Narnia Filmmakers Hype the Fantasy, Hedge the Faith
By Steven D. Greydanus
A lot of thought and effort went into getting the feel, the look, the period and the characters of C. S. Lewis’s beloved fairy tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe right for the screen (see “Into the Wardrobe”). At the same time, judging from the unanimous testimony of the filmmakers, one crucial element of the book was not a consideration one way or the other in adapting the story: its religious significance.
“I didn’t really think a lot about the religious aspect,” director Andrew Adamson stated. “I know C. S. Lewis never really intended it to be allegory, but he definitely wrote from a place of his own belief, and a lot of people get that from the book… People can interpret the movie the same way, they can apply their personal belief and interpret the movie the same way they interpret the book.”
Not allegory? True, as a matter of fact. Though widely referred to as “allegories,” the Narnia stories are actually something different. Real allegory, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, uses each character, place and event to represent something else. The Chronicles don’t do this. Lucy and Mr. Tumnus aren’t symbols for anything; they’re characters in a story. No effort to create anything like an answer key or legend drawing one-to-one relationships from the wardrobe, the lamp-post, or even the Stone Table to anything in the Christian faith could possibly do justice to these evocative little tales.
Even Aslan himself, the great Lion and Narnia’s true King, though commonly described as a “Christ figure,” isn’t really an allegorical or symbolic representation of Jesus — because he’s actually much more than that. Literarily, Aslan is nothing less than an imaginary portrayal of the very Divine Person known in our world as Jesus Christ, appearing in another world as the Lion Aslan.
In other words, it isn’t just that there are “parallels” between Aslan and Jesus. Rather, Lewis imagines that the same God who created our world and sent His Son to be born here from a Virgin also created the world of Narnia and sent that same Son there as a Lion. (God the Father is known in the books as “the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea.”)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hints at this toward the end when Mr. Beaver remarks that Aslan “has other countries to attend to” besides Narnia. Aslan himself is more explicit toward the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, expressly telling Lucy and Edmund that he is known in their world (that is, our world) by “another name,” and that they must come to know him in their own world “by that name.”
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia,” Aslan explains, “that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Lewis might as well be describing his own intention in writing the Narnia stories in the first place and introducing his readers to Aslan.
The Narnia filmmakers, though, seem to take the line that the religious meaning of the Narnia stories is there only if you want it to be. Producer Mark Johnson went so far as to state that “Lewis himself never really saw these as Christian books. Obviously he is a Christian, and imbued them with a lot of his values, but they are not specifically that. So we wanted to be true to the books, so that if you find religious meaning in the books, hopefully you’ll find that in the movie also.”
That’s their story and they’re sticking to it. “A lot of people know that C. S. Lewis is a well-known Christian apologist,” said Tilda Swinton, whose chilly performance brings the White Witch vividly to life. “And for a lot of people for whom that’s important, that religious allegory will be important. But there are many, many millions of other people for whom it’s not. And it’s all still theirs… But the Christians are welcome,” she added jocularly.
Anna Popplewell, who plays Susan, commented in a similar vein. “C. S. Lewis was a very interesting man, and I think we were really lucky we had his stepson working very closely with us on this project, Douglas Gresham. So we really wanted to stay true to the spirit of the book. What you take from the movie in terms of a message is kind of what you’ll take from the book. There’s a lot of room for interpretation; it’s a very simple and strong story. I personally read it when I was younger just as a story, but I think we’re all aware of various symbolisms and allegories. ”
Striking much the same note, William Moseley, the film’s Peter, said, “I think a lot of things come down to what you believe, and who you are, and your individual perception of good or evil. Whether that’s religious, or whether that’s just your personal point of view. When I first read the books, I didn’t see the religious aspects a tiny bit… But then I was told that it was a religious story. And I still thought it’s an amazing story.”
Could all this be a smokescreen — cagey talking points to defuse the religious issue for a left-leaning media keen to crucify the next red-state Passion movie? To an extent, perhaps. Yet when a member of the Christian press pointed out that the movie gives Aslan a key line, “It is finished,” that comes not from Lewis but from Christ on the cross, Adamson seemed caught off-guard. “I actually honestly didn’t know that,” he admitted. “Seriously — I know you don’t believe I didn’t know that!”
