenes that would today seem tame. In 1922, Congress threatened to censor movies unless the industry cleaned up its act. Film producers selected Will H. Hays - President Warren Harding’s campaign manager, a Presbyterian elder and a Republican - to set up a commission that would review films before their release. In 1934, the Roman Catholic Church formed the Legion of Decency to combat immoral movies and told Catholics which films they could see and which were “condemned” and forbidden to them.
Faced with millions of unsold tickets, the movie industry established the Production Code Administration, which strictly monitored stringent decency guidelines, better known as the Hays Code, and granted seals of approval to films they liked and fined producers $25,000 for releasing films without the seal. It wasn’t until 1968 that this system was scrapped and replaced with today’s letter ratings.
Most conservatives and Christians, rather than advocating for better movies, have been content to boycott films, make really bad ones, or criticize what was being produced. This approach has had minimal influence on the film industry and has contributed little that was positive to the culture wars.
With “TLTWTW,” there is no going back to the church basement. This film should slam the door and take viewers to the main level. It deserves the patronage of all who have lamented the loss of “good films” and who believe they have a far more compelling and entertaining message than the sex, violence and profanity that Hollywood has, for too long, produced unchallenged.
As with “The Passion of the Christ” (an openly religious film) and “Chariots of Fire,” the public must buy tickets to “TLTWTW” and make this and its sequels big moneymakers for Disney and Walden. Large profits are the key to ensuring more good films. If all of the energy put into the failed boycott of Disney for “gay day” at Walt Disney World now goes into praising Disney and Walden for creating a magnificent work, this “light” will overcome that other “darkness.”
C.S. Lewis got it. So will you after seeing this movie and cheering the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Churches in the United Kingdom are getting ready for an evangelistic outreach this Christmas amid the rising mania over the upcoming new Disney film “Narnia.”
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” is a movie based on the classic novel written by the renowned English author C.S. Lewis. Aside from its exciting storyline, the Christian message embedded in the film appears to be a great attracting factor for the British audience even before the world premiere in London on Dec. 7.
Christian Publishing and Outreach (CPO), a U.K.-based evangelical publishing company, has approached the Walt Disney Co. and was granted the permission to use two images from the film for the production of special “Narnia” packs, according to Reuters. The materials are being distributed to 20,000 churches across Britain to aid in evangelism.
Russ Bravo, development director for CPO told Reuters that the demand for “Narnia” packs has been “very big.” Included in the packs are a what-to-do guide, outlines that give ministers ideas on how to deliver sermons, and material for Sunday schools.
The Children and Youth ministry of the Methodist Church of Great Britain has also published some evangelism resources based on “Narnia.” A special “Narnia” service focusing on the theme of gift-giving and receiving was written by Methodist Children for all ages in the Church.
According to the U.K.-based Times newspaper, a Methodist spokesman explained how the adventure of four children – Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan – in “Narnia” relates to Christmas and the salvation of Jesus Christ.
He said that as the main characters have entered a world of ice and snow that has no Christmas, congregations are asked to consider “what the world would be like if Christmas never came,” the Times reported. Christians will then be reminded of “the importance of the gift we are given at Christmas, past, present and future.”
Doug Swanney, Children’s Work Development Officer, further explained, “Christmas is a time associated with presents and giving and this service aims to highlight Jesus as the great gift of God for our salvation.” He added that the worship service can also be used for other occasions during the year.
Premier Radio, the most influential Christian radio in Britain, highly recommends “Narnia” to general Christians. A special section on its website features an introduction of C.S. Lewis’s whole series of novels about “Narnia,” analyzing the Gospel message behind these stories.
The huge reaction of Christian churches in the United Kingdom to the Disney movie could be explained when recalling the success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” more than a year ago.
According to Christian Enquiry Agency (CEA) U.K., the number of enquiries about the Christian faith in 2004 boosted drastically after the release of “The Passion of the Christ.”
Last year, while the movie was on show in the cinemas, CEA handed out 150,000 response postcards to young people. This year, CEA has planned a marketing campaign similar to that for “The Passion of the Christ” to mobilize the interest of churches and schools on “Narnia.”
St Luke’s, a local Anglican church in the southeast English town of Maidston, decided to offer 10,000 pounds worth of free tickets to single parents and their children so that they can watch “Narnia” over the holidays, according to Times.
The Church described the movie as the “Passion of Christ for kids.” The website aslanisJesus.co.uk was set up, aiming to help people making “a connection between the film and Jesus and how he can transform lives,” Times reported.
“C.S. Lewis is a great Christian hero, who wrote lots of books on theology but also these fantastic, classic books,” commented Russ Hughes, St Luke’s director of worship, to BBC.
“The Chronicles of Narnia speak of some really great values - the value of commitment, the value of sacrifice and resurrection - that things can come back from the dead,” he added.
According to BBC, St Luke’s experienced around a 10 percent increase in Easter Sunday attendances after it gave away 20,000 pounds of tickets to “The Passion of The Christ,” even though it denied that was the reason.
Key players are downplaying the Christian aspects of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” less than two weeks before the opening of the expected blockbuster movie.
Douglas Gresham, stepson of the late C.S. Lewis — the Oxford professor who authored the top-rated children’s book — called the religious emphasis “an American disease.” [comments by Kwing Hung: likely a non-believer]
“The Brits don’t give two figs about that aspect,” Mr. Gresham said in an interview from his home near Dublin.
Even the film’s resurrection theme does not mean it’s a Christian story, he added.
