Just before the December 7, 2005, premiere of Walt Disney Pictures’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a tiny bomb was dropped on Christians in America and Great Britain who were desperate to see the film. Val Stevenson posted the text of a brief letter on her literary website, Nthposition.com, from C.S. Lewis, author of the beloved Narnia books and misunderstood celebrity of evangelical America, in which he seemed to call out from beyond the grave: “I am absolutely opposed—adamant isn’t it!—to a TV version [of Narnia]. Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare.”
The previously unpublished letter had been sent on December 18, 1959, to Stevenson’s father-in-law, BBC producer Lance Sieveking, who oversaw the radio adaptation of Lewis’s tales, and had been in the possession of Sieveking’s son, Paul. (It is now on its way to the Bodlean Library.) Lewis confessed to the producer that he had only found time to hear the first radio installment of The Magician’s Nephew, of which he “approved.” But Lewis was “adamant” about forbidding a film version—save, perhaps, a cartoon one. Even so, he was unsure who might possess the ability to make such a cartoon without destroying the symbolism and subtlety of the stories. Of all animators, he greatly feared Walt Disney. “[I]f only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!” (This, during the “golden age” of Disney, long before the exquisite vulgarities of Pocahontas and Chicken Little.)
The Guardian was first to report on the letter (“CS Lewis feared film would ruin Narnia”), but major newspapers in the United States soon followed suit. Those eager to see the film, however, quickly fired back: technology! Certainly, Lewis would not have objected to this film version! There are over 1,700 special effects, and through the magic of CGI (computer-generated imagery), there surely will not be any talking-animal buffoonery!
Apparently, Walt Disney Pictures dodged the bullet, as critics and audiences worldwide have lavished praise on the film. Director Andrew Adamson (formerly of the children’s flatulence classic, Shrek) spent $180 million on the film, which, as of this writing, has grossed $265 million in the United States and $321.5 million elsewhere, cementing Disney’s promise to make film versions of the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia.
Some of this success is the result of evangelicals’ undying promotion of the film, seen by many as the latest victory in the culture war. One website, SermonCentral.com, even sponsored what it called the “Narnia Sermon Sweepstakes.” Pastors and laity “who submit a qualifying Narnia-related sermon transcript or sermon outline will be automatically entered to win a free trip to London, England–The Land of C.S. Lewis, along with $1,000 spending money.”
When the “neo-evangelical” movement began in the middle of the 20th century, and evangelical Americans set out to distinguish themselves from fundamentalists, their chief goal was to “engage the culture.” One way of doing this was to imitate popular entertainment, and this resulted in the creation of “contemporary Christian music” and many embarrassing films.
Another way has been to identify and promote (often vaguely) Christian elements in the popular secular culture. Organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family review the latest records and films and, in addition to counting the hells and damns and exposed body parts, attempt to decipher positive and negative “spiritual content.” I chuckled when I read, in Dobson’s Plugged-In magazine, a review of the pop-country band Rascal Flatts’ album Feels Like Today, in which one song was described as containing “Romans 8:28 optimism.” Another, “Fast Cars and Freedom,” celebrates “love” because it “assur[es] a woman that makeup merely conceals her natural beauty.” But I bet most young people understand the unsubtle meaning (overlooked by the editors of Plugged-In) of the lyrics “A T-shirt hanging off a dogwood branch / that river was cold, but we gave love a chance.” It would appear that much has to be overlooked if we are to find truth in today’s popular culture.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ took this to a new level. Mel was cool and one of us—except for his staunch, almost fanatical Roman Catholicism, but this is about getting the Gospel out there, and we can overlook the nonbiblical portions of the script supplied by Anne Catherine Emmerich. (Some church groups at least wondered whether it was acceptable to eat popcorn while watching “Jesus” being crucified.) I remember the looks of shock I received when I suggested that a(nother) “Jesus movie” will not save America, because film is a medium of entertainment, not particularly suitable for preaching the Gospel.
“Nonsense!” was the usual reply. “If just one person believes in Christ because of something he saw in this movie, it will be worth it!” In that spirit, churches all over the country rented theaters, brought people by the busload, and produced mountains of Passion of the Christ promotional and study materials. And the product was deeply satisfying for the vast majority of those who purchased it: Of course, it was the most powerful movie ever made! Now I really know what Jesus did for me!
And what did this Technicolor Jesus do for you? For evangelicals, he provided all of us with an opportunity to ask him into our hearts. For Mel Gibson (according to the juxtapositions during the crucifixion scene), he provided the Mass. For Sean Hannity, he provided an example of what happens when you tell the truth to liberals. In short, this special-effects blood-and-gore pretend Jesus was whatever you wanted him to be.
Disney’s Lion was the second coming of the Passion, in every sense. Led by the film’s executive producer, Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s adopted son (who kept, in the words of myriad reviewers, a “watchful eye” on the film’s production), screenings and meet-and-greets were held all over America for Christian leaders, who immediately began to rally the troops to take theaters by storm—again. Sunday-school materials were produced. Several books hit the market, explaining the allegory of the Lion, Aslan, as Christ-figure who gives his life to save the young traitor Edmund from his sins. And vulgar Disney has laughed all the way to the bank.
