2016-06-30
"I'm a bit burned out on it all already." Those were the surprising words a dear friend--and the biggest fan I know of all things C.S. Lewis--said to me in confidence this week. She was referring to the cultural tidal wave that is accompanying the upcoming release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," the first in what is intended to be a several-movie, blockbuster franchise for Disney and Walden Media.

Sadly, I know exactly what she means. In the midst of multiple movie soundtracks, dozens of companion books to the movie (in case I have missed any theological insight up until this point), TV specials, and magazine articles, it is easy to already be at the "Narnia" saturation point. And, as I write, the movie still doesn't open for two more weeks. So for those of us who grew up loving the Narnia books and their message of redemption and sacrifice, the movie marketing blitz presents an interesting dilemma.

Will the temporal and shallow hype from the studio--as well as churches--overshadow what is timeless and eternal about this classic story? What will happen when Hollwood gets its hands on the Turkish Delight and the Stone Table--not to mention Aslan and the White Witch?

It was this very concern that kept me from jumping up and down with joy when-- post- "Lord of the Rings" and pre- "Passion of the Christ"--I heard that a big-screen adaptation of "Chronicles" was on the horizon. Narnia fans already have suffered through several embarrassingly mediocre and cheesy small-screen adaptations of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," but now we were faced with the possibility of Hollywood turning this magic kingdom into nothing more than a theme-park ride in which all symbolic or spiritual meaning is lost.

Of course, Hollywood has lately found great success--critical and financial--with epics such as "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter." And religious believers may find spiritual significance in those stories. But their authors' intentions have always been up for debate. Not so with Lewis and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." To Lewis, Aslan is meant as a Christ figure--and one unlike most depictions of Jesus. In the novel, Aslan is one moment fierce and powerful, while the next moment he is playing tag with the children on the mountainside. This is not a traditional literary representation of a god-like figure. To portray Aslan completely is, in my opinion, a much greater challenge than portraying Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" or even Dumbledore from "Harry Potter." They are symbolic of wisdom and sacrifice but are basically one-note archetypes, unlike the multifaceted Aslan.

Which brings me to another concern about all the hype surrounding the movie: merchandising. Call me a purist, but it's difficult not to be a little concerned about things such as Aslan plush toys, Mr. Tumnus action figures, and Narnia video games where you battle the White Witch. If these characters, who I believe have deeply symbolic meaning, are reduced to nothing more than items on a kid's Christmas wish-list this season, they risk losing their power to have an impact on newcomers to the story.

Unfortunately, seeing how the Christian community has handled promotion of the Narnia movie has not put my mind at ease. Because of Lewis's background as a theologian, various Christian organizations--borrowing strategies used to promote 'The Passion of the Christ"--have developed evangelistic materials, from tracts to study guides, as tools to articulate how the movie illustrates the gospel message. Churches have scheduled special events around the opening of "Chronicles of Narnia," and they're engaging in missionary outreach to sell this movie to the general public.

Am I sounding a bit too much like Edmund?
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  • As part of that evangelical community, I respect other Christians' enthusiasm for sharing their feelings about this beloved story. I am all in favor of pointing people to what is good, pure, and true; pointing them--not beating them over the head with it. My biggest fear is that in an overzealous attempt to use "Narnia" as some kind of special marketing tool, churches will deny others, who may not agree with a Christian interpretation of the story, their chance to discover for themselves the depth of meaning(s) in the tale. And coming to it yourself is is always more rewarding and lasting in the end.

    If I am sounding a bit too pessimistic, a bit too grumpy, and just a little bit "Edmund"-like, not to worry. My feelings of Narnia burn-out subside from time to time, and my enthusiasm to see the Wood Between the Worlds brought to life on screen returns. And certainly I know many other people who aren't feeling Narnia overload at all. They are counting the days until they can attend the movie with the ones they love. This book, like perhaps no other so-called children's book, has connected people across generational lines. I have friends who are bringing parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins to watch this movie as a communal experience.

    Plus, I have had no concerns about the movie itself. Once it was established that Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, was to be involved from the very beginning of the movie's production, I put aside any fears. He would see to it, I was sure, that the director and other producers wouldn't stray too far from the heart of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe." At the same time, I found it comforting to know that the director and producers would be there to keep Gresham in check and prevent this movie from being too overtly preachy or self-indulgent. The clips I have already seen of the movie seem to bear witness to its having achieved this balance.

    So the only real unanswered question in my mind in the midst of the Narnia madness is what will happen to "The Chronicles of Narnia" after it has left the movie theaters, when the toys have been forgotten and the church rallies have ended. What will movie-goers take away from this portrayal of the story? And why should it matter so much? For me, the success of "The Chronicles of Narnia" is not simply about the box office numbers being big enough to encourage Hollywood to continue making movies that appeal to a faith-based audience. That would be a bonus, to be sure. But more than that, this movie adapation matters because it depicts a story that is a spiritual touchstone for many of us. Narnia is a place we revisit often to get our spiritual moorings.

    While Tolkien's MiddleEarth may be an exciting place to read about or even visit, I never imagined myself living there as one of the hobbits. But I would be glad to spend time in the land of Narnia, talking with the animals and playing with Aslan and asking him questions about life. My hope for this movie is that it will become a touchstone for those who haven't already learned to love Narnia. And while I suspect some people will treat the novel and the movie as nothing more than a fad, moving on to the next big thing splashed across the latest magazine covers, my hope is that for those who, as the Bible says, "have ears to hear," the magic as well as the message of the movie will last long after the closing credits.

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