“That idea is informed by the religious training of those reading it,” Mr. Gresham said. “The myth of a god who dies and comes back is in ancient Roman, Norse and Hindu mythology. The difference is that the Christian myth actually happened.”
The British press also has picked up on a disconnect between the film’s Christian nature and those most involved with it. Director Andrew Adamson, the New Zealand-born son of missionaries who grew up in Papua, New Guinea, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the film’s overly Christian themes are “open to the audience to interpret.”
Lead actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, archenemy of the Christlike lion, Aslan, said of the film’s overtly Christian symbolism: “Faith is in the eye of the beholder.”
“You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that’s what you’re interested in,” she said.
Walt Disney Pictures, which co-produced the film with Walden Media, has been marketing the film aggressively to churches while Dennis Rice, its vice president for publicity, has said in interviews that the production is not “a religious movie.”
One anonymous official connected with the film conceded there is a mixed message.
“Essentially, you have a bunch of us as handlers and stewards and leaving people wondering what to say,” the official said. “We get phone calls asking why we’re catering to the faith community in our marketing and we get calls asking the opposite.”
But Lewis scholars said they were sympathetic with efforts to downplay religion.
“They don’t want to see the film treated in such a manner that it’d be inappropriately pigeonholed,” said Stanley Mattson, president of the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Redlands, Calif.
“There are powerful themes that resonate with the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, but it’s a book with universal appeal,” Mr. Mattson said.
Cultural elites attach disgrace to anything judged “Christian,” he said.
“It’s synonymous to ‘reactionary,’ ‘knee-jerk’ and ‘fundamentalist,’?” Mr. Mattson said. “The problem now is that when Christians do great work, they hide their Christianity out of a sense of embarrassment to avoid the inappropriate stereotype.”
To counteract stereotypes, Disney is going the inclusive route, he said.
“A more cynical way of seeing this is wanting your cake and eating it, too,” Mr. Mattson said. “But Disney has done as outstanding a job of marketing the film as one could possibly imagine.”
This Friday, when tens of thousands head to the theaters for the motion picture release of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” church groups will have with them a new piece of evidence that the children’s story tells a Christian message.
Recent reports revealed the discovery of a letter written by the famed author in 1961. The letter, addressed to a child fan, reads: “The whole Narnian story is about Christ,” according to The Sunday Times of Britain. It was found by Walter Hooper, literary adviser to the Lewis estate.
Christians and secularists have been tugging at their ends in debating Lewis’ message in the popular children’s series. Churches have cited allusions to the gospel and Jesus while others, including Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, simply regard it as an adventure story.
Professor Andrew Quicke, professor of Cinema Television at Regent University, said Narnia was not written as “an evangelical religious tract” but rather “as a story.” “The nonbelievers and believers are getting much too uptight about this,” he said. Speaking more to the literary art of the allegory, Quicke quoted T.S. Eliot, who he said “summed up the discussion perfectly.” “Literary criticism (for us film criticism) should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint,” he said. “The subject of literature was too important not to be completed from a theological perspective,” he added.
Quicke attributed credibility to the recent letter finding. “I’m sure the letter is genuine. I don’t disagree with it at all,” he said. However, he clearly stated, “C.S. Lewis writes allegory and we should judge his stories in terms of their literary merit when we look at the story and cinematic merit when we look at the film.” While Narnia is not written as a way of promoting the gospel, Quicke says Lewis wrote stories “very much within the Christian tradition with strong Christian undertones and overtones.”
Lewis converted to Christianity as an adult after having abandoned it as a child.
A volume of Lewis letters is slated for publishing in 2006.
Any director who attempts to bring a beloved novel to the screen can expect his fair share of slings and arrows. Just ask Peter Jackson, the hardworking genius behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or any of the parade of directors who have delivered Harry Potter films. The latest to step up for a smackdown is Andrew Adamson, previously known for Shrek, as he offers his fresh and magnificent production of C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Unlike the Potter directors, Adamson has not only junior readers to please, but armies of adults who have treasured every page in this seven-book series over the 50-plus years since it was published. (That accounts for the bulky title: The whole set is The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Wardrobe volume, published first, makes an excellent introduction.) And, unlike Jackson, Adamson has to deal with fairly explicit religious content. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and Lewis were fellow professors at Oxford; they were close friends, and Tolkien facilitated Lewis’s conversion to Christian faith. Both men hoped to use fiction to convey profound truths, and they met regularly to share works in progress. But Tolkien felt that Lewis went too far in Narnia, and warned his friend that the allegory was laid on too thick. Evangelical Christians prize this book because it presents the Gospel squarely, and any attempt to soften those elements would bring out the gangs carrying pitchforks and torches.
Never fear. Thanks no doubt to the guiding hand of Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham (himself a well-known evangelical), the script keeps the faith. Yet the message does not overpower the story (despite Tolkien’s fears), but rather hits the very target Lewis intended. It draws its emotional power from the spot inside that lifts up when we catch the refrain of that “old, old story,” in which a supernatural battle is won by glorious self-sacrifice. This is a story, Lewis would say, that God has prepared human beings to recognize when we hear it, and hid inside our hearts from our creation.
Everything that is strong and good and satisfying in this movie can be found in the book. The main characters are brilliantly realized, and skirt potential problems by wise casting. The littlest of the four children, Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) is indisputably a child, with a broad face made squarer by a side part, wearing a Peter Pan collar and with a bow pinned in her hair. This is a refreshing change after excessively pretty leads in movies like A Series of Unfortunate Events and Because of Winn Dixie, young actresses who look more like beauty pageant sweethearts than real little girls.
