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C.S. Lewis and Narnia: Faith Beyond the Wardrobe
By Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
A new film version of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe debuts this month. Its Christian author is more popular than ever.

Q U I C K S C A N

Entering the Wardrobe
A Tale for Parents and Children
The Life of C.S. Lewis
Faith, Family and Film
A C.S. Lewis Filmography

 

Photo © 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Walden Media, LLC

ONE DAY, when he was having a meal in a hotel dining room, C.S. Lewis said a little too loudly, “I loathe prunes.”

“So do I,” said a six-year-old child from another table.

“Sympathy was instantaneous,” wrote Lewis in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children. “Neither of us thought it was funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities.”

This attitude toward communicating with children is characteristic of C.S. Lewis. On December 9, 2005, the C.S. Lewis Estate with Walden Media and Walt Disney Studios will release the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—a gift from C.S. Lewis to children.

St. Anthony Messenger sat down with the Boston staff of Walden Media to talk with them about their company, mission and co-production of the film.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is directed and co-written by Andrew Adamson, who also co-directed the Oscar-winning Shrek, and co-wrote and co-directed Shrek 2. The visual effects are crafted by the Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based team behind the special effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“It’s the final touches that will make it feel like it was made by the craftsmen of Narnia. We hope that we play our small part in creating a world that feels cohesive and real and breathing for the audiences to enjoy,” says Richard Taylor, founder of the Weta Workshop.

Adapting books into film is always risky business. Walden Media itself has experienced box-office disappointments with such films as Around the World in 80 Days and I Am David. Some viewers say the film versions are too literal, others say not literal enough.

Walden and Disney hit box-office gold, however, with Holes, along with Because of Winn-Dixie, which is doing well in DVD sales. In the noisy and busy world of cinema entertainment, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe promises to hold its own.

Entering the Wardrobe

The story begins in a train station in London when the German army is bombing the city almost every night. Four children—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—are evacuated to the country estate of old Professor Digory Kirke.

One day, while playing hide-and-seek in the professor’s huge home, Lucy opens the door of a large wardrobe to hide from her siblings. As she makes her way through the coats and clothes, she accidentally steps into a world called Narnia.

Lucy discovers from a talking faun that Narnia is a land in perpetual winter—with no Christmas—because it has been cursed by the evil White Witch. The faun makes Lucy go back through the wardrobe to protect her from the witch. She discovers that no time has passed since she entered the wardrobe.

Edmund independently happens upon Narnia and tells the witch about his siblings, so she persuades him to return with the others. He manages to do this by lying to his brother and sisters.

When they discover this, they are angry at Edmund. He decides to get even by turning them over to the witch who recognizes them—as do all the creatures of Narnia—as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve” and as threats to her throne.

When Lucy finds out that the witch has imprisoned the faun, the children set out to help him. As they journey, they find out that the great lion Aslan—the foe of the evil witch—has returned to Narnia.

Then something magical happens. Father Christmas, absent for many years, returns to Narnia just as the snow melts and new life bursts forth. Edmund goes off to betray his siblings and realizes too late that the witch is evil. He is trapped by the consequences of his poor choices.

Peter, Susan and Lucy meet Aslan at the great Stone Table and tell him what Edmund has done. By now the witch is preparing to kill Edmund because she considers him a traitor, but Aslan’s many friends save him.

The White Witch tells Aslan that Narnia’s Deep Magic permits her to take a traitor’s life. Aslan decides to give his life for Edmund’s and is slain on the Stone Table. But then, through an even deeper magic, Aslan is resurrected. A great battle ensues and destinies are fulfilled.

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A Tale for Parents and Children

Mary Margaret Keaton, author of Imagining Faith With Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Stories From Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter (Pauline Books and Media, Boston), writes:

“For Christians the allegory is obvious: Aslan represents Christ, who offered his life in place of ours, whose death and resurrection won our freedom and redemption. In Aslan’s loneliness and sorrow, we recognize Jesus’ agony in the garden; in his humiliation and shearing, Jesus’ passion; and of course, in Aslan’s resurrection, the Easter story.”

In her book, Keaton, a wife, mother, journalist and catechist, shows how the story provides parents with ideas for meaningful conversations with their children. Some of these include acknowledging the struggles children have when figuring out right from wrong, the difference between lying and telling the truth, anger and asking for and giving forgiveness, courage, goodness and much more.

