The lion, the witch, and the evangelistic opportunity

02 November 2006

In the US, churches and mission agencies are gearing up to use Hollywood’s version of C. S. Lewis’s famous allegorical tale as a key mission opening. So is the same thing happening in the UK? Malcolm Doney looks at how the Church is responding on both sides of the Atlantic


WHAT do The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ have in common? At first sight, not much. One is a children’s fantasy written by a middle-aged Oxford don; the other is a gory depiction of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.But the signs are that Disney, the co-producer of The Chronicles of Narnia with Walden Media, hopes to emulate the surprise popularity of Mel Gibson’s Easter blockbuster, and fill the yawning gap left at Christmas by successive instalments of The Lord of the Rings.

The key to the success of The Passion of the Christ was the way in which American Christians mobilised their congregations and their "seeker" audiences to see the film — arranging special showings and building evangelistic events around the screenings.

With figures approaching 40-per-cent church attendance in the US, this is an audience worth courting. And that is precisely what Disney is doing with its pre-publicity for the long-awaited The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Strategic Christian opinion-formers have been shown a rough version of the movie in recent months, in order to gain their approbation. After this — between now and the release date, 9 December — a rolling programme of "Narnia sneak-peek" previews are being offered to Christian leaders in order to feed their enthusiasm for the film and to  encourage their constituency to get behind it.

Outreach organisations in the US, such as the Mission America Coalition, have been gearing up to use C. S. Lewis’s wartime tale of evacuee children, who find access to the kingdom of Narnia through a dusty wardrobe, as an evangelistic tool.

"As Christians, we have the opportunity in Narnia to follow the example of our Lord by sharing the parables of our day through the technology of motion pictures," the coalition’s website states. "In this wonderful parable, Lewis pictured a land like Narnia, and then imagined what would happen if the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a lion there — a lion named Aslan. The imagery of this film is compelling, as is the opportunity to explain its true meaning to seekers in our own generation."


Church Communication Network, another mission organisation, has none less than C. S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, touring the country as part of the Narnia Outreach Training event, explaining ways in which churches can make the most of the Christian themes in the book, in order to present people with the gospel.

SO WHAT IS it that everyone is getting so excited about? After all, this is not the first version of T he Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to hit the screen. As far back as the 1960s, ATV made a version for British television, which Warren Lewis, the brother of Jack (as C. S. was called in the family), reputedly took a shine to. A decade later, in 1979, Bill Melendez, the director of the Peanuts TV cartoon series, made an animated film in the US which divides opinion to this day, largely owing to its transatlantic accents and its alarmingly yellow cartoon Aslan. In 1988, the BBC made a credible attempt, let down by a combination of its small budget, the relatively primitive technology available, and a too-cuddly Aslan.

This new film has the enviable legacy of technology and expertise developed by The Lord of the Rings. Like the Tolkien classic, this is a mixture of live action and computer-generated images (CGI). Lewis learned from his friend Tolkien the value of myth and story, particularly the creation of other worlds — like Tolkien’s Middle Earth — that can hold up a mirror to ours; and inevitably the two productions take a similar approach.

Weta, the special-effects team who worked on the Tolkien trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, has also been responsible for shaping the 60 or so different species, from fauns to unicorns, to populate Narnia. And again like Middle Earth, New Zealand doubles for a fantasy land where good makes war on evil, and love and sacrifice conquer all.

In a nice verbal twist, the director is one Andrew Adamson: in Narnia, humans are known as "the sons and daughters of Adam". His name is coincidental — he was chosen because he directed both Shrek movies ( Shrek 2 was the largest-grossing film of 2004).

"The Chronicles of Narnia were an important part of my childhood, just as they are to millions of fans around the world," says Mr Adamson. "I hope to bring to the screen a movie that is as real to the audience as Narnia was to me as a child." He also said he was less worried about sticking rigidly to the text than making a film "based on my recollection of the book".

If this worries ardent fans, they can be reassured by the presence as executive producer of Mr Gresham, who guards the Lewis flame and has waited patiently for this moment.

"Making the movie has been a dearly held ambition and project for me for about 30 years," he said. "My children remember me dreaming, scheming, planning, and talking about it all their lives; so every aspect of it is important to me." As Lewis’s "creative ambassador", he is satisfied that the production is worthy of its author, who was no fan of the cinema.


The White Witch, (Tilda Swinton), with the betrayer Edmund in a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (above); all the children in Narnia (below)

 Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter Pevensie are played by British actors in a cast dominated by British or Irish voices. The evil White Witch, Jadis, is played by Tilda Swinton, and the voice of Aslan is Liam Neeson.

"Making the movie has been a dearly held ambition and project for me for about 30 years," he said. "My children remember me dreaming, scheming, planning, and talking about it all their lives; so every aspect of it is important to me." As Lewis’s "creative ambassador", he is satisfied that the production is worthy of its author, who was no fan of the cinema.


The White Witch, (Tilda Swinton), with the betrayer Edmund in a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (above); all the children in Narnia (below)

The unlikely pairing of Ray Winstone and Dawn French speak the lines of Mr and Mrs Beaver. Rupert Everett (the Fox), Jim Broadbent (Professor Kirke), and James McAvoy (Mr Tumnus) also feature.