Lucy’s sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) and brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are likewise believably real, and only big brother Peter (William Moseley) appears to have been plucked from a teenaged Brad Pitt lookalike file. Unfortunately, Peter also has the most unrelievedly noble role of the four children, and such a character threatens to turn bland even with much more experienced actors.
Tilda Swinton is extraordinary as the White Witch. When I made a recording of this book for my grandchildren, I gave the Witch the full Cruella DeVil treatment, going from oily to raging to haughty to manic in a single paragraph. Well, that’s one approach, and at least one young recipient preferred to listen to the recording with the lights on. But Swinton does something much more intelligent with the role. Even when most exhilarated, at the height of her powers, she is still apprehensive; she breathes with her mouth open, like an animal. She’s pale, hungry and tense. It’s an original approach, and juices up the movie.
Aslan caps all, however. I expected to be disappointed — it would seem that any visible depiction of this majestic character would inevitably reduce it. But this Aslan succeeds, and I think one secret is that the character’s eyes are somewhat hard to read. They’re the same color as his tawny mane, and sometimes hidden by it. This inscrutability preserves mystery in a character who, if he was fully comprehensible, would be too small.
But if the film just misses perfection, it’s because elements that don’t appear in the book have been imported to fit contemporary moviegoers’ expectations. For example, though the book’s battle scene takes just three swift, clean pages, in the film it is a grand set-piece, piled with all the CGI extravagance we now take for granted. There’s an invented sequence in which the children must cross a frozen river as it thaws, and ride an ice floe down the flood, but it feels contrived, not to mention pointless. Not for a moment do we believe that any of these characters are in serious danger. Tension is cranked up and cranked down again, just because that’s the way the formula goes.
Moviegoers expect tension in the dialogue, too. In the book, the children are touchingly polite and sensitive to others’ feelings. In an early passage, when a guilt-stricken Faun tries to tell Lucy that he is a wicked kidnapper, she persists in consoling and reassuring him, not realizing that she is his victim. Yet children aren’t touchingly polite any more, so these characters must bicker at each other (“Why can’t you do as you’re told!” “Mom isn’t here!”). I guess they don’t apologize either; the exchange toward the end, when Edmund asks his siblings’ forgiveness, is quietly dropped. Sarcasm is now ubiquitous, and even innocent Lucy has an occasional snarky line.
Not every new element is unwelcome, however. Book fans will be surprised by the opening, which shows London during a wartime bombing raid. We see the children and their mother huddling for shelter as a formation of planes, regular as a wallpaper pattern, cover the night sky. This supplies the backstory that Lewis’ original readers would have known too well, and explains why the children are sent to the Professor’s countryside estate. In the shelter, Edmund grips a framed photo of his soldier dad, though the glass is smashed. Later, the Faun Tumnus looks at his own father’s portrait, and mourns that he is not as good a Faun as his dad; on a next visit to Tumnus’s cave, the portrait is smashed on the floor. And, when the great battle begins, the flying griffins that hurl rocks on the enemy cover the sky in familiar formation. Visual echoes like these work well in a movie, but would seem forced in print.
The best parts of this film are those that are urgent and authentic — the tense and glittering Witch, the dear, believable child Lucy, the piercing moment of Aslan’s death. The parts that limp are those that were invented to fulfill the dreary rules about what a contemporary family blockbuster must include. Those are the moments that, a few decades from now, will seem dated and out of tune with the harmonious original. But that’s all right, because in the future there will still be fast-forward buttons on home-video systems, when your great-great grandchildren watch and re-watch this marvelous story — as they surely will.
— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.
First impressions of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which reaches movie theaters this weekend:
Is it any good? Yes, the movie is very good — a solid piece of entertainment in its own right, and fans of C. S. Lewis will regard it as faithful to his book in every important respect. A few plot elements are dropped and several others are added, but each decision makes sense for a movie that’s trying to tell a story in two hours.
What’s new, pt. 1: In the book, Lewis says that the Pevensie kids “were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” That’s why they wind up in a big house with a strange wardrobe. When Lewis wrote, the evacuations were fresh in many minds and he didn’t need to say much else. That’s not true today, and so the film adds some helpful historical context. The first image is of a German bomber as it flies over Britain.
What’s new, pt. 2: Edmund is the bad egg, of course, and in the book there are indications of this even before he becomes a Turkish Delight junkie. The movie relies far more on Edmund’s sibling rivalry with older brother Peter as a factor in his treachery, and far less on Turkish Delight.
What’s new, pt. 3: There’s a chase scene through a tunnel, an attempted crossing of an icy river, and an encounter with Father Christmas that initially reminded me of how the hobbits first came into contact with the ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings — it’s a sleight of hand, of course, but an effective treatment and not in the book. Also, after Father Christmas gives presents to the Pevensies and sleds off, Lucy turns to Susan and says, “Told you he was real!” It’s a wonderful line — not in the book, but a clever addition that advances the book’s theme of faith. Another new line comes from Tumnus, imprisoned in the witch’s castle — he says something that recalls Braveheart.
What’s new, pt. 4: J. R. R. Tolkien famously didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia. “It really won’t do, you know,” he told a friend. One of his main objections was the way in which Lewis mixed different mythological traditions into a Narnian stew. The moviemakers revel in this, fleshing out creatures described only briefly in the book and adding new ones entirely. This may have required their greatest feat of imagination. Think of it as multiculturalism, in the best sense of the word. Personally, I liked it. When I watch the movie again, one of my priorities will be to notice more of these details. Also, the climactic battle scene includes griffins that drop boulders on the witch’s army — they are the mirror image of those German bombers at the start of the film.
