These days a surprising trend may be growing in Hollywood. In an industry that values sex, youth and cares little for morals or smarts—some of the hottest names around town are a couple of old, dead Oxford-educated Christians. Even more shocking, while Hollywood is trying to keep up with Asian horror, gore-for-gore and comedies continue to mine the depths of bodily-function, we find that a Christian-themed children’s film—normally the domain of Zondervan’s bargain bin—may be the biggest film of the year.
Where J.R.R. Tolkien paved the way, C.S. Lewis is soon to follow. As everyone knows (except maybe the comatose and a few Amish), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings dominated the box-office with Sauron-like power, grossing more money than the national product of Rwanda, Chad or Malawi. Now it’s the Chronicles of Narnia’s turn, and with Walden Media producing, Walt Disney distributing and Rings’ FX studio WETA handling the creatures, its difficult to see how The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe could fail to be a hit.
To Hollywood studio executives, who don’t know the difference between C.S. Lewis and C.S.I., the new Narnia movie is just another entry in the box office rankings. But for those of us raised in church circles, the King of the Christian literary jungle (old ‘Jack’ himself) getting his first big budget Hollywood treatment is a big deal. It’s also a fact that makes long-time fans (like me) both excited and queasy.
Since his quiet death in 1963 (Lewis died on the same day JFK was shot), his fiction and apologetic books like Screwtape Letters have been selling better and better. Lewis-themed books have also sold well, with topics stretching to fit every Christian niche (Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis; Praying with C.S. Lewis; C.S. Lewis and the Atkin’s Diet …), and semi-scholarly debates have even sprung up about authorship of disputed texts—with accusations of forgery and deceit. On the whole, these are good signs—signs someone cares.
But if the first book in Lewis’ Chronicles does well in the theaters this December, six more could follow, catapulting Lewis from respectable popularity into the Potter-sphere. The question is, what is the advantage to Lewis hitting mega-stardom?
The folks at Focus on the Family and other media watchgroups will certainly welcome Witch as a healthy alternative to the witchcraft-laden Potter films. But, certainly the Narnian books are more than just “family entertainment”—a term which seems to imply only the absence of bad behavior, bad language, sex or violence.
The Chronicles are more that that. Imbued with Christian undertones, the entire series echoes the Biblical metanarrative: from the creation to the second coming. But does that make LWW just “Harry Potter meets the Passion”?
Lewis described one of the benefits of his story as its ability to communicate Christian truths, “by stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations.” But Lewis also denied that the Narnian books were mere allegories. Allegory implies a one-to-one correspondence between the story and underlying ideas. It also implies a singular focus on the story as an “idea delivery device.” If that was all the Narnian books were good for, they would have failed to grasp the imagination of audiences years ago.
For Lewis, Narnia began with an image: a faun walking through a snowy wood, carrying an umbrella and parcels under one arm. His inspiration sprang not from a desire to create a safe alternative for children’s reading, or even out of desire to talk about Jesus dressed up in animal costume.
Lewis writes that it was only after beginning to create his fantasy world that “Aslan came bounding into it.” As the movie Shadowlands has pointed out, the emerging picture, then, is not just of Lewis the enchanter, casting a spell on the reader, but also Lewis the enchanted, caught up in the magic of the story and dying to communicate this magic to his readers.
So what is it that makes Narnia-fans like me nervous? Various message boards have poured over the trailers, the choice of director, the voice of Aslan, minute changes from the book’s contents. One of the early scares sprang up several years ago when an inter-office memo from HarperCollins was leaked, indicating the publishing house’s desire not to make explicit reference to the Christian content of Lewis’s books. Regarding the new Narnia films, the publishing house wrote, “we’ll need to give emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the [Narnia] stories to Christian imagery/theology.”
After the furor from fans died down, the understanding came through that though Lewis’s books and the new movies would not be marketed as Christian (a strategy CSL would have approved of) no changes to the content were going to be made. Some of that paranoia still lives on, however, with super-fans vigilantly watching for pagan Hollywood’s sticky fingerprints on any changes: maybe the Witch turns out to be just misunderstood; or instead of dying, Aslan just performs a pagan cleansing ceremony; or maybe Mr. Tumnus comes out of the closet.
By all reports, though, the new movie is very faithful to the books. One early reviewer notes with annoyance that Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are not crowned in the name of the Emperor-over-the-Sea (the Narnian “God the Father”), but in the name of the four winds. Thus far, this is the only sign of pagan-fingerprints.
Perhaps the biggest cause for concern is that the most delicate ingredient of all might be lost in the mix—namely, the magic. Cross-promotional schemes are just one part of my fears. As much as I like LWW, I’m not sure I want to see Mr. Tumnus umbrellas for sale at a Christian bookstore, or to eat Aslan-shaped Sour Patch candies at the movie theater. There’s something magical in the books, but nothing magical about drinking Narnia-themed Strawberry Reconstituted Fruit Drink, as I did recently.
One of the problems with the imagination is that, despite all wisdom to the contrary, seeing is not believing. The pictures in your head are always better. The reason the BBC versions of Narnia didn’t work was for the obvious fact that the production value was cheap and Aslan looked like he’d been taxidermied. In our imaginations, you can never spot the zipper running up the Minotaur’s back.
But perhaps the most deadly enemy to the magic in Narnia (and maybe all magic everywhere) is irony. Postmodern detachment is naturally immune to all enchantments, including good ones. Fear for the new movie is compounded by the presence of Shrek director, Andy Adamson, who is also helming LWW. Shrek’s ironic aesthetic worked brilliantly as it snarkily subverted the beloved cultural fairy tales (The fairy godmother is evil, the princess turns into an ogre, Robin Hood and his merry men are all light in the loafers).
Eric Metaxas, writing in Books and Culture, slammed Shrek by asking, “Are beauty and nobility and innocence such medieval concepts that fairy tales themselves cannot portray them positively? Does Shrek really mean to say that fairy tale virtues don’t exist, or are relative, or meaningless?”
This reading of Shrek, I think, is a bit harsh. The filmmakers had their fun with those fairy stories, but they didn’t befoul them entirely. Nevertheless, somewhere in all the laughter and irony, Shrek fails to enchant the viewer. Perhaps because, like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, magic always requires a condition—that we become as little children.
Perhaps it is in this way that LWW is most counter-cultural. David Foster Wallace in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” writes about a new generation of literary rebels defying postmodern irony and embracing sincerity. These new rebels will be, in a sense, anti-rebels “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles … with reverence and conviction.” It seems that Hollywood has found these anti-rebels, not in the next generation, but in the last one.
Of course, the danger with sincerity is it risks disapproval. The fragile magic of Lewis’ fantastic world is, much like the Rings movies, completely earnest. Its childlike simplicity is that it has no defenses—but in order to be caught in its magic we must surrender our defenses as well. This is, perhaps, the key to LWW’s gospel. Without surrendering his irony, the jaded hipster cannot enjoy it.