Narnia goes to Hollywood

narniaSince I first saw clips of what is now becoming the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia last February, I maintained a level of skepticism as a means of protecting myself from disappointment. I was concerned that the film would deviate from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s explicit Christian themes. I was afraid the directors and producers would deviate from the film’s original plot. I was also afraid that they would attempt to make the fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (I am even preparing to do my second marathon this Christmas season). Thing is, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are not Lewis’ books, and any attempt to imitate the hugely popular films would be an utter disaster.

Well, my skepticism appears to be unfounded. Newsweek reports, based on a sneak preview, that rather than subtracting from or altering the story, director Andrew Adamson has stayed to the original plot and has even expanded some elements, such as the German bombings of London.

I am also pleased to hear that the film will not be a gore fest. Some of the previews have shown the potential for some Rings-like battles, but apparently the “gentleness” of the movie “may frustrate some bloodthirsty teenage boys.” That’s all I needed to hear.

As for media concerns, because that is what this blog is about (forgive my straying away into movie analysis), watch for how they cover the issue of The Message of the film. This is key. Julia Duin of The Washington Times dubs the film a cross between The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings in the way it is being pitched to churches.

In an excellent piece of journalism that out-reports both Newsweek‘s and Time‘s pieces on Lewis (Newsweek‘s article strangely fixates on his love for beer, though I did find that interesting), Duin covers the territory with remarkable efficiency, though Newsweek has the better photos and got a sneak preview. Nevertheless, here’s an example of excellent newspaper journalism:

Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, hedged on whether the film reproduces the Christian character of the book.

“We believe we have not made a religious movie,” he said. “It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.”

However, Zondervan, the evangelical imprint for publishing giant HarperCollins, is calling the film’s release one of the season’s “biggest religion stories.”

“It is the product for the fall,” spokeswoman Jana Muntsinger said. “In the Christian world, they are just salivating over this. C.S. Lewis is the evangelical gold standard.”

narnia2Newsweek takes on the issue and finds the movie “as Christian as you want it to be”:

Will the movie be too religious for a wide audience? Might it not be religious enough for Lewis’s Christian fans?

The speculation is understandable, partly because the climax of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” can be read as an allegory for Jesus’ death and resurrection — though how many of us read it that way when we were 8? — and partly because, after “The Passion of the Christ,” movies are increasingly regarded as things to play tug of war with, rather than share.

While Newsweek jokes around with the Pevensie children about girls’ underwear, Duin deals with the cultural issues that I believe will have a huge impact on American society:

Key to the film’s success is a fan base of several generations of evangelical Christians who have grown up reading the Narnia books. Motive Entertainment, the same company that promoted “Passion,” was hired by Disney to promote “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” among the church set.

Dozens of churches around the country are listed at as “sneak peak” sites for presentations about the movie from co-producer Douglas Gresham, Mr. Lewis’ stepson, or from contemporary Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman.

The site also is hawking group tickets and “customizable church outreach tools” such as DVDs, door hangers, specialty e-vites and posters.

Mr. Gresham spent six months on the set ensuring that the story line stayed true to its Christian values. In his new book, “Jack’s Life,” Mr. Gresham described his stepfather as “influenced by the Holy Spirit of God.”

These three articles lay the groundwork for Lion. Previous articles could do little but uncover the basic facts of the film (note tmatt’s post on The Palm Beach Post‘s coverage and on the money issue). For a movie that could have a huge impact on culture and society worldwide, the media coverage will be key.

Will it be fair? Accurate? Newsweek says the movie is “as Christian as you want it to be.” Lewis remains the foremost Christian writer, but will his ideas translate well into the foremost means of communication in the world today?

Print Friendly

  • Calee

    I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with Douglas Greshem, Lewis’ step-son and one of the producers of the upcoming film. Here is a podcast interview with Greshem:

    and here is my blog with photos:

    and the full article:

  • Elias Reeves

    As a graduate of a Christian college, I can say that there are quite a few of us who have zeroed in on C.S. Lewis’ love of beer. It was a great justification to use in front of teetotaling friends and perhaps even parents. Perhaps this mention in the Newsweek article points out that Lewis’ books reached beyond the old Protestant mainline and into the (mostly teetotaling) world of conservative evangelicalism.

  • Pingback: HerbEly

  • Matthew M.

