Film: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis believed that people who encounter a good story will read it “ten, twenty, thirty times during the course of their lives,” and the same could be said of good films. In 1950, Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, initiating his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, and the children’s book has been reread endlessly, selling nearly 100 million copies. Now Walden Media has released its much-anticipated film version of Lewis’s fantasy story—an instant classic that will be seen and re-seen by grateful audiences.

Just as Walden promised, the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a faithful adaptation of Lewis’s tale about four British siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) who are evacuated to the countryside during the London Blitz. Soon afterward, they venture through a magical wardrobe into the cursed, always-winter kingdom of Narnia, where they eventually fight in the great struggle between good and evil.

The film is perfectly cast, and it seamlessly combines live action with sophisticated computer animation. The four children are excellent in their roles, and the performance of Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie is particularly powerful. Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, is the child of faith and resilient belief, and Henley captures her winsome charm, wide-eyed sense of wonder, and unwavering determination that eventually lead to her coronation as “Lucy the Valiant.” As the sinister White Witch, Tilda Swinton gives a stunning portrayal of evil—frigid yet neurotic, intense yet almost benumbed with sin. “I have no interest in prisoners,” she commands before the final battle; “kill them all.”

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe retells Lewis’s stirring tale with a care and craft that, just like the book, is intimate, enchanting, and epic. Particularly notable is the overall direction by Andrew Adamson (Shrek and Shrek 2), a one-time special effects supervisor who has readily adjusted to the demands of his first live-action film. Also admirable are the excellent screenplay adaptation by Ann Peacock and the spectacular cinematography of the distinguished director of photography Donald McAlpine (Peter Pan, The Man Without a Face, and Breaker Morant). This film, unlike the endlessly repetitious Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its tiresome battle scenes and its tedious nine-hour journey, builds naturally and subtly to its stunning final battle in which the boys appear as medieval Catholic knights.

While the many fans of the Narnia chronicles who had pre-release jitters about the film can now rest easily, their fears were well-founded. From 1993 until 2001, Paramount Studios had the rights to the Narnia novels and, at one point in the development, the novel, which is flush with Christian symbolism, had been completely secularized. The Pevensie children had metamorphized into contemporary Angelino children, the Blitz was replaced by an earthquake, the magical wardrobe became a swimming pool, and the Turkish Delight candy that seduces young Edmund was transformed into fast-food hamburgers. Needless to say, all of the Christian elements of the story were purged, and even the sacrificial death of Asian, the Christ figure, was removed from the narrative.

Fortunately, in 2001 the rights were secured by the newly formed Walden Media, dedicated to Christian family entertainment; and Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson and the director of the C. S. Lewis Company, was intimately involved with the project. About a year before its release, Disney was brought in as a 50-50 partner. Ironically, Disney had previously turned down the project on two occasions (as had most of the studios in Hollywood), primarily due to concerns about the book’s Christian content. But Walden managed to persuade the always politically correct Disney to come in primarily as a marketer and distributor—only after Disney had promised to respect Walden’s faithful approach.

Certainly, the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $400 million worldwide, encouraged Disney’s involvement, but Gibson’s daring film and the book’s Christian underpinnings led to much pre-release hand-wringing by secularists who feared that the film would be too Christian and too propagandistic, and who invariably cited Lewis’s well-known dislike of the term “allegory” for his novels. Lewis preferred the term “supposal”: “Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong, and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours), what might have happened?” What Lewis really feared was an overly simplistic or “literal” correspondence that might undermine the fantasy for his young readers, but he never denied the book’s Christian symbolism. On the contrary, he stated very clearly that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ” and that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was about “the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.”

C. S. Lewis had grown up in Belfast, reveling in the Irish folktales of his nurse, Lizzie Endicott, and enthralled by the tales of Beatrix Potter. Just as the young Bronte children had once done in their native Yorkshire, Lewis and his older brother Warren spent many marvelous hours in their youth concocting imaginary worlds. But Lewis, as he later discussed, had trouble as a child finding a connection with the Christ of the Gospels, whom he saw as a figure who, “unless He really is what He says He is, is not lovable or even tolerable.” Lewis also had difficulties with the “watchful dragons”—all those Christians who told him how he “should” respond to the Bible even when he couldn’t.

In his adolescence, Lewis fell into atheism, but he eventually returned to his Anglican faith, gently coaxed along by his Catholic friend Tolkien. When he did so, he strove to share the joy of his faith with others through his popular books like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, his numerous lectures, and his BBC broadcasts. But Lewis especially wanted to reach the children. He wanted to tell stories that would make it possible for them to experience various aspects of the Gospels in a symbolic and magical way—as a “prebaptism of the child’s imagination.” Lewis felt that if a child could encounter Asian without all the watchful dragons intervening, then the child would be better prepared to apprehend the meaning of the Gospels, even if the child didn’t recognize all the Christian symbolism while actually reading the Narnia stories.

As a result of Lewis’s efforts, countless children have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without realizing that it specifically relates to the Passion of Christ; generally, when they’re told about the symbolism afterwards, it further enhances the magic of the book without diminishing its imaginative power or charm. Fortunately, the movie version accomplishes exactly the same thing, just as Lewis would have wanted. Any child can enjoy this film as a marvelous flight of fancy that promotes justice, responsibility, familial loyalty, courage, and numerous other virtues, without any conscious awareness of the Christian symbolism rife in the movie. This is one of its most remarkable accomplishments, and, if Lewis’s methodology is correct, the film, like the book, will eventually lead some of its viewers to the Gospels.

Lewis, who died in 1963, had always been wary of seeing his Narnia books brought to film. He was, as he put it, “rather allergic to film,” being especially concerned that visualizing a story on screen would inhibit the imagination of the viewing child. Certainly we know that this can be true, but the new version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is so emotionally and imaginatively stimulating that it’s most likely that Lewis, like his loyal stepson, would have been pleasantly surprised.


  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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