For Adamson, it seems, “It is finished” had another meaning entirely. “The thing that I wanted, the thing I was really going for there, was Aslan’s sadness at having to get to the point… I didn’t want to send home the message that war is an ideal solution. I wanted Aslan to actually regret the fact that he was going to have to kill the White Witch. I wanted a line where he could really just turn to Peter and say, ‘It’s over. It’s done.’ ” (In spite of this, it seems likely that one of the screenwriters did know the reference, and that the line found its way into the screenplay for that reason.)
Adamson even seemed nettled at all the attention the religion question was getting. “We’re getting a lot of interest in that, particularly from the press,” he remarked. “At the same time, The Matrix — huge commercial film — is the resurrection story. He’s the chosen one. He goes to his death. He comes back from death, and he saves the world. I don’t think the Wachowskis had to [answer] quite as many questions about it as I do!”
It’s a moot point, since the Wachowskis refuse to answer any questions about the meaning of the Matrix films — and the parallel is hardly exact anyway — but the fact is that there is massive interest in the religious meaning of the Matrix films. If the Wachowskis ever did a public Q&A on the meaning of the films, they’d be hammered by questions about the film’s variously Christological, Taoist, Cartesian, and other resonances.
If Adamson feels unfairly singled out, he might be interested to learn that the makers of The Lord of the Rings faced the same kinds of questions he’s facing, albeit to a lesser extent — and that in some cases they were more forthcoming about the answers. For example, at a press event for The Return of the King, LOTR screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh openly discussed the meaning of The Lord of the Rings in terms of having faith in a higher power — a power capable of intervening when we fail — of surrendering to that higher power at death, of the hope that death is not the end, and of objective moral truth.
Ironically, though Lewis’s stories are much more overtly religious than Tolkien’s, the Narnia filmmakers seem less willing to acknowledge them. (It’s only fair to note that this is their first time out of the gate; the LOTR filmmakers had three films to work on their answers to those questions.)
The contention that viewers are free to interpret the film the same way they interpret the book doesn’t quite wash. For one thing, the filmmakers have repeatedly stated that the film doesn’t make any significant changes to Lewis’s story. But how do you distinguish between the significant and the non-significant without thinking about the story’s religious meaning?
For example, in the book, on his way to the Stone Table, Aslan moans, stumbles, and confesses himself to be sad and lonely, much as Christ suffered in the agony of the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. In the film, Aslan looks somber on his way to the Stone Table, but there’s no moaning, stumbling, or talk of loneliness and sadness. Has something significant been lost or not? How can you decide without thinking about the religious aspect?
One of the most crucial elements in the book is the utter lack of parity between the omnipotent Aslan and the limited White Witch. The film, though, repeatedly diminishes Aslan and strengthens the Witch until they seem on much more equal terms than Lewis intended — yet the filmmakers didn’t seem to notice the departure.
Adamson has actually said that the Witch “has to be as smart, as strong and as intense as Aslan the Lion in her confrontations with him.” Asked about this, the director qualified his earlier comments, conceding that “Aslan was always intended to be more powerful,” but added that he “wanted to make her a significant adversary, so that it wasn’t just an easy thing for Aslan to deal with.” Johnson called Aslan and the Witch “worthy adversaries,” although he argued that the film does depict Aslan as “the smarter of the two, because he’s figured out the Deep Magic in a way that she hadn’t.” (Lewis wouldn’t have cottoned to the idea of Aslan “figuring out” anything.) Later, though, Adamson acknowledged that Aslan is “omnipotent.”
In the end, Lewis’s omnipotent lion does come to life in grand fashion on the screen — along with much of the book’s religious meaning (though not all; for more, see the review). It’s also worth noting that, in spite of all the reluctance to talk religion, the religious importance of the stories hasn’t been lost on Disney, which hired Motive Movie Marketing to run the same kind of grass-roots outreach to faith-based groups that proved so successful with The Passion. Promotional events at churches have coached pastors and leaders on using the film to do outreach in their communities.
After years of chilly relationships between Hollywood generally — and Disney in particular — and certain segments of American Christendom, LWW could represent at least a partial thawing. For Christians who’ve felt for years that Hollywood wasn’t willing to acknowledge their existence, Disney’s church-based overtures may be a welcome sign of change. For their part, Disney executives must surely be delighted to have a film, or even a franchise, with the potential to bring in even viewers previously determined to avoid anything with a Disney logo.
At the same time, religious considerations have to matter to Hollywood not just in the marketing process, but in the creative process. Filmmakers don’t need to share the religious views of a Lewis or a Tolkien to adapt their works, but they do need to be willing to try to understand and honor the relationship of those views to the work. If that ever caught on, the thaw might become a springtime.