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Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe | Not Quite a Movie Review | James Como | December 7, 2005

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All my life I’ve loved movies, but only at age twenty did The Chronicles find me. I’ve spent much mental energy paying close attention to both, and now that they have met and that I’ve witnessed that meeting I am thrilled. We could get picky, but we would be picky indeed to fault this book-to-movie; such pickiness would say more about us than the meeting.

Like most people I’ve more often suffered over than been delighted by this sort of transmutation. In moving from printed page to my mind, the book becomes my own; and I know that you, another reader, have your own book too. Certainly our mental books overlap, but the differences between them are a big part of what keeps us talking. In moving from the printed page to the screen, however, the book must first hit my eyeballs and my ears. Two senses are assaulted, and that is no small thing. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric that to be persuasive one should "set it before their [the audience’s] eyes." (He didn’t say "ears," but he didn’t have amplifiers.) He was right then and he’s still right, which is why movies are so irresistible: heavy-handed or not, spectacle up there on that big screen makes all the difference. (And note well: in his Poetics Aristotle included spectacle as one of the five major features of dramatic poetry.)

As I watch the book-to-movie I may be (in truth, I usually am) swept away — but no longer, as with my mental book, when the movie is done. Moreover, you and I and all of us will have seen more or less (though never exactly) the same spectacle, so our talk changes. We no longer discuss author X’s book but director Y’s movie; we no longer talk about our own mental books — the one we’ve taken solitary walks within and lived through — but about our shared spectacular experience.

The point: if we cherish the book, if we regard our mental book as what the author closely intended, and if the director gets that wrong — or worse, betrays it — well, then, we want to throttle the director, who is undoing not only author X’s cherished world but our very own mental book as well. Worse: now with Y’s betrayal out and about, anyone who had not read the book but has seen the movie will get it all wrong. These . . . these turnips . . . will not know that Y is a knucklehead, or worse.

Why, then, has the Narnia movie thrilled me? Faithful both to the substance and spirit of the book, it overdoes nothing. This matters enormously, for the great danger of lavish spending on the production of a movie with epic promise is excess. In this case, though, from deep meaning to sheer spectacle — with the effect of talking and exotic beasts somewhere in between — we behold ordinateness: this movie is fitting.

That is a lot not to have to worry about: a great relief, given my not-inordinate worry. How unlikely an accomplishment is this absence of excess — in how very many ways the movie should have been seriously overwrought, given all the temptations of greed, proselytizing, and vanity, and all the risks of writing, casting, formal complexity, and technical innovation — how unlikely an accomplishment this ordinateness is I leave for each of us who love the books to marvel over and to give thanks for. I do thank God, and all the people who labored. And — without quite knowing exactly what he did or how he functioned, what he contributed or (more importantly) what he prevented — we should probably thank Lewis’s stepson and a co-producer of the movie, Douglas Gresham, and I do.

All of which is not to say there has been (or is) nothing at all to worry about. Along with Lewis’s Narnia (and our mental correlative) and the movie, there is the Twilight Zone Narnia — the Narnia of publicity, marketing and media chatter which bears little relation to either of the first two.

Over here we have a schizophrenic sales pitch: on the one hand an Evangelical Narnia, with its study guides designed to awaken every sleeping dragon that Lewis had sneaked past, and on the other a perfectly non-Christian Narnia that, according to a version of one Gresham interview, couldn’t offend the most devout secularist because there is nothing Christian about it. Over there we have venomous conflict and willfully wrong-headed criticism: the opportunistic Philip K. Pullman (the Christophobe of His Dark Materials fame) and a few smart-aleck New York pundits with really loud megaphones. And bit further away — barely discernible but no longer merely on the horizon — we have a tarted up Narnia, including a new Narnia tale "inspired" by C. S. Lewis, a simplified version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a growing pile of trivializing merchandise. In short, the books and the movie have become both a goldmine (and we really must ask of C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd, the copyright holder, How much is enough?) and a battleground.

In truth, however, although Lewis had an indisputably Protestant cast of mind, he did not have an Evangelical one. He limited his religious thinking, writing, speaking, and witnessing strictly to those venues he thought appropriate; he had many Catholic beliefs and practices; and it is doubtful he ever would have referred to himself as having been "born again." Furthermore, we know that he did not set out to write Christian propaganda when he wrote The Chronicles. In other words, unless you are of Pullman’s febrile ilk, you really don’t have much to worry about; and if you don’t believe that then just ask the many thousands of people who love Narnia and who aren’t Christians and who don’t see its Christianity and who don’t care that others do. If Lewis was a commando, "behind enemy lines" as he put it, surely his battlefield was less the culture-at-large than the heart of each of his readers.

In that light, I note finally Lewis’s great accomplishment with Narnia. We recall his famous late-night talk with Tolkien and Dyson in 1931, the one that resulted in Lewis realizing that a myth could remain a myth and still be a fact. What Lewis has done in The Chronicles is to re-mythologize Christianity, re-locating our response from the intellect to the imagination. That is, with his fairy tales — and we do well to recall that, according to Lewis, "sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said" — Lewis has restored that stage just before facticity, or its potential, breaks through, that stretch of time when the longing evoked by the myth as such still beckons pure. Let everyone who sees this movie feel that, and then let each of them wonder . . .

James T. Como is the editor of Remembering C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him, just released by Ignatius Press, a collection of twenty-four reminiscences and impressions from friends, students, and acquaintances of C.S. Lewis.

He holds advanced degrees in medieval English literature (Fordham University) and in Language, Literature and Rhetoric (Columbia University) and is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Communication at York College of the City University of New York, where he has taught for over thirty-five years.

A founding member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society (1969) and former editor of its bulletin, CSL, he has published ‘C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table’ and Other Reminiscences and articles on Lewis in such journals as National Review, Seven, and The Wilson Quarterly. In 1993 he visited the closed set of Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands and interviewed the principals, after which he commented (not entirely favorably) on that film. Dr. Como also lectures widely on Lewis and other Christian authors, including “Moral Learning In and Out of Narnia,” the Thomas More Lecture on Learning, for St. Thomas More College in Fort Worth, Texas, and, most recently, “Congruent Christians,” one of a number of public of lecture series he had given at the Center for Christian Studies of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and elsewhere.

He has also written on the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and, more generally, on the political culture of Peru, where he has lived and visited with some frequency. He has also published Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis (Spence). A Catholic and native New Yorker, Dr. Como (and his Peruvian wife) have two grown children and live in Westchester County.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him | An Interview with James T. Como
Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

C. S. Lewis | Ignatius Press resources:

6 By C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters)
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | by Joseph Pearce
Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
The Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover volume)
The Chronicles of Narnia Set | by C.S. Lewis (7-volume set, softcover in case)
Chronicles of Narnia Set (3 tapes)
The Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
Shadowlands (BBC edition; DVD)
The Magic Never Ends (DVD)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Literary Converts | by Joseph Pearce

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