Just hours after The New York Times hit doorsteps on the first Sunday of this month, my e-mailbox began to fill with distraught messages. "Sit down before you read this, in case you start crying," wrote one friend, and another muttered, "Poor Lewis must be turning over in his grave." One message was headed, "Lord have mercy on Narnia."

The source of their distress was a Times article that reported, working from a leaked memo, that HarperCollins was planning to perform a marketing makeover on "The Chronicles of Narnia," a series of children's novels penned by British author C.S. Lewis in the mid-20th century. Since the debut of the first volume, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," the series has enjoyed roaring success, to the tune of 65 million copies in 30 languages. The news story indicated that HarperCollins hoped to boost this success even further by separating Narnia from its religious roots.

The news hit Narnia fans as sacrilege. Lewis, a traditional Anglican, embraced classic Christianity, and the denizens of Narnia sometimes enact elements of the Christian story. The allegory is handled with subtlety. Young readers often miss Aslan the lion's resemblance to Christ, for instance, or the apocalyptic echoes of "The Last Battle." Much of the action is simply good storytelling and doesn't carry allegorical weight. The books' faith background, however, is integral.

Much of the uproar was due to a misunderstanding; readers thought that the plan was to de-Christianize the stories. The misunderstanding was reasonable, since the article was confusingly headlined "Marketing 'Narnia' Without a Christian Lion." The publisher has continued to repeat a terse statement that "The works of C.S. Lewis will continue to be published ... as written by the author, with no alteration," but the alarming first impression has stuck. Some Narnia fans acknowledge the publisher's statement but say they simply don't trust them and don't think they will keep their word.

Though confusion clouded that part of the controversy, other elements were clearer. The memo outlined three changes for marketing Lewis. First, deals have been struck to license Narnia toys, clothing, and plush animals; second, children's-fantasy authors would be hired to write new novels in the Narnia series; and third, the publisher hoped to tone down Lewis' image as a Christian apologist in order to broaden his appeal.

Most fans seem to agree that a line of Narnia plush toys is the least problematic part of the project, provided the toys respect the characters' era and style. Protecting the dignity of Aslan will be a challenge throughout all these changes. No one wants a goggley-eyed lion with a string in his back, chirping about self-esteem.

The new novels pose two separate problems. Fans fear Lewis' subtlety will be replaced with hectoring p.c. themes out of tune with Narnia's gentle style. Another is that the books simply won't be any good. The original novels are deeply personal, rooted in the faith and times of a very appealing man. Lewis was a kindly, modest figure and a scholar of medieval literature at Oxford and Cambridge who possessed the kind of education no one gets any more. A new writer may be able to jerk his characters around like marionettes, but it's unlikely she can make them fly.

Where things get truly complicated is with the third point, concerning Lewis' image as a Christian. The leaked memo was directed to Carol Hatcher, who was developing a documentary about C.S. Lewis for PBS, with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Hatcher had asked permission to quote from Lewis' works, and the publisher passed along some stipulations from the Lewis estate. The script should not point out the Christian elements of the Narnia stories; Hatcher's treatment of Lewis' conversion should not be changed, since it wasn't "overdone"; and the lasting impression left with the viewer should not be that Lewis was a "Christian apologist."

Hatcher was distressed. She felt, she told World magazine, that she was being asked to conceal Lewis' faith, a kind of compromise not allowed to Christians: "Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father," Jesus said. What's more, Lewis was a Christian apologist. Hatcher told the Times that omitting this fact would be like making a documentary about Hank Aaron without mentioning baseball.

Another filmmaker, David Crouse, also speaking in World, agrees that Lewis' faith is huge and should necessarily comprise the bulk of any film on his life. His PBS documentary on Lewis is nearing completion, and he has had no problems with the Lewis estate. This is because, unlike Hatcher, Crouse used few quotes from Lewis' writings and so "never had to get permission from anyone, and if they asked, no way would we send them the script."

Hatcher is right: Most of Lewis' canon is designed to present aspects of Christian faith to unbelievers as persuasively as possible. "Mere Christianity" still sells 230,000 copies a year, and has been the turning point for untold numbers of converts (including, Hatcher told World, herself). Any biography could not omit this fact, but at present, biographers will have to say it in their own words, rather than Lewis' copyrighted ones.