As the UK prepares for a CS Lewis movie blockbuster this Christmas, a row has broken out about its Christian message
To millions The Chronicles of Narnia are a childhood tale of wonder and triumph now made into a film that could inspire millions of children to read. To others, including the celebrated fantasy author Philip Pullman, they are stories of racism and thinly veiled religious propaganda that will corrupt children rather than inspiring them.
Either way, one thing is certain: this Christmas, and perhaps the next six, depending on sequels, everyone will be talking about Narnia. Disney is already in the middle of one of the biggest marketing campaigns in recent cinematic history. It is trying to lure both mainstream filmgoers and evangelical Christians, who will respond to CS Lewis’s parallels between his characters and the Bible. HarperCollins is set to publish 170 Lewis-related books in more than 60 countries, many of them Christian-themed works. Disney has hired Christian marketing groups to handle the film.
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For Pullman, who is an avowed atheist and a critic of Lewis, that is bad news. ‘If the Disney Corporation wants to market this film as a great Christian story, they’ll just have to tell lies about it,’ Pullman told The Observer
Pullman believes that Lewis’s books portray a version of Christianity that relies on martial combat, outdated fears of sexuality and women, and also portrays a religion that looks a lot like Islam in unashamedly racist terms.
‘It’s not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue. The highest virtue, we have on the authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books,’ he said.
The Narnia books, Pullman said, contained ‘…a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice; but of love, of Christian charity, [there is] not a trace’.
Certainly that is not the view of Disney. Film executives are eagerly anticipating repeating the success last year of Mel Gibson’s Jesus biopic The Passion of The Christ, which was shunned by mainstream studios and then picked up by the evangelical churches. The movie then stunned the film world by raking in hundreds of millions of dollars by tapping into the previously ignored Christian market.
Already American evangelicals are planning to use the Narnia film as a preaching tool. A group called Catholic Outreach has advertised for 150 co-ordinators across the country to help promote the film. It is also organising ‘sneak peak’ events at which trailers will be shown to church audiences and executives from the film will talk about the project.
Other Christian groups and study centres are getting behind the film too. ‘We believe that God will speak the gospel of Jesus Christ through this film,’ said Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that the film was an ideal way for a Christian message to be brought to people who would not otherwise go near a church. ‘Here is yet another tool that many may find to be effective in communicating the message of Jesus to those who may not respond to other presentations,’ he said.
As well as a huge potential force at the box office, the other possible benefit for Disney is to heal its long troubled relationship with America’s evangelical community. Many Christian groups have often boycotted the company over such issues as holding special theme days for gays at Disneyland. But in the run-up to the Narnia release date on 9 December, evangelical leaders have been generous in their praise of the company they have often reviled.
But it is not all about God. The Chronicles of Narnia seems to offer a ‘perfect storm’ combination of factors. As well as having the Passion’s appeal to Christians, it has the special effects and fantasy-laden appeal of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s box-office hit that also netted numerous Oscars. That film was also seen as a huge risk at the time, but Jackson’s achievement confounded the critics and proved that ‘swords and sorcery’ movies could strike cinematic gold.
Trailers for the first Narnia film, called The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe after the first book in the chronicles, have already drawn comparisons to The Lord of the Rings’ style and cinema presentation. It has the same powerful themes of a new world, complete with fantastic creatures and sweeping battle scenes against a beautiful landscape.
The final crucial element in Disney’s planning is turning the Narnia films into a money-spinning franchise like the Harry Potter series. Lewis wrote a total of seven Narnia books, and if the first one is a huge hit the sequels will be inevitable. That means a new Narnia film could be released at Christmas, complete with spin-off merchandising and toys, every year until 2012.
But while Disney has bet big on Narnia and now waits with bated breath, there is already one winner in the saga. The film, just like The Lord of the Rings, was shot in New Zealand, which then reaped a tourism windfall. Now local tour companies are already planning to show visitors around the spot where the Narnia film’s climactic battle scene was shot.