12.10.2005

Flap about Narnia

I loved The Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid. I have, in a box somewhere in storage, a nice set of all the books in the series, which I avidly read and thoroughly enjoyed. I didn't understand its Christian undertones then; all I knew was that I found the Stone Table scene deeply disturbing, and the Aslan-as-lamb image vaguely confusing -- it reminded me of something, but I wasn't sure what.

Now, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is being made into another epic fantasy movie along the lines of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and the religiosity of the series is a big concern. It can't be just another high fantasy adventure like it was for me in my youthful ignorance -- there is no way to secularize Narnia. There are going to be Issues.

The movie is being actively marketed to and through religious groups, in the same way as The Passion of the Christ, if you can believe it. I am a bit aghast, but not much surprised. A Guardian article, "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion: Children won't get the Christian subtext, but unbelievers should keep a sickbag handy during Disney's new epic", pulls apart the religious aura suffusing the books and, subsequently, the movie.

US born-agains are using the movie. The Mission America Coalition is "inviting church leaders around the country to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film". The president's brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, is organising a scheme for every child in his state to read the book. Walden Media, co-producer of the movie, offers a "17-week Narnia Bible study for children". The owner of Walden Media is both a big Republican donor and a donor to the Florida governor's book promotion - a neat synergy of politics, religion and product placement. It has aroused protests from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which complains that "a governmental endorsement of the book's religious message is in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution".

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and fervent atheist, was outspoken in his hatred and criticism of Narnia. An article in The Chronicle Review, "For the Love of Narnia", attempts to defend the series by refuting some of Pullman's charges, including the complaint that in Lewis's world, "Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-colored people are better than dark-colored people; and so on."

Lewis's approach in The Chronicles was deeply rooted in his own experience. A crucial element in his conversion was a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien in which Lewis became persuaded that the many and, to him, deeply moving ancient myths in which a god dies and is reborn to save his people had "really happened" when Jesus was crucified and resurrected, placing Christianity squarely at the intersection of myth and history. Lewis had an enormous regard for pagan myths, both for their marvelous stories and for the truths about origins, aspirations, and purpose he found embedded in them. In writing The Chronicles, in which the divine lion Aslan is slain to save a treacherous child and then triumphantly resurrected, Lewis was trying to write a myth of his own that had all the excitement and truth of other myths, including the Christian one.

Many children seem to have read The Chronicles as Laura Winner, in Slate, remembers herself and her friends doing, as simply "a riveting tale." Some children — the books have sold more than 95 million copies, after all — presumably have experienced, in Lewis's phrase, the "pre-baptism of the child's imagination" that Lewis hoped and Pullman fears would someday open their ears to the Christian story. But where's the offense in that? For Pullman, it seems, Lewis's offense was merely to love what Pullman hates.


An IndyStar article, "5th Narnia book may not see big screen", discusses some of the problems of representing Lewis's eurocentric, orientalist visions in the culturally problematic The Horse and His Boy, should Disney attempt to make movies out of the whole Narnia series.

The book, first published in 1954, may never get to the screen, at least not in anything resembling its literary form. It's just too dreadful. While the book's storytelling virtues are enormous, you don't have to be a bluestocking of political correctness to find some of this fantasy anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern, or anti-Ottoman. With all its stereotypes, mostly played for belly laughs, there are moments you'd like to stuff this story back into its closet.

In its simplest form, the plot seems mild enough. A boy named Shasta, raised in the southern land of Calormen and sold into slavery by a simple fisherman who claims to be his father, runs off with a talking horse from the free northern kingdom of "Narnia."

But the land of Calormen is not simply a bad place to be from. Worse, the people are bad -- or most of them, anyway -- and they're bad in pretty predictable ways. Calormen is ruled by a despotic Tisroc and a band of swarthy lords with pointy beards, turbaned heads, long robes and nasty dispositions. Calormen is dirty, hot, dull, superstitious. In truth, it's pretty unsettling.


