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Films That Tread Into Narnia | Dr. David C. Downing | Ignatius Insight | December 6, 2010

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Most viewers assume that The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader", premiering this Friday, December 10, is the third adaptation of a Narnia book for the screen, after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008). But actually this film is the eighth attempt to present Narnia on screen, if you count earlier film forays (or rather video voyages) into Narnia.

When Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was first published in 1936, it took only three years for the novel to be turned into a major motion picture—the classic 1939 movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. By contrast, the first of C. S. Lewis's children's classics, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, appeared in 1950, and it took 55 years for that story to reach the big screen in 2005. It might have taken even longer than that if not for the tireless, nearly lifelong efforts of Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham.

There are several reasons it took so long for the books to be adapted into films. Lewis himself considered the cinema an ugly art form, "disagreeable to the eye—crowded, unrestful, inharmonious." He wondered if the main reason people went to movie theaters was to keep warm on a cold, damp night. (Collected Letters 3, 105). Lewis was also strongly opposed to the idea of live-action film versions of the Narnia stories. He thought that stories about talking animals could be charming in imagination, but that they turned into "buffoonery or nightmare" when enacted by people in costumes. He felt that a human actor in a lion suit trying to portray Aslan would amount to nothing less than "blasphemy." (Shades of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz!) Lewis was open to the possibility of animated adaptations of his Narnia books, but he regretted that Walt Disney's films so often mixed "genius" with "vulgarity" (CL 3, 1111).

Given Lewis's serious reservations about trying to adapt his stories for movies or television, it is not surprising that no one attempted to do so during his lifetime. Only four years after his death in 1963, however, there was a 10-part serialization of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aired on British commercial television (ITV). This series has not survived, but its use of live actors on a stage set would probably not have pleased the creator of Narnia. In 1978, an animated version of the first Narnia story was aired on British television. This adaptation has a certain charm, particularly in its voices and sound effects, but its crude animation technique and simple dialog suggest that it was aimed mainly at small children. For contemporary viewers, this version may make it seem as if Charlie Brown and his friends from "Peanuts" have somehow gotten into Narnia instead of the Pevensies. (Come to think of it, one of the main "Peanuts" characters is named Lucy!)

The BBC launched a more ambitious three-part series from 1988-90, offering adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian/Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (two books combined into one story), and The Silver Chair. These episodes are worth watching, as they stick closely to the storyline of the books, and they showcase surprisingly talented children as Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Just as Lewis had feared, however, the fantasy characters in the story seriously undermine the verisimilitude of the story. Aslan appears as a giant stuffed animal, somewhat out of focus. And when the Green Lady in The Silver Chair turns into a writhing serpent, she looks less like a terrifying monster than like a garden hose on steroids. Just as Lewis had predicted, the talking animals and other fantasy characters in the BBC series may not elicit awe or terror as intended, but may elicit instead giggles and guffaws.

Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, now 65, spent most of his adult life trying to find a suitable script and production company to adapt the Narnia stories for the big screen. This has been no easy task, as the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood for many years was that 1) American audiences didn't want to watch the adventures of British children; 2) Fantasy stories should be animated, not shot with live actors; and 3) Stories with explicit Christian overtones could not reach a mass audience. In the short space of three years, all of these Hollywood truisms were refuted—shattered actually--by the enormous worldwide successes of the Harry Potter films, beginning in 2001, then Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy (2001-2003), and finally by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004).

During those years, Mr. Gresham began to see doors opening for his dream of making the Narnia Chronicles into films that would do his stepfather proud. In a radio interview with me, Gresham confided that he had to wade through mountains of scripts and talk to just about every studio in Hollywood before the present Narnia series began to take shape. He was actually sent a film treatment in which the Pevensie children were portrayed as American siblings who had to leave Los Angeles because of an earthquake. In this proposed adaptation, the White Witch was to be played by none other than Janet Jackson! (If that version had ever been made, it might have been dubbed "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Malfunction.")

