Can the Mouse sell Thee, Lion?

Narnia lamp.jpgThink of it as the mirror image of the choices director Ron Howard has to make in creating a red-zip-code hit with The Da Vinci Code. Think of it, in the words of the ever-witty Amy Welborn, as The Chronicles of Marketing.

Actually, the headline that The New York Times copy desk wrote for reporter David Kehr’s recent story on the forthcoming Narnia movie franchise wasn’t all that bad, either: “Disney’s Next Hero: A Lion King of Kings.” The article makes it clear that the artists charged with bringing the beloved classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the screen face a major challenge, one that is sure to create news for years to come as the seven-book series unfolds. Here are the money quotes:

Company representatives . . . have little to say publicly about the “Narnia” cycle, which is being produced in partnership with the financier Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media. They cite a natural reticence about promoting work that is still in progress: the director Andrew Adamson, an animation specialist whose only previous films are the computer-generated comic fairy tales “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” is still behind his digital console.

But this time, the pros at Disney are wrestling with a special challenge: how to sell a screen hero who was conceived as a forthright symbol of Jesus Christ, a redeemer who is tortured and killed in place of a young human sinner and who returns in a glorious resurrection that transforms the snowy landscape of Narnia into a verdant paradise.

That spirituality sets Aslan apart from most of the Disney pantheon and presents the company with a significant dilemma: whether to acknowledge the Christian symbolism and risk alienating a large part of the potential audience, or to play it down and possibly offend the many Christians who count among the books’ fan base.

And all the bankers said: Amen.

This is precisely the same dilemma faced by Peter Jackson and his crew as they began work on The Lord of the Rings, only the Christian themes and symbols used by apologist C.S. Lewis are much more explicit and, well, evangelistic. Jackson thought this through and made the crucial decision to leave J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision intact, even if that produced behind-the-scenes worries that the films might be seen as too culturally conservative. That turned out to be a wise decision in the marketplace.

It’s also important to note that Walden name — Philip Anschutz. His name is usually connected with words such as “reclusive” and phrases such as “Christian conservative.” He is not the normal Disney dancing partner.

One more thing. As Kehr makes clear, the Disney-Walden team plans to push the logical, post-Passion marketing plan. They will have to sell this to the people who already love Narnia — the most beloved works of Christian fiction in that exist in mainstream contemporary Christianity, period. Is that too strong a statement?

But there will be voices to weaken the doctrinal content of the product — will Queen Susan end up, in book seven, as an apostate? Comments by Disney veteran Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center of the University of Southern California, cut to the heart of the matter.

Of Lewis’s work, Mr. Kaplan said: “There’s enough story and traditional emotion in the ‘Narnia’ books that they can let the Christian mysticism in it either be a subtext or not a part of it at all. I suspect you can portray resurrection in the same way that E.T. comes back to life, and that practically every fairy tale has a hero or heroine who seems to be gone forever but nevertheless manages to come back.”

That sound you hear is C.S. Lewis devotees (and scholars) screaming.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    Before I got through this post, I was thinking about the “Ring” films, which you ended up mentioning here.

    I would almost be willing to bet that the films will be so devoid of their religious content that an actor, when interviewed after the film comes out, will say something like one of the hapless actors of the LOTR films said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Religious content? I didn’t even know there was any in the books.”

    Come to think of it, I think that was a subject of a blog posting here. At any rate, the Temptation (pun, keep reading) to either warp the original intent of the film and its characters to the point of non-recognition is tremendous in Hollywood – as in Last Temptation of Christ and other films. Hopefully, they will leave the content along, as they did in the LOTR films, and let the audience judge the message for themselves.

  • Jill M

    As the band Petra once sang, “Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.”

    I have mixed feelings about this film. I pray they’ll do a good job with it, but I’m not setting my expectations high. It’s primarily entertainment, after all. I don’t turn to Hollywood or Disneyland to “get religion.”

  • Jonathan_S

    Just FYI, I think it was Whiteheart, not Petra. :-)

  • Terry Mattingly


    It is very brave of you to confess that you know higher secrets of this kind. Far out, man.

    Jill, the best news is that Douglas Gresham is directly involved in the effort. Hopefully, this means he is getting to advise or even sign off on the script.

    Has anyone else out there listened to the Focus on the Family radio theater Narnia productions? I am NO big fan of Focus media, but these were amazing and Gresham was a player on those, as well.

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