What’s new, pt. 5: We get our first glimpse of Aslan early on, in the fireplace of Tumnus’s lair. In the book, we don’t hear about Aslan until the Pevensies get to the beaver dam (and we don’t see him until after that). The passage introducing him is one of the most memorable in the whole Chronicles (“None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do...”). It really can’t be rendered on film and our moviemakers don’t even attempt it here. That’s a wise decision.
It’s funny: The movie has a lot of humor — much more than the book, in fact. “You’re a Daughter of Eve?” asks Tumnus when he meets Lucy. “My mom’s name is Helen!” she replies. (Also new: In the books, we don’t see the mother, as we do in the film, and Lewis never names her.) And I can’t tell you how pleasant it was to sit through a film aimed largely at kids and not hear a single burp or fart joke.
The acting: The four actors who play the Pevensie kids are excellent, especially the girls. (But will they grow up too fast for Narnia sequels?) Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the White Witch; James McAvoy is outstanding as Tumnus. Kiran Shah, as the witch’s dwarf sidekick, kept reminding me of Deep Roy as the Oompa Loompa in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake.
Cool tribute: In Professor Kirke’s house, we overhear a news report on the radio. The voice belongs to Douglas Gresham, who is Lewis’s stepson. It is a fitting family tribute to Lewis, who delivered radio addresses over the BBC during the Second World War. These were later collected as one of his most popular books, Mere Christianity.
The music: Not immediately memorable. And did they have to include a song by Alanis Morrisette? The last time I heard what she liked to do in movie theaters, I wanted to turn off the radio.
The credits: When the credits start to roll at the end of the movie, stay in your seats. There’s a final scene worth watching.
Will your kids like it? The movie is rated PG, appropriately. A few scenes are meant to startle. There is combat and violence, much of it fast and loud. The film is by no means gory — we don’t see the witch actually kill Aslan, for instance, though we do know exactly what she did with her knife. I took my entire brood to a screening last weekend. My eight-year-old boy, who has had the book read to him three times, said the other day, “it was so good, I can’t stop thinking about it.” My six-year-old daughter, who has had the book read to her twice, called it “perfect” as we were walking out of the theater, although later she added that she didn’t like it when Aslan was killed. Of course, she’s not supposed to like that part. It may be worth noting that the scene is like a Star Wars cantina set in the netherworld — full of scary monsters and vicious animals up to no good. A susceptible kid might suffer nightmares. My four-year-old son, who is a budding monster-movie aficionado, squirmed a lot during the film and said he wanted to go home. Later, he said he liked it, especially “when the lion roared really, really loud.” In truth, he was probably too young for the movie, but only because he’s kind of young for movies generally. The biggest problem was keeping him quiet, as it was during last summer’s March of the Penguins.
The best part: We can hope, realistically, that the movie will inspire a whole new generation of children to devour The Chronicles of Narnia.
Want more? I’ve written previously about Narnia for NRO here and here.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.
Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez
One of Micheal Flaherty’s first job’s was at National Review, as it happens. The way he tells it, he would have been making me coffee. Now he’s making movies.
(You wish you left a tip for the Starbucks dude this morning, don’t you?)
Flaherty is president of Walden Media, which partnered with Disney to produce The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which opens this weekend.
I talked to Mike earlier this week about the movie, Lewis, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: It’s opening weekend. Are you beaming with pride or worried sick?
Micheal Flaherty: Well, C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity that pride is one of the greatest sins, so since pride beaming is forbidden I guess I am just worried sick.
Lopez: In terms of numbers, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is probably going to have a not-too-bad weekend. Don’t tell me: If it meets your expectations you’re going to Disney World? Actually...What are your expectations?
Flaherty: We are not supposed to jinx things by predicting an actual number, so we are hoping for a strong opening weekend and then we hope to show some legs and have the movie play right through the New Year. I have seen the movie multiple times now and I truly enjoy it more every time. I think people will see the movie multiple times, and box-office pundits will be surprised both by its opening weekend as well as its longevity.
Lopez: Is working with the Disney company a boy’s dream or did you get a lot of grief from conservative friends? Aren’t we supposed to be suspicious of Disney? I forgot to pick up my Vast-Right Wing talking points today, so I’m not sure.
Flaherty: You can accuse me of being easily seduced, but going to the Disney lot never gets boring. There is a real excitement there, and even the squirrels are friendly. I keep telling Matthew Scully he needs to visit it with me just to check out the squirrels — it is like they leaped right out of one of their movies and they walk right up to you. Scully would be in heaven.
But even better than that, Disney has been great in understanding the importance of a faithful adaptation. And they have done a great job in keeping their cool in light of some of the controversies bored journalists tried to manufacture about this film, many of which have been covered in NRO.
They have been great partners.
Lopez: Did Walden still get to make big decisions once Disney stepped in? Did you become a tag-along? How hands-on could you be?
Flaherty: It was a full partnership in every sense of the word, but Walden did have final say on all creative matters with the film. Because of the shared vision, though, this never became an issue.
Lopez: Did you read a lot of Lewis long before you ever planned to do this movie?
Flaherty: Yup. Lewis is easily my favorite author. I was a fan of Narnia growing up but actually a much bigger fan of the apologetics. Mere C and Screwtape Letters are two of my favorite books. I remember my mother buying me Till We Had Faces for Valentine’s Day one year and then the Four Loves the following year. I had almost completely forgotten about Narnia until I volunteered to teach with a great group named Narnia in NYC that some NR friends introduced me to. It was then I started to dream about seeing a movie based on them.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite Narnia character?