C.S. Lewis expert, author and professor David C. Downing calls this dimension of Lewis’s work “moral psychology” within the spiritual vision of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Many of Lewis’s colleagues were shocked when he began publishing books for children. Critics thought he wrote tales of Christian allegory, but he denied this in his book Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

“This is pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.”

The Life of C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis, nicknamed Jack, was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, Albert James, was an attorney. His mother, Flora Augusta, died in 1908, when Jack was 10 and his brother, Warren or “Warnie,” was 13. That year, both boys were sent to Wynyard School in England.

Lewis developed an appreciation for Norse mythology. By 1913, he had abandoned his Christian faith.

In 1916, after two years of studying literature and philosophy with a tutor, Lewis won a scholarship to University College, Oxford. He served in the British army during World War I, was wounded in France and returned to duty in England. He resumed his studies at Oxford in January 1919 and received degrees in Greek and Latin literature in 1920, philosophy and ancient history in 1922, and English in 1923.

Lewis began teaching at Oxford in 1924 and remained there until he accepted a post at Cambridge University in 1954. He published his first book, Dymer—a lengthy narrative poem—in 1926. In 1929, he became a theist: “In Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.” Lewis’s father died that year.

One September evening in 1931 he had a long conversation about Christianity with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Lewis became a Christian the next day. He wrote about this moment in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life: “When we [Lewis and his brother] set out [to visit a zoo via motorcycle], I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and when we reached the zoo, I did.”

Lewis’s prodigious literary output that lasted all his life was about to begin, influenced by his knowledge and love for Greek, Norse and Roman mythology, literature and history.

In the fall of 1933, Lewis and several of his friends formed a group called “The Inklings” which was, originally, a group of Oxford dons who wrote Christian fiction. For 16 years Tolkien and others would meet thrice a week.

Beginning in 1941, Lewis gave radio talks on the BBC that were later published and became the basis for his book Mere Christianity in 1952. A new edition of these talks is being released in January by HarperCollins under the title C.S. Lewis Goes to War: The World War II Broadcasts That Riveted a Nation and Became the Classic Mere Christianity, by Justin Phillips.

During World War II some children from London were sent to live with Lewis. He was surprised at how few stories they knew, so in 1950 he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume of what would be the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia.

“To publish a book for children that referred to these recent events was pretty amazing,” says Randy Testa of Walden Media, “both morally and imaginatively. It would be like starting a children’s story today that referred to September 11, 2001. But he had his reasons for this that he explained in his essay on writing for children.”

On April 23, 1956, Lewis married American poet and divorcée Joy Gresham in a civil ceremony to prevent her from being deported by British officials. She was a convert from Judaism to Christianity, a fact which she attributed to reading Lewis’s books.

In December, while Joy was hospitalized for bone cancer, they were married according to the rites of the Church of England. After almost three years of remission, Joy’s cancer returned. Before her death on July 13, 1960, at the age of 45, they traveled to Ireland and Greece together.

C.S. Lewis resigned from Cambridge during the summer of 1963, suffering from a variety of ailments. He died at his home called “The Kilns” in Oxfordshire on Friday, November 22, 1963.

Faith, Family and Film

This past July, I spoke about the new film with Micheal Flaherty, Walden’s president and co-founder; Randy Testa, Ed.D., vice president for education and professional development; and Deborah Kovacs, vice president of the publishing division and project director of the film.

Will this new feature-length version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe deal with the back story that C.S. Lewis told in The Magician’s Nephew?

Testa: Not directly. Careful viewers will note that the film nods to the story C.S. Lewis wrote in 1955 (five years after the first volume of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), by the carvings in the door of the wardrobe that tell the whole story of The Magician’s Nephew.

Will there be sequels to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

Kovacs: We hope so.

Do you think that the film will appeal to college students?

Testa: Some of the stories, the novels, that we come to as kids stay with us for the rest of our lives. They are timeless, like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Good children’s literature stays with us as grown-ups. We think that this film will appeal to all those who loved C.S. Lewis’s novel as children.

Why should older folks see this film?

Testa: Because it is a reaffirmation of humanity, of all that is good and important in human beings. Lewis valued and felt it was important to nourish the imagination. Like eating and drinking, the imagination needs nourishment no matter how old a person is.

So this is a film for all ages?

Testa: I think we truly have a film for all audiences. This is the joy and the delight of this film.

How conscious will the film be of the story as a Christian allegory?

Testa: Like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you can read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in many ways. This is the beauty of reading texts. As American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “In a good short story the message of the story goes on expanding the more a reader thinks about it.”