The problematic depiction of Aslan — judging by material released so far — looks to have been more than solved. His majestic features already appear on the film’s website alongside a short trailer and feature material. Walden Media, who actually made the film, hold options on the remaining books in The Chronicles of Narnia; but this is no guarantee that our next six Christmases will be populated by puddleglums, marshwiggles, and an assortment of talking creatures. The smart money is on Prince Caspian as a sequel, but there is no definite commitment this side of seeing how successful the first film is.

HARPERCOLLINS, which since 1999 has held worldwide rights to The Chronicles of Narnia (the same publisher owns The Lord of the Rings, too), is bringing out new movie tie-in editions of the seven stories, some simply with film stills on the cover, but others with additional photographic material from the making of the movie.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has already sold 95 million copies in 41 languages, and speculation about the potential success of the film has turned attention to other possible spin-offs. Rumours surfaced earlier this year in The Sunday Times that the C. S. Lewis Company (the trading arm of the Lewis estate) had given permission to HarperCollins to produce children’s picture books based on Narnia characters with storylines supplied by other writers.

There was even a suggestion that fantasy writers might be offered the chance to write more Narnia chronicles to fill in the spaces between the existing volumes — but the Harper-Collins publishing director, David Brawn, says that this is news to him. "There are plenty of C. S. Lewis titles to go round without trying to do anything else. We have absolutely no plans in that direction at the moment."

Most of Lewis’s ardent fans, seeing the prospect of other writers’ meddling with the canon, would consider it sacrilege. The Chronicles of Narnia are extremely precious to their legions of readers, especially in this country. And the film is awaited with eager anticipation.


All the children in Narnia

PREPARATIONS for its advent on this side of the Atlantic are more muted than those in the United States. Nevertheless, Church Publishing Outreach (CPO) has produced a pre-release pack for churches, Discover His Majesty, designed to "encourage people to go and see the film and to invite people to your church to hear a single message or a series". It includes a "what-to-do" guide, and sermon outlines.

Russ Bravo, CPO’s development director, said churches have reacted positively. "Churches over here are planning Narnia-themed services, holding Narnia children’s parties, and encouraging church members to invite [others]. Judging from orders we’ve had so far, there seems to be a real enthusiasm for finding ways of retelling the Christian story from within the framework of Lewis’s classic tale."

Disney UK is not offering "sneak peeks" for church leaders, and its marketing tone to the Christian market is in a much lower key. Disney in the US is essentially marketing the production as a Christian allegory, and encouraging the churches to own it. It might take a different tack if Christians represented a more powerful, discrete segment here, but there are also other considerations.

In the UK, the Narnia books are seen as children’s classics, set alongside the books of E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, and Richmal Crompton. They are seen essentially as stories.

"Lewis did not intend The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an allegory, like Pilgrim’s Progress," says Colin Duriez, a Lewis expert and author of A Field Guide to Narnia, recently published by Sutton. "With Bunyan you’d have a more conscious one-to-one correspondence between a symbolic character and what it meant."

In Lewis, he continues, "The Christian elements, which are undoubtedly there, come naturally into the storytelling. They are not artificially imposed on the story. In fact, many children read the story without realising there’s a Christian meaning at all, which shows the story itself has the power to carry you along.

"There’s a danger, especially in the States, with all this evangelistic material, that you can encourage people to read the books in the wrong way. So they’re looking at them as illustrations of Christian truths. Though there are parallels there, I’d be quite concerned if it went too far."

Nevertheless, Mr Duriez believes that Lewis’s intentions, which he hopes will be carried through to the screen, do have spiritual resonances with today’s children — adults, too.

The scholarly Lewis filled his stories with characters from the pagan and Hellenistic worlds, and these, Mr Duriez argues, are central to Lewis’s use of the imagination. "Long before Lewis became a Christian, he was attracted to pagan myths. With Tolkien’s help, he came to realise that many of these myths prefigure the Christian narrative. One of the elements is the idea of the dying god, which Lewis found in many mythologies — and there’s something of the dying God in the figure of Aslan, which gives it an imaginative power."

Lewis, Mr Duriez believes, "felt that modern people needed to be almost paganised in order to receive the Christian gospel, because they’d built so many barriers to receiving it. Having a dose of pagan imagination might help prepare the ground for the Christian gospel."

Conservative Christian congregations in Bible-Belt America, or in Britain, too, might be less sure that pagan ideas could be a legitimate pathway to Christ. But it certainly reflects Lewis’s own pathway to faith.

Russ Bravo agrees that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a "Christian" film. "I’d see it primarily as a fantastic children’s story that captures the imagination through the creation of this magical ‘other world’, and the journey of discovery the children go on as they enter it and engage with it." But, he insists, "to Christians, the symbolism is there for us to find ways of mirroring some of the gospel story."

In a Britain where many children do not know the significance of Christmas, let alone Easter, the symbolism may pass much of the audience by. But whatever reading the book is given, the sense of expectation is intense, even in Mr Gresham, whose stepfather wrote it. "Fans of the series have been waiting for generations for a film that faithfully adapts the Narnia books for the screen," he said. "Disney and Walden are a perfect match for the magical world that C. S. Lewis created, and we’re as excited to see the movie as everyone else is."

The world charity première of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 7 December. The film goes on general release in UK cinemas on 9 December.

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