Will The Big Screen Narnia Reboot Finally Get CS Lewis Right?
By Dan DeWitt
August 16, 2016
Last week, Deadline reported that a new installment of the Chronicles of Narnia franchise will take a different direction from the earlier, Disney-influenced films. Now, TriStar studios wants to reboot the Narnia films, starting with the next book-to-screen adaptation, The Silver Chair.
The first question when I read the news was, "Will they finally get C.S. Lewis right?"
No, probably not.
In fact, this might be more of a question of how wrong they will get the author of Narnia. Here’s why I don’t think the new film will get Lewis right:
The Trouble with Portraying the Characters Visually
First, as many before me have pointed out, Lewis opposed the idea of his anthropomorphic (human-like) animals being taken out their narrative context and presented in a visual medium. If it was a subpar quality he was concerned about, then his fears were realized in the late ‘80s when a television series based on the books featured human characters in cheap animal costumes.
The beloved Mr. Beaver was portrayed by a man in a barrel with some kind of flippers on his feet. It was bad. Really bad. Don’t believe the purists who say they enjoyed them. They’re lying.
Some argue Lewis would approve of movie adaptations if he could have known the quality of special effects and modern cinematography. I, for one, am not convinced. Lewis was pretty old school. He was hipster before hipsters were hipster.
Lewis was funny in that way. He wouldn’t use a typewriter, he preferred buttons to zippers, and he didn’t read the newspaper. Maybe that’s part of the reason he referred to himself as a dinosaur in his inaugural address at the University of Cambridge.
And if you only get one thing right about C.S. Lewis, you really should get Aslan right.
On the other hand, during WWII, Lewis was the voice of a radio program on the BBC, which later became the Christian classic Mere Christianity. In the early 1940s radio was about as high tech as you could get. So, he wasn’t entirely technology adverse. But radio was a medium in which the written word was still central. Perhaps that’s why Lewis, in a letter in December of 1959, approved of the radio version of the Narnia story that was also produced by the BBC.
But what about a movie version? From another letter, it seems Lewis might have been open to a cartoon version of Narnia. That’s been done now, too. You can watch it for yourself and be the judge. I can’t get my kids to sit through an entire episode. Yet my 9-year-old son, Isaiah, has read all of the Narnia stories multiple times. It’s clear what version captured his attention and stirred his imagination.
Capturing the Heart of the Books
There’s a second reason I don’t think the Narnia reboot will get Lewis right. I think the sorts of things they will try to correct or improve upon from previous films are not at the heart of what the previous movies got wrong. The earlier film adaptations didn’t get Lewis right either—some were worse than others—Prince Caspian worst of all. In the Caspian movie, Lewis’s vision of redemption is turned into something that Lewis wouldn’t recognize, let alone endorse.
But doesn’t all of this illustrate a simple point? Should we really expect Hollywood to be captivated by or even comprehend the Christian story of salvation? How can one capture the feeling of longing for Aslan’s country beyond Narnia’s rising sun, well, unless one longs for Aslan’s country beyond Narnia’s rising sun?
This brings me to a third related point, I’m not sure, apart from really understanding the importance of Aslan, as Lewis knew Him and loved him, that it is possible for a film company to get Lewis right. Lewis was known to refer to God as Aslan on regular occasion, and at times even to pray in Aslan’s name. Without knowing the great lion, and more importantly, the one for whom Aslan is a powerful symbol, it is inconceivable that they can get Lewis right.
How can one capture the feeling of longing for Aslan’s country beyond Narnia’s rising sun, well, unless one longs for Aslan’s country beyond Narnia’s rising sun?
This reminds me of a time I was talking to a relative who had just watched The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe after it was first released in theater. I remarked to them about how powerful I found the resurrection scene. I expected a similar response. They just looked at me as if I was speaking another language. It was awkward.
In the same way, unless the makers of the Narnia film know Aslan as Lewis knew him—better, as Lewis knows him—then I think there is fundamentally going to be something always off in every scene from start to finish. Lewis’s love for Aslan is an important part of what makes Narnia so powerful.
And now, in conclusion, I’m going to throw a wrench into this whole thing. I don’t think the reboot will get Lewis right but I’m not sure it has to. Here’s what I mean. A film is itself a piece of art. And I personally think filmmakers should have some artistic license.
I see the movie as more of a product inspired by the book and less of a forced visual replication. Different mediums have different needs. I don’t think they should make the movie using the books as some sort of verbatim script. Lewis didn’t write it as a stage play.
That’s why I tend to yawn when I see blog posts evaluating the Narnia films by citing the theatrical director’s sins of omission and commission in comparison to the originals. That’s not to say there isn’t room to critique along these lines. I just think there are a lot of inherent limitations for a movie to capture Lewis’s vision. Watching is different than reading.
Lewis didn’t make a movie. He wrote a book. And the movies his books have inspired are related, but are something different.
So, my advice: See the new film when it comes out. I know I will.
But if you want to get C.S. Lewis right—go to the source. Read his books. And who knows, maybe by coming to know Aslan in that world, you might come to know him in the real world as well. And if you only get one thing right about C.S. Lewis, you really should get Aslan right. That’s a pretty big deal.
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