The long awaited release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, comes today, and the movie is likely to become a blockbuster. Opening on three thousand screens nationwide, the Narnia film is the product of a collaboration between Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media. Fans of C. S. Lewis and his most famous literary work, the seven-volume series known as The Chronicles of Narnia, have waited for the film version of this work for a very long time. Indeed, the first volume of Lewis’ great fantasy work was released over a half century before the story hit the big screen.
Like many admirers of Lewis’ work, I harbored deep suspicions that the movie would not be faithful to the book. After all, the movie world has robbed and pillaged many of history’s greatest works of literature. Furthermore, given the unmistakable Christian allusions in Lewis’ work, The Chronicles of Narnia would be particularly susceptible to cinematic subversion.
Those fears were unfounded. The film is a tour de force, combining faithfulness to Lewis’ story with a wonderful cast. Watching the film is an exciting and fulfilling movie experience. I am not an expert in cinematography, nor would I pose as an expert on film technique. Still, from the vantage point of a film lover who had reservations about this adaptation, this movie has been worth the wait.
Lewis himself was very concerned about any film adaptation of his great work. He was familiar with the work of Walt Disney, and even though he admired much of Disney’s work, he feared that the reduction of his story to the screen would corrupt it. In 1959, just three years after the seventh work in the series was completed, Lewis wrote: “I am absolutely opposed . . . to a TV version.” He explained that animal characters, “when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare.”
Furthermore, Lewis tied his concern directly to the powerful Christian allusions in the film. The central character of the Narnia series is Aslan, the great lion. “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic . . . would be to me simple blasphemy,” Lewis explained.
The central character of Aslan unifies the entire Narnia series. “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came,” Lewis once remarked. “But once He was there He pulled the whole story together.” During his own lifetime, Lewis approved a radio version of the books, but opposed all efforts to translate the story into film. He feared that the existing technologies of animation would reduce Aslan to “a human pantomime.”
What makes the movie work is the development of advanced animation technologies. In the movie, Aslan appears as a computer-generated character–not as a cartoon figure. The development of advanced computer animation allowed Aslan to appear as the formidable character he is.
The C. S. Lewis estate, now managed by Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, has been fiercely protective of the Narnia project. Gresham served as one of the producers of the current film, working in collaboration with director Andrew Adamson. Walden Media, known for its previous films Because of Winn Dixie and Holes, combined with media investor Philip Anschutz to back the film.
In terms of cinematography, some have suggested that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe falls short of the grandeur demonstrated by Peter Jackson’s three-movie Lord of the Rings series. In one sense, this criticism is both true and unfair. The Lord of the Rings books are far less allegorical than The Chronicles of Narnia. Furthermore, the books are far longer and set in a very different imaginary world. The Narnia movie is beautiful and moving, and those looking for special effects will find much to appreciate.
Other criticisms have been more serious. Even before the film was released, some critics were lining up to accuse the movie of communicating a subversive message centered in the Christian gospel. Without doubt, the allusions to the story of Christ and the theme of redemption are unmistakable, but Lewis was never hesitant to make this connection himself. It is hardly fair to accuse Lewis or the makers of this movie for being subversive when the project’s connections to the Christian story are well known.
Others have made yet more serious claims. Philip Pullman, author of the three-book series, His Dark Materials, dismisses the Narnia series as “propaganda in the cause of the religion [C. S. Lewis] believed in.” That’s just a start, of course. Pullman, who once described his own motivation for writing children’s books as “to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” has described the Narnia series as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” Pullman has attacked Christianity, and the Narnia series, as “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.” Beyond this, Pullman condemns Lewis as “blatantly racist” and his books as corrupted by a “sadomasochistic relish for violence.”
In a very real sense, Pullman’s wretched opposition serves as a validation of the Narnia project. Similarly, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian (London), argues that even as the movie is “beautiful to look at and wonderfully acted,” she is appalled by the clear Christian allusions found within the film. The four Pevensie children (the siblings who serve as the human characters in the story) are described as members of a fallen race. The boys, Peter and Edmund, are both addressed as “son of Adam.” Likewise, each of the girls, Susan and Lucy, is known as a “daughter of Eve.” The redemptive purpose of God is described as “deep magic” which counters the power of evil. Evil is presented in all of its beauty and horror, personalized in the character of the White Witch. Aslan dies as a sacrifice in order to save Edmund, who has betrayed his siblings for the promise of Turkish Delight, a candy he craves. Both the book and the movie include powerful depictions of Aslan’s sacrificial death, resurrection, and victory.
This theme of redemption is especially offensive to Toynbee. “Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart.”
Toynbee, like Pullman, hates the books because Lewis made no effort to hide his Christian faith. After all, Lewis had once described himself as “a blaspheming atheist.” His conversion–among the most publicized of the twentieth century–became the basis for his telling of the Narnia story. Interestingly, Toynbee takes particular offense at the fact that Christ is represented by the character of a lion. She would prefer the lamb, “weak, poor and refusing to fight.” According to the Bible, Christ is both. As our penal sacrifice, He willingly gave His life as the Lamb of God. Yet, He is also coming in power and in judgment and is described in the Bible as the “Lion of Judah.” As Lewis insightfully remarked, Aslan is “no tame lion.”
Clearly, many viewers will fail to recognize the allusions to Christianity. Though elements of the story are clearly allegorical representations of the Christian faith, these depictions are not exact, and the Narnia series is not, properly speaking, pure allegory. If pressed too far or too hard as allegory, parts of the story will fall short of Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, The Chronicles of Narnia stands as a powerful story with clear allusions to the person and work of Christ, to the reality of human sin, to humanity’s desperate need for redemption, and to God’s ultimate victory in Christ.
Given the secularization of the culture and the low level of biblical knowledge among so many in the population, some will miss the allusions entirely. As observers in Great Britain have noted, a nation in which only 28 percent of adults indicate any knowledge of the origin of Easter as a holiday is unlikely to include many who will spot the Christian allusions found in the film. For those who are familiar with the gospel story, The Chronicles of Narnia–both in print and in this film–can represent a touching and emotional retelling of gospel themes. Believers will celebrate the fact that the movie faithfully presents so many biblical themes, events, and trajectories.
At the same time, viewing this film is no substitute for direct evangelism. Our authority for understanding and communicating the gospel is not a literary project but the Bible. The Chronicles of Narnia includes theological themes that are presented in a truly fascinating manner, but the work is not a vehicle for teaching Christian doctrine. C. S. Lewis was one of the most influential Christian intellectuals of the twentieth century. For American evangelicals, he has become a model and mentor for literary expression, apologetic engagement, and the dignity of intellect. Nevertheless, Lewis was often not a careful theologian. He was an inclusivist on the question of salvation, believing that at least some who did not consciously believe in Christ would be saved. He rejected the inerrancy of Scripture and was never adequately specific about his understanding of the atonement. He was a firm defender of orthodoxy on doctrines such as the Trinity, but apparently accepted baptismal regeneration and never adequately affirmed justification by faith.
Does this mean that Christians should not celebrate and see the movie? Not at all. Millions of lives have been touched by Lewis’ imaginative story and many have credited this work with serving as something of a catalyst for their own conversion to Christianity. But in the end, what truly matters is a person’s response to the truth of Christianity–not an emotional response to the medium of a movie.
Children of all ages will find viewing this film to be a thrilling experience. Lewis devotees will find their worst fears unfounded and many of their firmest hopes fulfilled. The audience will know that something of earth-shaking significance has taken place when the character of the beaver announces, “Aslan is on the move.” Of course, those who know the real story will know that Aslan is always on the move.