    Aaugh! I’m sorry, I just can’t get past the horrendous misuse of the work “peak” in that last excerpt. I’m not sure if it bothers me more if the error is original or introduced in translation. Pique, peek, peak, people – learn the difference. </soapbox>

    In the conservative household in which I grew up, CS Lewis was sort of vaguely frowned upon; I think it was partly the drinking thing, and partly that our particular church didn’t have much use for fantasy literature. I haven’t read the Narnia books, although I greatly enjoyed both Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters (one of my favorite books). I did see a preview of the new Narnia movie last weekend, and it looks to be well-done; but I can’t speak to its faithfulness to the books. I have seen parts of an old (PBS?) TV version of the Narnia series (our pastor showed a clip in church), and that was just ridiculously badly done. Anyone else know the one I’m thinking of?

  • dpulliam

    Hi Matthew,

    I am quite familiar with the PBS version of the Narnia Tales. I grew up with them infact. Unfortuantely (maybe?) I only realized how bad they were when I got older.

    Now that I think about it, those Christians who object to Lewis’s writings could be a ghost in the news around this movie. I remember some Christians objecting to the Passion films, partially because of their anti-Catholic beliefs and partially because they objected to anyone making a “graven image” of Christ.

  • John Cox

    In fact, the television productions to which the posters above refer (by BBC and Home Vision Entertainment, and presented in the US under the WonderWorks label) was an outstandingly well done version of several of the Chronicles.

    The scripts were very well-written, and amazingly faithful to Lewis’ novels. The actors were well-chosen and their acting was effortless. The producers and directors made the critical decision NOT to attempt cutting edge special effects: their use of some animatronic figures, including the lion were perfectly in keeping with the intimacy of the small screen and the caliber of the story.

    Without having seen the movie, one can only hope that the creators are indeed NOT trying to create a “Christian movie” or even a “Christian story.” Because that’s not what Lewis was attempting. Nor was he attempting, as is often asserted, a “Christan allegory.” He found in fantasy the necessary freedom to construct and populate a world that reflects what he called the Deep Magic — a world infused with the nature of God, where every inhabitant participated in a life or death destiny.

    Newsweek’s observation is a sound one: that the movie is as Christian as you want it to be. So are the books. And I don’t think Lewis would object to that. Because even if you don’t want the Chronicles to be Christian in the slightest, it doesn’t matter: the Deep Magic is there and it resonates in the imagination.

    Finally, with regard to Mr. Pulliam’s comment near the very end of his original post — “For a movie that could have a huge impact on culture and society worldwide, the media coverage will be key.”

    I disagree with this on several points. I don’t think movies tend to have “huge impact[s] on culture and society worldwide” beyond the box office impact, which is the only one that can actually be measured (along with the merchandising tie-in sales).

    Movies seem more likely to express or reflect a cultural yearning, or to rebel against one. Both of which are profoundly different in their passivity from, say, the dynamics of a conversion, whether to radical faith, or radical politics. We can be moved by movies. But conversion, of whatever kind, moves us: into new ways of being, new relationships, new committments, and the actions attendant on all of these.

    In my view, the media coverage will have almost no effect on the movie or on how its received (or not received). As with “The Passion of the Christ,” the media “event” will be a thing unto itself, with its own dynamics and its own dynamism.

  • Avram

    John, keep in mind that Lewis used a much narrower definition of “allegory” than most people do. He used it to refer to things like Pilgrim’s Progress, where everything in the text clearly and obviously represents some idea or belief in the real world — a knight named Virtue riding on a horse named Faith weilding a sword named Righteousness against a dragon named Sin, that sort of thing.

  • Lucas Sayre

    This is only tangentially related to the matter at hand, but J.R.R. Tolkien was actually very influential in converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity.

    Tolkien, a Catholic, is often considered the person who “pushed Lewis over the edge” so to speak, when they went on a famous walk across Oxford’s campus.

    I would argue that the religious theme of Lord of the Rings is at least as strong as that of Narnia, if not stronger. LOTR more easily distracts readers with its fantasy and battle scenese, though, I suspect.

    And on a completely unrelated note, I have a good post up on why autumn is a great season.

  • saint

    “Will it be fair? Accurate?”
    OK I like Lewis (even though some of his theology sucked and despite the fact he was wise enough to put some of his most speculative theology iinto fiction) but the way some people (disclosure: mostly Americans IMHO) go on about these films, you would think they are Holy Scripture.

    Like audiences haven’t seen movies based on books before?

    And why the rush to paint him as the evangelical’s dream? His work is extremely popular amongst Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as well. A generation or two unwashed kids have grown up on Narnia and still think it a favourite while remaining immune, even ignoratn, of its Christian undertones.

