Voyages into unmapped Narnia tales

During the press events for the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson said one wise thing over and over when talking about the legacy of writer J.R.R. Tolkien. In a session in which I was present, he put it this way:

"We didn't make it as a spiritual film, but here is what we did do," said Jackson, who is a co-writer and co-producer as well as the director of the project. "Tolkien was a very religious man. But we made a decision a long time ago that we would never knowingly put any of our own baggage into these films. ... What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien, but without really emphasizing one thing over another. We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

The goal is to retain the timeless quality of the books, said Jackson.

Jackson knew that the movies could not be carbon copies of the books.

Yet he also knew -- to state this in political terms -- that when he made his trilogy he would need to "please his base." The movies had to reach people outside the global ranks of Tolkien fanatics, in order to be massive hits. However, there is no way they could be financially successful if they did not please the Tolkien "base."

Tolkien was a devout, traditional Roman Catholic and his books had, in many ways, been baptized in images and ideas that were true to his faith. Jackson could not make changes that violated the core themes, characters and values of the books (by all means, click here).

This brings me to a recent Los Angeles Times business story about the efforts to jump-start the film franchise based on the Chronicles of Narnia, written by Tolkien's friend and Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis -- perhaps the most popular Christian apologist of the 20th Century. Here's the brass tacks opening of the report:

Moviegoers will see all sorts of miracles in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," including a painting that springs to life, a star that becomes incarnate, and a book that conjures up spells. The companies behind the latest big-screen adaptation from C.S. Lewis' classic book series hope the film will perform a different kind of miracle: revive a stalled franchise.

Producers Walden Media and 20th Century Fox believe that the third "Narnia" picture, which opens Dec. 10, can reclaim the fans who embraced 2005's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" but who were turned off by the darker 2008 sequel "Prince Caspian," whose comparatively poor performance raised serious doubts about the series' future.

"We strayed from our core audience," said Mark Johnson, who has produced all three "Narnia" movies. In trying -- and largely failing -- to attract more teens to the series, he said, the "Prince Caspian" movie might have alienated families.

The story hints at other issues looming in the background in this background passage:

Billionaire investor Philip Anschutz, whose film company Walden Media is committed to producing traditional family entertainment and controls the movie rights to all seven "Narnia" novels, wasn't about to abandon the allegorical Christian books that appeal to faith-based and general audiences alike. Walden joined forces with Fox, and together they substantially downsized the "Dawn Treader" production budget and revised its story to emphasize the fantasy and adventure elements and lighter tone that distinguished the first blockbuster.

"This franchise is obviously very important to us," said David Weil, chief executive of Walden parent Anschutz Film Group. "This is a story of temptation, transformation, redemption and grace in a way that you are immersed in a world of magic and wonder. It's an all-audience movie and a return to the first one."

The legions of readers who know the Narnia books inside out, however, will raise a few million eyebrows when this story's plot summary ends by noting that, "the three children must resist temptation, including pride, envy and greed, as they confront a variety of creatures, culminating in an epic battle against a massive sea serpent."

Culminating with a sea serpent battle? Since when?

Did the Rings trilogy culminate a giant battle in the mines of Moria?

Now, the Times may have that wrong or the screenwriters may have found some perfectly logical reason to tweak the Dawn Treader plot. I know that.

However, this news report -- which is about the business angle of this production -- never really addresses the crucial financial question of whether Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham has won enough debates with director Michael Apted and the business types to keep the Narnia series faithful enough for the "Lewis base."

This crucial question is not addressed at all. That's a major hole.

However, if one heads over to the Christianity Today website, there's a new Dawn Treader report by Mark Moring that opens like this, focusing with some amazing words from producer Johnson, taken from The Hollywood Reporter:

Presumably in the name of political correctness -- and trying to avoid having the film pigeonholed as a "Christian movie" -- one of the chief producers says he doesn't know if C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia are "Christian"? Yowzers. That's astonishing.

Johnson's full quote includes a reference to Aslan's clearly Christ-like death-and-resurrection scene in the first book and movie, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: "Resurrection exists in so many different religions in one form or another, so it's hardly exclusively Christian. We don't want to favor one group over another ... Whether these books are Christian, I don't know."

Even more astonishing is that Johnson's words come just a couple of days after Liam Neeson, the actor who voices Aslan, denied that his character solely represents Christ. Neeson said that Aslan "also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries."

Stay tuned. Millions of Narnia readers are certainly paying ultra-close attention.

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