This is also what Jesus was up to with the parables. The more you think about them, the more they mean to you. What you bring to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is what you will get out of it. Our goal is to interpret the book faithfully into a film that audiences will delight in, at whatever level or dimensions they choose.

What is special about this production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

Testa: There are multiple levels of the realms and cultures represented in the book, including 40 different species of creatures that inhabit the world Lewis created. New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, the same company that produced the visual effects for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, did the preliminary designs for many of the characters that populate the film.

The characters were actually built and animated by Howard Berger. But there is only one door that leads to another world, and that is an authentic imagining of Lewis’s classic for today’s viewing audiences.

What is the purpose of fantasy, whether in books or films?

Testa: The purpose of fantasy, according to Lewis, is to heighten the child’s sense of reality and to explore and try on life through the imagination.

How is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe different from the Harry Potter books?

Testa: C.S. Lewis probably influenced J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, though their approaches are quite different. Fantasy—the world inside the real world—is a literary tradition that goes way back in English history, a rich mine to excavate.

Lewis uses storytelling as a teaching tool. He was a caring adult who tried to help children make sense of the bad things that had happened to them during World War II when London was bombed. This caused them to be separated from their parents and evacuated to the countryside to live with strangers.

What else is there that prompted Lewis to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

Testa: He was a man of faith with a compassionate nature who reached out to children. He believed that by writing this “fairy tale,” as he termed it, he could create hope for the future. The atomic bomb was the biggest moral event of his times. Five years later he wanted to give children a gift, something to look forward to and a way to resolve this moral reality through story.

When Aslan is killed in the story, it seems to be very violent. So what rating are you hoping for from the MPAA?

Testa: We are hoping for a PG rating. As to this question of suitability, I’ll defer to C.S. Lewis who wrote, “A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children’s literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened.

“They may mean that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is hopeless...or they may mean that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.”

Micheal, you have a reputation as a “passionate educational reformer”—an innovator who believes in empowering children. When did this “call” come to you to see education as the key to life?

Flaherty: When William Bulger was the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, I was an aide who specialized in education. I read all the legislation relating to education so I came to know the role of government in public education.

Then I taught nights and weekends in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and I found that there was a “great divorce” between educational theory and practice in the classroom. I found this great deficit when working with kids: They were not excited about education, about learning.

Was this how you got the idea to form Walden Media?

Flaherty: Yes. In 2001 Cary Granat, a film executive, and I approached Philip Anschutz, a Denver businessman with numerous media holdings, to help us bring Walden Media into being. Our goal is to bring young people especially to literature and learning through movies that re-imagine classics, to help kids get excited about learning.

Many of us here are parents and educators ourselves and we want to provide these kinds of experiences for our own children as well. As we say on our Web site, we believe that quality entertainment is inherently educational.

What are some of the other projects that Walden Media has produced and is planning for the future?

Testa: We have produced several films since 2002, including Ghosts of the Abyss, Holes, I Am David, Around the World in 80 Days and Because of Winn-Dixie. These are all available on DVD. Upcoming films are Charlotte’s Web, Hoot, based on the Newbery award-winning book by Carl Hiaasen, Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, and an upcoming adaptation of the best-seller How to Eat Fried Worms.

What resources are available about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the faith community?

Kovacs: There is a Web site created by Motive Media whose firm is helping to promote the film to the faith community. A Web site (www.NarniaResources.com) has been created especially for “leaders of schools, churches, groups and organizations who wish to utilize the film as an outreach or teaching opportunity.”

Is either the book or the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about peace?

Testa: The story is about goodness, which is the essence of peace.

A C.S. Lewis Filmography

Shadowlands, 1993. Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The film was written by William Nicholson, a biopic based on his play.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1979, PBS. Directed by Bill Melendez.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1988, BBC. Directed by Marilyn Fox.

The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis, 2002. PBS (now on DVD). This is an Emmy-nominated documentary on the life of C.S. Lewis, narrated by Ben Kingsley.

The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C.S. Lewis, 2004, Walden Media and PBS. With Dr. Armand Nicholi, this is an award-winning documentary that explores the basic spiritual and philosophical questions that people face on a daily basis—with responses drawn from the writings of both men.

Rose Pacatte, F.S.P., is a media-literacy education specialist. She has an M.Ed. in media studies from the University of London, a certificate in pastoral communications from the University of Dayton and a diploma in catechetics. She writes the “Eye on Entertainment” column for St. Anthony Messenger.


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