    So why evangelicals? Is it just marketing? Because only evangelicals would buy the epack and the outreach kits because the Catholics and Orthodox don’t ‘do evangelism’? Because Hollywood has discovered how much money can be made from gullible and lazy Christians who wait for Hollywood to tell them how to ‘evangelize’? While the Catholics and Orthodox are too smug and lazy to even think about evangelism?

    OK I am being a bit provocative here but let’s get real. I didn’t realise that the gospel had been entrusted to Disney.

  • Steve Nicoloso

    So let’s get this straight: there was a “PBS version” of the chronicles that sucked? and a “BBC Wonderworks” version that was great? and these are the same version? or different ones? I can easily imagine a bad version of the chronicles but I haven’t seen it. We do own and love the BBC version in VHS, in spite of, if not because of, it’s rather understated special effects. It’s impact in the lives of our children has been, I mean no hyperbole, utterly life altering. A few years ago, I remember consoling my eldest who was in tears because “Narnia is not real”. God help me, I told him that Narnia was quite real, more real than we can ever imagine.

    Of course, we look forward to an opening day viewing of the Disney release. It will be good to see Aslan in full, 21st century computer generated ferocity (something, alas, the BBC’s low-tech, stuffed I think, lion didn’t quite capture), but I’d have to say that Disney will’ve done well to match the overall quality of this quiet little BBC version.

  • Dan Berger

    John Cox, I agree with you about the BBC videos; they are generally pretty well done (pace the special effects, which work OK but are what my children refer to as “lame”), except that the woman playing the White Witch has visible chunks of scenery hanging from her mouth in every scene.

    (For those without a theater background of any sort, “chewing the scenery” means ridiculous over-acting.)

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • tmatt

    I will say this: The script for the BBC Caspian film is amazingly good, even though it is only one hour long. That, for me, gave me hope that screenwriters would someday get to take on Narnia and do right by the basic plot and symbolic elements.

    BTW, any fans in this circle of the Radio Theatre versions on CD by, well, you know what organization? I think they are world’s better than previous radio versions.

  • Steve Nicoloso

    Terry queries:

    BTW, any fans in this circle of the Radio Theatre versions on CD by, well, you know what organization? I think they are world’s better than previous radio versions.

    Those are the ones with David (Hercule Poirot) Suchet as Aslan? Quite good. We’ve checked them out of the library (a good NJ Blue State library no less) for road trip listening recently. For all the bad (or indifferent) press Focus on the Family get, their Radio Theatre stuff is really rather well done.

  • Bob Koch

    I guess I’m a minority of one. I have yet to see *any* production of Narnia that hasn’t been a pathetic disaster. THe books are as good as it’s going to get. At best any video atrocity will make a few fast bucks for producers. As with any bathrobe-Bible movie with British accented actors, with perfect teeth and perfect tan, hollywood can’t touch anything remotely sacred without polluting it. By the way, anyone recall A.A. Milne’s books? Then remember what Disney did to *them*? Read to your kids, spare them this trash.

  • David

    “So let’s get this straight: there was a “PBS version” of the chronicles that sucked? and a “BBC Wonderworks” version that was great? and these are the same version? or different ones?”

    Steve: My impression from the above posts is that these are one and the same.

    Personally, I thought they were well-done (though the special effects were not state-of-the-art, they “worked”).

    Dan: Thanks for explaining the “chewing the scenery” phrase. I was scratching my head over that one.

    Terry: Yes, our family loves the Radio Theatre version. They did a great job of capturing the character (as I imagined it, at least) of the books’ characters.

    Bob (last, but not least): Of course “reading is better” but it’s always refreshing to see a production that comes close to “the real thing” (because so few do). I did NOT like Peter Jackson’s first LOTR film the first time I saw it because I had just finished reading The Fellowship of The Ring and was too distracted by all of the “artistic license” used. However, once I “got over it,” it has become almost as good as the book to me because it does do an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Tolkien’s characters (despite its deviations).

  • webwalker

    I’m really amazed at the responses I’m hearing hear, seeing as this is supposed to be a forum of/by/for journalists.

    Get the facts before you shoot off your pie-hole! In a technology forum I frequent the smack down for those more burdened with opinion than literacy is abbreviated RTFA (Read the f.i.n.e. article!)

    Disney is not producing this movie. Disney was *HIRED* by Walden Media (who is producing) to do the distribution. That’s right folks: Disney owns the creative direction of the movie even less than they owned Brad Bird’s creative work on The Incredibles for Pixar. Disney is just being hired for their distribution channels.

    I won’t yammer on. Before you stick your oar in about the production, RTFA.