Flaherty: Hands down my favorite character is Reepicheep. He is the uncommonly brave and heroic mouse in Voyage of the Dawn Treader who is a foot and a half of pure courage.
Lopez: What’s your favorite non-Narnia book by C. S. Lewis?
Lopez: Could it be a movie?
Flaherty: I hope — there are some challenges in adapting it to the screen, but I would love to see it get made.
Lopez: There’s been a lot of attention on Philip Anschutz, your Mr. Moneybags. Tell me the truth. He’s really Karl Rove, isn’t he? You can reveal it here.
Flaherty: Never before has more attention been paid to somebody who could not be less interested in publicity. Hopefully some day a smart journalism professor will look over all of the ink that has been spilled in profiling Phil to show how lazy journalists have become. He never gives interviews, so for the past 20 years people keep recycyling and rehashing all of the same anecdotes and publishing it even though they have nothing new to say. It is easy to see what people find interesting in him though. He has amazing vision and he can see around corners.
Lopez: Seriously though. Are you part of some kind of cultural conspiracy? What’s Walden’s meaning in life?
Flaherty: We are an open book and our mission is completely transparent. We are a company named after Henry David Thoreau that wants to use media to get kids to ask the big questions so they can be independent thinkers and march to the beat of a different drummer. We get all of our project ideas from classroom teachers and librarians and we do our best to make first class productions accompanied by first class educational materials. We think that great stories have a power and ability not just to entertain, but also to educate, uplift, inspire — even transform. For this, some paranoid journalists like to impute an agenda on Walden and spin conspiracy theories about us and our sinister teacher and librarian friends.
Lopez: Is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a conservative movie? Is it for a religious audience? I notice there are guides to the movies circulating for religious audiences. Is that Walden’s intention?
Flaherty: The movie, like the book, is clearly for all audiences. And this is what galls some journalists. They like to neatly divide the country into two opposing sides that cannot agree on anything — especially entertainment. They have this Manichean view of the world where if people of faith enjoy something that somehow means that it cannot be enjoyed by everybody. Yet countless examples prove this wrong — musicals like Les Miserables and bands like U2 are enjoyed by people from all types of different backgrounds, interests, and philosophies, yet they both have magical and soul-stirring elements that are appreciated by people of faith.
Lopez: Is there any real sensible reason for this film to be at all controversial?
Lopez: If C. S. Lewis had shown up at the premiere of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, what would you say to him?
Flaherty: Oh, K-Lo, hitting me with the college-application essay question. Hmmmm. I guess I would quickly walk him over to see his stepson Douglas, whose affection for Jack has been a real honor to his memory. It would be fun to see that reunion.
Lopez: Not that this all is not enough, but what’s coming up next for you?
Flaherty: We are in London right now filming a movie called Amazing Grace, that tells the story of William Wilberforce, John Newton, Thomas Clarkson, Equiano, and all of the great people who abolished slavery 200 ago in Britain. We are going to release the movie in 2007 to coincide with the bicentenary of the abolition in the U.K. It is our hope that the film will remind people in this cynical age that great men and women can change the face of history, no matter how insurmountable the odds.
In addition to that, we have a number of literary adaptations that are nearing completion. The first is Hoot, the next is How to Eat Fried Worms, and next Christmas we are releasing a live-action version of Charlotte’s Web. I am downright giddy about that one. Soon we will start filming Bridge to Teribithea, another personal favorite. All of our projects are on our website at www.walden.com.
Lopez: If you’re going to do more Narnia movies, do you have to film them real fast while the child actors are still young?
Flaherty: Yup. I think Skandar — who plays Edmund — has grown almost a foot in the last year. So we are racing against the clock.
Lopez: Speaking of upcoming films: When does filming on “The Corner” movie start and who are you signing up to play me?
Flaherty: We see this as the next great political drama — lots of action and intrigue. It is going to begin with all of the faulty exit polls coming in on the last Election Day and the ensuing panic. I am actually casting the Jack Fowler role first, and we are out to a rising star of a Mexican telenovela to play the part of K-Lo.
Lopez: If the movie has a big opening weekend, how much of the credit will belong to National Review for promoting it on the cover?
Flaherty: An NR cover is money in the bank for opening weekend, but when the article is penned by John Miller you start to talk about an exponential increase.
A few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could achieve anything like the commercial liftoff of that other film embraced by Christians, The Passion of the Christ. Controversy sells, and The Passion had about it an alleged whiff of anti-Semitism. “Narnia,” based on the beloved children’s books, has no such thing, but it turns out that the movie’s whiff of Christianity alone has been enough to stoke a roiling prerelease debate.
C.S. Lewis, the late Christian apologist and Oxford don who is the author of the seven-book Narnia series, has been the subject of critical, even contemptuous, pieces in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. The press coverage of the movie has emphasized how a (tiny) proportion of its marketing budget has been directed at — gasp! — Christians. The British author Philip Pullman has said the Narnia books are based on “reactionary prejudice,” and the British paper the Guardian attacked the stories for representing “everything that is most hateful about religion.”
For anyone who has been enchanted by the stories (100 million copies sold), this reaction must be bizarre. Who is afraid of C. S. Lewis, and why?