Finally, a word from the author himself: apparently, a 1959 letter to a BBC radio producer reveals that Lewis was uncomfortable with the idea of his works ever being rendered onscreen, according to a BBC News article.

"Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare," he wrote.

"Cartoons (if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!) would be another matter."

He added that he would find a "human, pantomime" version of Aslan the lion to be "blasphemy".


Online literary mag Nthposition has the entire letter.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous orangeguru:

Thanks for this entry. I am also suprised by the use of Narnia for Christians. Lewis certainly wrote many great christian books, but Narnia is closer to the 'enemey' as some christian people would like it.

16:46  
Blogger bluewyvern:

Lewis actually did have some very specific aims in writing the Narnia series. It wasn't just that his religious leanings happened to seep through an unrelated fantasy series; he was trying to write a work that would be useful to Christianity, making purposeful use of Christian themes and motifs.

I enjoyed it anyway. I may in the future make a post about things made explicitly by Christians for Christians, but which I found enjoyable on their own, discarding the message; there are a quite a few such things I could name.

17:23  
Anonymous Lynn S:

~sigh~ This sort of thing is starting to make me tired... just tired. Why can't we just let kids have entertainment for entertainment's sake?

I haven't read the book. Maybe I'll just read it and skip the movie.

14:17  
Blogger Maktaaq:

I too enjoyed the books as a child and missed out all the Christian references despite being in a Catholic school at the time. I resent that it is a Christian work (I am now happily atheist) and spoiling the fun of mythology.

I am glad you brought up "The Horse and His Boy," which I also own and find insufferable. I also own a copy of Edward Said's "Orientalism" and should probably read both side by side.

Grr. This makes me really angry. I better stop writing...

22:16  
Blogger bluewyvern:

At least Lewis was interested in mythologies other than his Christian one...he did say he was trying to do justice to all myths (which can be seen in the proliferation of other creatures populating Narnia...fauns, centaurs, etc.)

He's not a strict dogmatist and I think his work does have a lot of merit. The things he talks about trying to do with Narnia are interesting -- creating a world in which God must save man, writing the intersection of myth and history, etc. (these are paraphrases from the articles). It's genuine literary endeavor. Contrast, say, a church member who slaps together a quick, flimsy story for the sole purpose of conveying a single religious message to a roomful of wide-eyed Bible schoolers. If evangelicals today weren't so rabid about using Narnia as a promotional tool to recruit children, I don't think it would be that bad at all. There are loads of writers who wrote with religious aims, with pretty wonderful results...Dante, anyone?

Hmm, I wonder how religious groups would treat a cinematic adaptation of the Inferno...

10:53  
Anonymous Anonymous:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

09:03  
Blogger bluewyvern:

If you are going to comment here, I ask two things:

1. that you introduce yourself, and
2. that you be civil.

I heard once that blog comments should be treated like a living room, and you shouldn't say anything in a comment you wouldn't say while a guest in someone's house. Seems like a good guideline to me.

09:06  
Anonymous Anonymous:

. here, occasional visitor directed here first by 2Blowhards, and closer than you know.

Frankly I don't see a problem with the film. I have a much bigger issue with Pullman's aggressive proselytizing and condescending attitude, and in general with the propagandistic attempts to portray any Christian message as insufferable moralizing and theocracy in lamb's skin. I'm a religious studies person (not in the sense of theological school, but history & practice of all relgions), and I find the media treatment of TLTWATW/Christianity pretty insulting.

13:16  
Blogger bluewyvern:

I agree, the Guardian article is pretty extreme. Most of the rest of what I've seen has taken a much more moderate position, though. I'm an unbeliever, and I didn't feel I needed the "sickbag" during the film -- my most extreme reaction was annoyance at typical Disney vapidness. Narnia could have been a much more interesting movie, but so much of it felt like the same old flat, cliched fare that passes for family entertainment these days. The movie itself clearly didn't have any agenda...it was more or less faithful to what Lewis set down on the page (and to family movie formulas), and any Christianity-pushing anyone might perceive in the film is largely imposed from without.

20:41  

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