The current series of Narnia films was finally inaugurated in 2005, when The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released by Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame), the film opened to generally positive reviews, and, including DVD sales, it has grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. The sequel, Prince Caspian (2008), also directed by Adamson, was a darker, more action-oriented film. Though it also received generally positive reviews, the film grossed less than a third of its predecessor and was not deemed a commercial success in U.S. markets. This may not be entirely surprising, as C. S. Lewis's book, Prince Caspian, is the least popular of the seven tales in terms of individual sales. It has an unusual plot structure, with the whole middle of the book being told as a flashback, and its ending, the long celebration after the victory of Aslan and his followers, is considered by many readers to be anticlimactic.

By contrast, many Narnia fans rate The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" as one of their favorites of the seven tales, if not the favorite. The advance reviews of the film version have generally been enthusiastic, so Mr. Gresham and his associates have reason to be optimistic. Of course, only after the reviews and the audiences come out this weekend (and keep coming out) will the film's producers know whether the Narnia stories will continue to find the big screen embodiments that Mr. Gresham has been dreaming about almost since he was a child himself.

Watch the Official Trailer for The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":

Looking For The King: An Inklings Novel

By Dr. David C. Downing

Looking For The King (Downloadable Audio) -- Downloadable Audio File
Looking For The King (E-Book) -- Electronic Book Download

It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest. Aided by the Inklings-that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien-Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.

Tom discovers that Laura has been having mysterious dreams, which seem to be related to the subject of his research, and, though doubtful of her visions, he hires her as an assistant. Heeding the insights and advice of the Inklings, while becoming aware of being shadowed by powerful and secretive foes who would claim the spear as their own, Tom and Laura end up on a thrilling treasure hunt that crisscrosses the English countryside and leads beyond a search for the elusive relics of Camelot into the depths of the human heart and soul.

Weaving his fast-paced narrative with actual quotes from the works of the Inklings, author David Downing offers a vivid portrait of Oxford and draws a welcome glimpse into the personalities and ideas of Lewis and Tolkien, while never losing sight of his action-packed adventure story and its two very appealing main characters.

"This superbly gripping novel about dreams coming true is itself a dream come true. Lewis and Tolkien come alive as real-life characters, playing their sagacious parts to realistic perfection as the protagonists follow their Arthurian quest pursued by deadly enemies. For lovers of Arthurian romance and for admirers of Tolkien and Lewis, this is indeed a dream come true!" -- Joseph Pearce, Author, Tolkien: Man and Myth

"The subtitle of this book is 'An Inklings Novel. That claim might seem presumptuous at first. But lo--it is an Inklings novel. My own guess is that Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams would all be mightily pleased with it. All three of them, as it happens, figure as characters in the story, which is Arthurian, but set in the contemporary world--very much in the vein of That Hideous Strength and War in Heaven. The Inklings themselves are flawlessly depicted, as are the two protagonists, a very appealing young man and woman. All Inklings lovers will be highly delighted." -- Thomas Howard, Author, Narnia and Beyond

"A highly engaging historical mystery adventure that brings C. S. Lewis and his friends and ideas to life. Fans of Lewis and Tolkien will love it. I couldn't put it down!" -- Peter J. Schakel, Author, The Way into Narnia and Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis

"Steeped in Arthurian lore, the mystery of the grail legends, and World War II intrigue, this engaging tale of a young man's search for a hidden relic ultimately uncovers treasure of a far different kind. David Downing's homage to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully in bringing these historical figures to life in the midst of an unfolding spiritual thriller. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read--laced throughout with romance, wry humor and questions of eternal consequence." -- Marjorie Lamp Mead, Associate Director, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College

David C. Downing, PhD, is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis: Planets in Peril, The Most Reluctant Convert, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis and Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. Downing has also written short fiction for Christianity Today and other periodicals.

Watch the trailer for Looking For The King:

• Visit www.LookingForTheKing.com for more information about the novel!

Related Ignatius Insight Articles:

Looking For An Inklings Adventure | An Interview with David C. Downing
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings Peter J. Kreeft
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Thomas Howard
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings | Various Articles and Columns
The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers
Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel
Fairy Tales Retold | An Interview with Regina Doman

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