His frank Christianity has a lot to do with it. To put it in terms of the current war over season’s greetings, the Narnia books aren’t “happy holidays” kinds of stories, but instead verily shout “Merry Christmas!” (Father Christmas is a character in them.) Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien, also a believer, thought Lewis laid on the Christian allegory too thick. But it is also Lewis’s sensibility that irks the elite guardians of a culture that so treasures skepticism and irony. In the Narnia stories, Lewis is making the case for the opposite, for a child’s openness to what might seem impossible to the narrow “adult” mind.
In the story, four children enter through a wardrobe into a parallel winter world, Narnia, where Aslan the lion, who is the Christ-figure, and the White Witch do battle. The most important influence on Lewis’s work was his concept of “joy,” the sense of longing for a world beyond and more marvelous than our own. He always found that literature and myth best captured this sense, and the key moment in his conversion was when Tolkien convinced him that Christianity was “true myth.”
Lewis and Tolkien wanted to reinvigorate the powers of the imagination so it would be primed to detect the hints of a higher and deeper reality — “further up, further in,” as Lewis put it. A theme of the Narnia books is that the children instinctively know the right thing to do because, as Lewis scholar Jonathan Rogers explains, “they have read the right imaginative stories.” Lewis and Tolkien undertook their project against the grain in a mid-20th century that was an age of desiccated rationality.
We have gotten more desiccated since. Now everything tends to be viewed through the postmodern trinity of race, gender and sex. British fantasist Philip Pullman has said the Narnia stories are racist since the villains are dark-skinned. What does he make, then, of the aptly named White Witch, who represents Satan? Then, there’s the charge of misogyny and a sexually repressive Puritanism.
The New York Times Magazine essayist regrets that Susan, one of the children, is denied salvation at the end of the series “merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick,” because in other words, “she has reached puberty [and] become sexualized.” That’s not it at all. The point is that, as one character says, Susan “always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” For Lewis this meant losing the capacity to be childlike, with its guileless receptivity to wonderment and joy.
The Christian signposts will be lost on many viewers of the movie, who will simply relish a good yarn and its accompanying wonderment and joy. Lewis critics should relax and experience some of it themselves.
— Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
This weekend’s long-anticipated opening of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first film adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy novels, has brought in the past few weeks a torrent of Narnia commentary in the media — most of it intelligent and worth reading, but also, in many instances, absolutely wrong.
For those unfamiliar with the stories, (and given the power of the Hollywood publicity machine, I wonder how many remain?), Narnia is a magical country in a parallel universe created and ruled by a Christ-like lion deity named Aslan. Various English schoolchildren find themselves transported there by magical means; the wardrobe of the first book, for instance, leads to an snowy enchanted forest, which an evil White Witch has made “always winter and never Christmas.”
The series is generally called Christian allegory, but that’s simplistic as well as somewhat misleading. Lewis, whose theological writing for adults made him one the 20th-century’s great Christian apologists, coined the word “supposal” to describe Narnia — suppose the Son of God appeared as the King of Beasts in a land of talking animals? And suppose that humans, with all their sins, entered this world? What then?
To call the stories allegory also gives no hint of why readers return to them many times (as I have over the years, even past childhood), long after the page-turning adventures hold no more surprises. Lewis was a master stylist, and his children’s series are marked by the same dryly witty prose, comic characters, and shrewd insight into the human condition that distinguish The Screwtape Letters and his other books for adults. Yet Narnia has its enemies, and now they are out in force.
Chief among them is the British fantasy writer Philip Pullman, whose popular His Dark Materials trilogy was conceived as an atheistic answer to Lewis’s vision. Pullman, as the Washington Post reminded readers Thursday, sees Narnia as “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice.” In the British Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee wrote that “Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America — that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.”
Even critics generally appreciative of Lewis have come up with some strange notions. Last month, in The New York Times Magazine, Charles McGrath wrote that the Narnia stories “are not nearly as well written” as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik declared that a lion isn’t a very Christ-like animal — Aslan really should have been a humble donkey instead.
So let’s consider these complaints:
Narnia is sexist. “Girls always come second to boys,” Alison Lurie wrote last week in the Guardian. “They have fewer adventures.” Actually, Lewis typically makes his main protagonists in each story one boy and one girl, and the girl is usually more sympathetic. The English child who discovers Narnia in the first book is a girl, the brave and virtuous Lucy, who also has the closest relationship to Aslan.
Lewis clearly favors independent, free-thinking girls over those stuck in traditionally frivolous female roles. In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis, a girl escaping a forced marriage in an autocratic land south of Narnia called Calormen, runs into an old acquaintance who seems to be something of a Maureen Dowd in miniature: “The fuss she made over choosing the dresses nearly drove Aravis mad,” Lewis writes. “She remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.”
Narnia is racist. Speaking of those Calormenes, McGrath’s complaint in the New York Times that they “are oily cartoon Muslims” is typical, if not quite correct; actually, they are pre-Islamic Islamofascists who keep slaves, oppress women, and worship a Baal-like god named Tash. That they have dark complexions, which Lewis’s critics harp on more than Lewis did, really isn’t the problem. As it happens, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s evil White Witch, interpreted by Tilda Swinton as an Aryan goddess in the movie, is “not merely pale,” as the book describes her, “but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar...proud and cold and stern.”
