Narnia — Fiction, fact, or worse?

C.S. Lewis and the Culture War Chronicles

Haven’t seen it yet, and won’t until next weekend. Having read the book probably about a dozen times or so, three of them aloud to my kids, I must admit that I’m a bit nervous about how it will translate onto the screen. I’m leery of taking any of the early reviews at face value on this aspect, as it seems that everyone has an axe to grind. Or, as the case may be, a stone knife to sharpen.

And that brings me to something that I though I had posted on some time back. Often I work out posts in my head, only to never get to them. Then, later, I think I actually wrote them and pull my hair out trying to find them. Also, sometimes I remember comments that I’ve left at other sites as being posts on my own (like with the submarine aircraft carrier I wrote about yesterday). What I had meant to write about was based on a conversation I had at work one afternoon regarding the Narnia films.

My contention to my co-worker was that while many had been quick to dismiss any religious undertones or meaning from the Lord of the Rings movies, they’d have a far, far more difficult time doing so with the Narnia movies. The religious themes in Lord of the Rings are quite muted and aren’t so much a theme as a part of the fabric of Middle-Earth and the very context of the story. Many critics contend that, though J.R.R. Tolkien was a strongly religious man, none of his theological or moral beliefs crept into his books.

Which is pretty stupid. But they said it anyway.

In Narnia, however, it’s all laid out for you. It screams in your face. It punches you in the nose. C.S. Lewis not only didn’t play down the religious framework of his Narnia stories (especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) he played them up. It wasn’t supposed to be something that Believers would pick up on if they paid attention. His stories were blinding beacons, booming fog horns, of religious value and moral instruction. (I won’t even go into the biting criticism of public education and so-called “modern values” that Lewis made crystal clear in the stories…)

I told my co-worker that I couldn’t wait for critics to try to deflect the religious themes in Narnia. They’d look so dumb trying to do so that they would simply discredit themselves. And though the extent of Hollywood’s financial troubles wasn’t clear at the time (early this spring), I now find it quite amusing that so many who would otherwise probably advise folks to keep their kids away from the film are, instead, stuck between warning against dangerous moral indoctrination and begging people to line up and buy a ticket. Or two.

There seems to be two schools of thought about how to handle the sticky situation of a film that a) kids and families want to see and b) openly advocates much which Hollywood (in general) has worked so long and hard to tear down.

The first, most obvious, tack is to simply refuse to admit that the films are religious at all. While it’s easier to do this with Narnia than it is for, say, The Passion of the Christ, with the latter you didn’t have the issue of the children. Parents weren’t going to take their kids to The Passion. There weren’t The Passion action figures and collector cups and Happy Meals. The other kids at school wouldn’t all be talking about The Passion and playing The Passion on the playground at recess. Kids are going to go see the Narnia films and they’re going to like them. Maybe not on the scale of Harry Potter or Star Wars, but you can be sure that this is going to go over well with the little ones. And no matter how loudly they proclaim that day is night and that up is down, the obviousness of the struggle between good and evil, and the fact that moral and ethical decisions have to be made will be clear to anyone who watches. This is anathema to those who have long feared that kids might “get ideas” of this sort.

Irish Eagle writes

But a lot of ink has been spilled already, apparently to warn heedless parents that they might be exposing their children to something insidious. They may think they’re taking their kids to an adventure story about a fantasy world filled with epic animal battles, pitting good vs. evil, but actually, they’re endorsing Bible Belt entertainment. The Passion of Christ without the gore. What’s next? Nascar on Sesame Street?

The second, less apparent, avenue is to claim that Narnia and Aslan are poor vessels to carry the values and teachings of religion and morality to kids. Talking animals, high adventure, and majestic views of the wide, wonderful world around us will just be lost on young and impressionable minds? Are the critics saying this about children, or about people just like themselves? Irish Beagle writes

Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, “Aslan, the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of free-thinking parents” is “in many ways an anti-Christian figure.” Hmm. A lion-king who can liberate a world from evil only by sacrificing his life — and then miraculously returns to life? An anti-Christian figure? “The books are better when read without the subtext,” wrote Charles McGrath last month in The New York Times Magazine. “Aslan, for example, is much more thrilling and mysterious if you think of him as a superhero lion, not as Jesus in a Bert Lahr suit.” [links added]

Ah. Far better to be a Superman/Simba than an allegorical representation of Christ. It’s more “thrilling” and “mysterious” than all that boooring stuff Jesus did. And we’ll toss in a purposefully-demeaning comparison for good measure, just in case someone doesn’t understand that we Don’t Approve.

Isn’t this all a little — disingenuous? Regardless of the critics’ consternation, although it is first and foremost a good read, Narnia cannot be stripped of its Christian underpinnings. “The whole Narnia story is about Christ,” Lewis once wrote. “That is to say, I asked myself, “Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing that it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?” He also wrote that he wanted “The Chronicles of Narnia” to take the parables of the New Testament and cast them “into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations,” hoping that this would make them “appear in their real potency.”

This is a problem? Then what are we to do with, well, much of the works of Western civilization? Skip Milton, because some ministers in a red state emphasize fire and brimstone, and we are so much more progressive? Turn our backs on Micaelangelo’s Pieta, because its beauty and power are somehow negated by its subject? Avoid Dante, because hell is like, such a downer?

The films are, of course, Disney productions and movie-goers are just now getting their first look at how faithful they are to the spirit of the books. No doubt, many are keeping their fingers crossed that the theology of the books has been exorcised from the movies. Or at least subdued enough that most in the audience don’t notice it through the loud music and special effects.

Just in case, though, there’s always character assassination. In the first paragraph of his review in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik notes this about C.S Lewis:

In England, he is commonly regarded as a slightly embarrassing polemicist, who made joke-vicar broadcasts on the BBC, but who also happened to write a few very good books about late-medieval poetry and inspire several good students. (A former Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, “couldn’t stand” Lewis, because of his bullying brand of religiosity, though John Paul II was said to be an admirer.)

That’s right, boys and girls. Us Americans might hold Mr. Lewis in high regard, but sophisticated Europeans know better than a bunch of New World hicks. So shut up and eat your popcorn.

Here’s hoping the movie is both well-made and close to the books. If any MO readers have checked it out, let me know what you thought.


  1. I don’t think you have much to worry about. I think that all the important Christian metaphor stuff is there. The Edmund bit was CERTAINLY well done. I think that they did the Aslan parts right, as well. Except maybe the coronation. Oh well. But the important thing is that the christian metaphor is THERE, and is almost impossible to miss unless: 1. You’ve never heard the Bible message. 2. You doze off during the movie. 3. You miss the parts when going for popcorn, or the bathroom.

  2. I used to watch a Narnia TV series when I was younger. I never picked up on any religious themes. Perhaps I was too young to notice. I had heard the bible messages, I went to a Christian primary school for two years. Nowadays I think I would probably spot it. So my 2c is that I don’t think children will really notice or it will affect them all that much. It didn’t for me. But maybe the movie plays up aspects that the TV series didn’t. Besides which, what exactly is objectionable? Anyone can go out and pick up a bible and read it if they want. I don’t think they’d suddenly break out in Christianity if they weren’t already that way inclined. Are we really giving people so little credit, that even being exposed to religion is somehow a form of indoctrination? I suppose, in a sense, that’s how it’s intended (i.e. religion is typically designed to spread) but this is pretty tame compared to those people who occasionally walk up to me and try to convert me while I’m walking down the street.

  3. Well I saw the movie on the 8th and I have to say it is a very good movie. I have read all the books at least 5 times and I would say the movie stays close to the book. SO put your mind at ease Murdoc and enjoy the film.