Of course, in order to join in the chorus of praise for this film, much has to be overlooked. Lewis’s Narnia books are simple fairy tales driven by lengthy conversations; children benefit from a second and a third reading. This, of course, will not do for Disney. Lewis has the four Pevensie children evacuated from London during “the War” and sent to the English countryside in a couple of sentences. Adamson begins with a prolonged Luftwaffe attack on London, during which we are given the first sympathetic hints as to why the Disney Edmund is so understandably naughty: He misses his father, who is off fighting Nazis, and his brother, Peter, is an arrogant tyrant, who lords it over him because he wishes he were old enough to be off killing Nazis himself. Lewis, on the other hand, makes sly references to “what they teach in schools today” as an explanation for Edmund’s ill-formed character (and as a reason why the children’s imaginations are so malnourished).
The thrust of Lewis’s book is the story of Aslan’s redemption of Edmund, which he accomplishes by allowing the White Witch to slay him on the Stone Table. Citing the “deep magic,” she insists that Edmund’s blood is hers for the taking, because he has betrayed his family in exchange for Turkish delight and the promise of power. But Aslan, the divine son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea and the true ruler of Narnia, knows “the deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which states that, if One Who is innocent gives His life for the guilty, the offender will be saved, and the curse, broken. Rising from the dead, the Lion quickly defeats the White Witch, and the children rule as kings and queens in his stead. For Christians, the allegory’s denouement is fairly obvious, but it is in the story’s telling that Lewis works his magic, imbuing the imagination with Christian understanding through conversations with talking animals and mythical creatures, such as fauns, elves, and dwarves.
Disney’s latest “Lion King” is nothing like Lewis’s Aslan. Voiced by Liam Neeson (Oscar Schindler, Qui-Gon Jinn, etc.), he spouts New Age mysticism, telling the children of the “deep magic that governs us all” and saying, of his trip to the Stone Table, “it is my destiny.” The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea is never mentioned, and, unlike in Lewis’s tale, the White Witch does not tremble in fear at the very mention of Aslan’s Name. Instead, she defies Disney’s lion boldly and fights him to the death as if she were Narnia’s demiurge.
Despite the presence of some of the same names and events that Lewis created, the Disney film is not about Aslan and redemption but focuses on the plucky children, whose derring-do saves Narnia after a long, bloodless Lord of the Rings-style battle sequence. (In Lewis’s account, the final battle is described rather briefly.) The talking animals are rendered by stilted CGI and often serve as silly comic relief (what else, from Disney?), robbing the little of Lewis’s dialogue that remains of its gravitas. On this wise, Mr. Beaver’s long speech about Aslan, a beautiful depiction of the immanence and transcendence of Christ—“Tame? ’Course He’s not Tame!”—is left out altogether.
The magic of Narnia has been buried under Disney’s buffoonery, and we can only imagine what the likes of Adamson will do (under the “watchful eye” of Douglas Gresham) with Lewis’s scathingly anti-Muslim Horse and His Boy in years to come. ’Twould be a thrill, to be sure, to see the valiant Narnian horse Bree—voiced, perhaps, by Sean Connery—say to the young (Muslim) tarkeena, Aravis (Elijah Wood?), “Why would a free Narnian ever say ‘may he live forever,’ every time he says the Tisroc’s name? I don’t want him to live forever!” I would venture to guess, however, that this would make for a very unpleasant Ramadan at the Magic Kingdom.
There is a deeper magic that has been lost here, and I suspect that such a tragedy is what made Lewis so adamant about forbidding a celluloid Aslan, which, later in his letter, he confessed “would be blasphemy to me.”
In creating the world of Narnia, Lewis did not set out to make a Gospel tract to be used by churches to convert children. Lewis was deeply aware of the loss of Christian imagination among English-speaking children. Much ink has been spilled about his devotion to the works of George Macdonald and concerning his and his fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien’s efforts to revive that imagination, through works of popular fiction, particularly through fairy tales full of characters common in the Western classical and Christian tradition—fauns, elves, dwarfs. To that end, Lewis wrote that
nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.
Far beyond the damage done to the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Mr. Tumnus the Faun, and Aslan the Untamed Lion by Walt Disney Pictures’ horrible script is the damage done to young imaginations by just another movie which, like the Passion of the Christ, will fade from the memories of moviegoers as they move on to the next cinematic amusement. Like the Witch’s Turkish delight, a film can never really satisfy the imagination, leaving the viewer hungry for yet another passive entertainment experience. I suspect that this film will not leave children hungry for the next bedtime chapter, the next episode cliffhanger, the next opportunity to hear Mom or Dad attempt to give voice to Mr. Tumnus.
It is this precious little world that American Christians have sacrificed, in exchange for Hollywood’s bowl of porridge and the meet-and-greets of the watchful Douglas Gresham. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is certainly not the greatest work of Christian fiction; but, for decades, it has been a powerful tool in the hands of parents who have taken their children into what Tumnus called the land of “Spare Oom” and through the gateway of “War Drobe” into the Shadowland of Narnia. Will children who have seen the second greatest movie ever made be able to recover their own imagined pictures of Aslan and Mr. Beaver? Will they remember that the mere mention of Aslan’s Name gave the children a sense of safety and fear, all at once?
American Christians, so eager to “engage the culture” at their children’s expense, would do well to reflect on the words of Chris Barsanti of filmcritic.com, who seems to have known what Jack Lewis was up to: “There’s no hideous beast or CGI landscape rendered here that can compare with what lurks in the mind of even the dullest, least imaginative child.”