The Calormenes speak in a flowery, Arabian Nights-style manner worthy of Osama bin Laden, but Lewis gives them their due for that. In Calormen, he explains in The Horse and His Boy, story-telling “is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
Lewis is religiously intolerant. Critics are horrified that a bland, minor character named Susan doesn’t make it to heaven in The Last Battle, which depicts Narnia’s Armageddon. Susan had convinced herself that Narnia wasn’t real, and was “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Philip Pullman accuses Lewis of condemning Susan for reaching puberty, although since she was supposed to be about 21 during her nylons-and-lipstick phase, puberty would seem to be long past. The passage appears to be more about the danger of focusing only on material things — and denying the truth — than sexuality.
In any case, those upset by Susan’s exclusion from heaven in The Last Battle never mention that in its final chapter, an honorable (but Tash-worshipping) Calormene is surprised to find himself face to face with a welcoming Aslan. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in The Atlantic a few years ago, the message here is that “paradise awaits anyone of good will.” So it hardly seems fair to lump Lewis with Left Behind fans.
Aslan should have been a donkey. Adam Gopnik’s complaint in The New Yorker is interesting, but he forgets that Aslan exists in a post-Christian universe: Jesus has come and gone from earth centuries before two Victorian children travel from London to witness Aslan’s creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. So, since he’s already risen as the King of Kings, there seems no reason that his new incarnation shouldn’t be the King of Beasts.
J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman are better writers than C. S. Lewis. This is just jaw-droppingly wrong. Rowling and Pullman are writers of great accomplishment, and both the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials books are absorbing page-turners. But leaving religion entirely out of it, I can’t imagine reading anything in either series more than once. Pullman’s imagined worlds are fascinating and powerfully eerie, but his characters are flat, humorless, and generally annoying. Rowling, unlike Pullman, writes with sympathy and charm, but the Potter stories often descend into potboiler mode. Maybe in a generation or two Rowling and Pullman will prove to be as enduring as Lewis, but I doubt it. And until then, he stands head and shoulders above them.
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.
The long awaited release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, comes today, and the movie is likely to become a blockbuster. Opening on three thousand screens nationwide, the Narnia film is the product of a collaboration between Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media. Fans of C. S. Lewis and his most famous literary work, the seven-volume series known as The Chronicles of Narnia, have waited for the film version of this work for a very long time. Indeed, the first volume of Lewis’ great fantasy work was released over a half century before the story hit the big screen.
Like many admirers of Lewis’ work, I harbored deep suspicions that the movie would not be faithful to the book. After all, the movie world has robbed and pillaged many of history’s greatest works of literature. Furthermore, given the unmistakable Christian allusions in Lewis’ work, The Chronicles of Narnia would be particularly susceptible to cinematic subversion.
Those fears were unfounded. The film is a tour de force, combining faithfulness to Lewis’ story with a wonderful cast. Watching the film is an exciting and fulfilling movie experience. I am not an expert in cinematography, nor would I pose as an expert on film technique. Still, from the vantage point of a film lover who had reservations about this adaptation, this movie has been worth the wait.
Lewis himself was very concerned about any film adaptation of his great work. He was familiar with the work of Walt Disney, and even though he admired much of Disney’s work, he feared that the reduction of his story to the screen would corrupt it. In 1959, just three years after the seventh work in the series was completed, Lewis wrote: “I am absolutely opposed . . . to a TV version.” He explained that animal characters, “when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare.”
Furthermore, Lewis tied his concern directly to the powerful Christian allusions in the film. The central character of the Narnia series is Aslan, the great lion. “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic . . . would be to me simple blasphemy,” Lewis explained.
The central character of Aslan unifies the entire Narnia series. “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came,” Lewis once remarked. “But once He was there He pulled the whole story together.” During his own lifetime, Lewis approved a radio version of the books, but opposed all efforts to translate the story into film. He feared that the existing technologies of animation would reduce Aslan to “a human pantomime.”
What makes the movie work is the development of advanced animation technologies. In the movie, Aslan appears as a computer-generated character—not as a cartoon figure. The development of advanced computer animation allowed Aslan to appear as the formidable character he is.
The C. S. Lewis estate, now managed by Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, has been fiercely protective of the Narnia project. Gresham served as one of the producers of the current film, working in collaboration with director Andrew Adamson. Walden Media, known for its previous films Because of Winn Dixie and Holes, combined with media investor Philip Anschutz to back the film.
In terms of cinematography, some have suggested that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe falls short of the grandeur demonstrated by Peter Jackson’s three-movie Lord of the Rings series. In one sense, this criticism is both true and unfair. The Lord of the Rings books are far less allegorical than The Chronicles of Narnia. Furthermore, the books are far longer and set in a very different imaginary world. The Narnia movie is beautiful and moving, and those looking for special effects will find much to appreciate.
Other criticisms have been more serious. Even before the film was released, some critics were lining up to accuse the movie of communicating a subversive message centered in the Christian gospel. Without doubt, the allusions to the story of Christ and the theme of redemption are unmistakable, but Lewis was never hesitant to make this connection himself. It is hardly fair to accuse Lewis or the makers of this movie for being subversive when the project’s connections to the Christian story are well known.
Others have made yet more serious claims. Philip Pullman, author of the three-book series, His Dark Materials, dismisses the Narnia series as “propaganda in the cause of the religion [C. S. Lewis] believed in.” That’s just a start, of course. Pullman, who once described his own motivation for writing children’s books as “to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” has described the Narnia series as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” Pullman has attacked Christianity, and the Narnia series, as “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.” Beyond this, Pullman condemns Lewis as “blatantly racist” and his books as corrupted by a “sadomasochistic relish for violence.”
In a very real sense, Pullman’s wretched opposition serves as a validation of the Narnia project. Similarly, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian (London), argues that even as the movie is “beautiful to look at and wonderfully acted,” she is appalled by the clear Christian allusions found within the film. The four Pevensie children (the siblings who serve as the human characters in the story) are described as members of a fallen race. The boys, Peter and Edmund, are both addressed as “son of Adam.” Likewise, each of the girls, Susan and Lucy, is known as a “daughter of Eve.” The redemptive purpose of God is described as “deep magic” which counters the power of evil. Evil is presented in all of its beauty and horror, personalized in the character of the White Witch. Aslan dies as a sacrifice in order to save Edmund, who has betrayed his siblings for the promise of Turkish Delight, a candy he craves. Both the book and the movie include powerful depictions of Aslan’s sacrificial death, resurrection, and victory.
This theme of redemption is especially offensive to Toynbee. “Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart.”
Toynbee, like Pullman, hates the books because Lewis made no effort to hide his Christian faith. After all, Lewis had once described himself as “a blaspheming atheist.” His conversion—among the most publicized of the twentieth century—became the basis for his telling of the Narnia story. Interestingly, Toynbee takes particular offense at the fact that Christ is represented by the character of a lion. She would prefer the lamb, “weak, poor and refusing to fight.” According to the Bible, Christ is both. As our penal sacrifice, He willingly gave His life as the Lamb of God. Yet, He is also coming in power and in judgment and is described in the Bible as the “Lion of Judah.” As Lewis insightfully remarked, Aslan is “no tame lion.”
Clearly, many viewers will fail to recognize the allusions to Christianity. Though elements of the story are clearly allegorical representations of the Christian faith, these depictions are not exact, and the Narnia series is not, properly speaking, pure allegory. If pressed too far or too hard as allegory, parts of the story will fall short of Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, The Chronicles of Narnia stands as a powerful story with clear allusions to the person and work of Christ, to the reality of human sin, to humanity’s desperate need for redemption, and to God’s ultimate victory in Christ.
Given the secularization of the culture and the low level of biblical knowledge among so many in the population, some will miss the allusions entirely. As observers in Great Britain have noted, a nation in which only 28 percent of adults indicate any knowledge of the origin of Easter as a holiday is unlikely to include many who will spot the Christian allusions found in the film. For those who are familiar with the gospel story, The Chronicles of Narnia—both in print and in this film—can represent a touching and emotional retelling of gospel themes. Believers will celebrate the fact that the movie faithfully presents so many biblical themes, events, and trajectories.
At the same time, viewing this film is no substitute for direct evangelism. Our authority for understanding and communicating the gospel is not a literary project but the Bible. The Chronicles of Narnia includes theological themes that are presented in a truly fascinating manner, but the work is not a vehicle for teaching Christian doctrine. C. S. Lewis was one of the most influential Christian intellectuals of the twentieth century. For American evangelicals, he has become a model and mentor for literary expression, apologetic engagement, and the dignity of intellect. Nevertheless, Lewis was often not a careful theologian. He was an inclusivist on the question of salvation, believing that at least some who did not consciously believe in Christ would be saved. He rejected the inerrancy of Scripture and was never adequately specific about his understanding of the atonement. He was a firm defender of orthodoxy on doctrines such as the Trinity, but apparently accepted baptismal regeneration and never adequately affirmed justification by faith.
Does this mean that Christians should not celebrate and see the movie? Not at all. Millions of lives have been touched by Lewis’ imaginative story and many have credited this work with serving as something of a catalyst for their own conversion to Christianity. But in the end, what truly matters is a person’s response to the truth of Christianity—not an emotional response to the medium of a movie.
Children of all ages will find viewing this film to be a thrilling experience. Lewis devotees will find their worst fears unfounded and many of their firmest hopes fulfilled. The audience will know that something of earth-shaking significance has taken place when the character of the beaver announces, “Aslan is on the move.” Of course, those who know the real story will know that Aslan is always on the move.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
LONDON – The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the sequel to last year’s hit The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, will begin shooting in January 2007 in “the forests of Europe,” producer Mark Johnson has revealed.
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Disney is targeting a summer 2008 release as director of the first Narnia movie, Andrew Adamson, again co-writes and directs.
As Adamson returned for the sequel along with the young quartet of British actors – Georgie Henley, 10; Skandar Keynes, 14; Anna Popplewell, 17; and William Moseley, 18 – he said, “If we don’t make [the film] now, we’ll never be able to because they’ll be too old.”
“That Chronicle is set one year after this one, so it would allow for the kids to get a bit older.”
In the best-case scenario, it would take two years to make each movie, according to the Rev. Bob Beltz, director of special media projects for media entrepreneur and billionaire Philip Anschutz. That would mean 12 more years and the last film appearing in 2017.
“They could end up holding the first screening of “The Last Battle” just before my funeral service. That’s about how long it may take us to do the whole series,” quipped the 55-year-old Presbyterian pastor, referring to the seventh and final Narnia novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
“Seriously, when we started seeing those first really big numbers roll in at the box office, that’s when it hit me,” said Beltz. “Some of us worked on this first movie for a very long time and now it seems like we may literally get to work on the Chronicles for the rest of our lives.”
Prince Caspian, which was first published in 1951 and is the fourth book in the seven-book series written by Lewis, finds the Pevensie siblings pulled back into the land of Narnia where 1, 303 years have passed since they left. The children are once again enlisted to join the colorful creatures of Narnia in combating an evil villain who prevents the rightful prince from ruling the land.
In other news, Adamson and Johnson will team up again to produce the third film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a year after finishing Prince Caspian.