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Conflicted on Narnia

The first of the new Narnia movies premiered yesterday in London. I admit I'm a bit scared to see the films, because while Tilda Swinton as the White Witch intrigues me, I agree slightly less profanely with Wings and Vodka that it's likely to be awful. I can't see how one can get the beloved books to the big screen.

On the other hand, the religious/political gnashing of teeth over the movie is a bit too incredible to believe. A typical example from one Jewish website:

Rabbi Judah Dardik was hooked on “Lion” when he read it years ago as a day-school student. He borrowed the entire series from his older sister and devoured them.

It was only years later that he was told it was steeped in Christian allegories. He was “surprised and embarrassed I hadn’t realized. I felt duped,” Dardik said.[1]


Duped? You have got to be kidding me. The allegorical inferences in Narnia aren't carefully hidden like some M. Night Shyamalan twist. Sure, Lewis claimed he wasn't writing allegory, but the end of the first book should strike a cord with the Easter tale. [2] An author doesn't dupe someone by drawing upon one of the world's most well-known stories simply because that person doesn't connect the dots. (Imagine: "I saw Clueless and loved it. Then I learned it was actually based on Emma! Hollywood made me watch early 19th Century chick lit! I felt duped!")

Of course, many don't see or make the connection at once, but that's part of the fun of allegory. Even a non-believer should recognize that the Easter tale is itself gripping. Religious stories strong enough to survive centuries hold narrative power, from whatever faith they spring. Those who read the Narnia series and yet never got the connection needn't feel ashamed, but should instead re-examine the source material to see why it's so appealing. Don't gripe that the author "duped" you.

Read this article, and many like it, one gets the idea that Narnia is some kind of Anschutz-brand theological crack, the first few hits of which are meant to woo young non-Christians into quick and easy Lewis addiction. Presumably it's a gateway to less innocent fantasies like The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce for teens, and then in the last stages of addiction, the hard stuff: Mere Christianity.

Yes, Lewis wrote some books that are Christian allegory and are also a smashing good read. A Christian story should be able to hit the big screen--and anyone should be able to enjoy the idea of seeing it--without every other faith (or non-faith) scowling and acting affronted.

That said, I repeat my worry that the movie may be horrible on the merits, though the New York Times liked it (and similarly dismiss the controversy). . . .

[1]: Obviously, the "wily Christian allegory" stories aren't coming solely from Jewish sites, I just picked this as an example. I remember seeing a particularly silly article in Newsweek, from which this was in a sidebar, but I can't find the story online now.

[2]: Before someone leaves the obvious comment, yes, I do think that a young Jewish boy--or any other American kid--should be expected to know the outline of the Easter story. Certainly this doesn't come from any strong religious roots as a child. I was rarely taken to church (only with friends to their services after Saturday sleepovers), and my pre-Lewis Christian education consisted of little more than a "Bible Stories for Kids" illustrated book given no more prominence in the playroom than Curious George. Yet even without weekly observance, both my parents and my primary schooling ensured I knew the basic stories of Christmas (through the annual pageant if nothing else) and Easter, as well as the story of Hanukkah, and even some knowledge of Islam. If we didn't believe such things, it was still good practice to know them. Cultural literacy means one need not fear being "duped" by possibly the most well-known Christian apologist of the 20th century.

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Comments

Anthony, I think you've pretty well hit the nail on the head here. Lewis doesn't claim them to be allegories, but he does, in subsequent letters to children who wrote him to ask about the plots confirm that obvious Christian implications of Chronicles. As far as your concern about the film's ability to capture the books, I can only say that I've heard excellent things about it from all who've seen it. Lewis' stepson was actually a consultant on the movie to ensure it stayed true to what Lewis would have wanted it to be. You can take that for what it's worth, but I think it's definitely worth a watch. I'll be interested to hear what you think about it.
Hey, Has Columbia addressed the potential MTA strikes yet? Are they gonna bus you folks in, if necessary? -- L
When I first read the Narnia stuff I didn't connect it with the Easter story (although whether it was because I was too young or because I didn't have a Christian upbringing I couldn't say). On the other hand, when I found out I didn't feel duped, just surprised.
If you are at a loose end this morning, I cannot recommend highly enough Mark Kermode's film reviews. As the only man (afaik) with a PhD in horror films, I find his tastes generally coincide pretty well with mine, and just occasionally, a film will be so bad, he'll go off on one of his highly entertaining rants. Check out his review of Elizabthtown..... He's webcast live on the BBC radio five site (3-4pm UK time). And are also downloadable as podcasts from the iTunes site, and as MP3s off the 5live site. Lion et al should be reviewed this afternoon. And you'll get the bonus of hearing about how badly fouled up the M25 is :o)
Duped? That's just plain ludicrous. I wasn't a Christian when I read the Narnia books and I'm not a Christian now, but they are still great books. Sheesh, talk about over-reacting. I'm worried about the movie, too. Although, I was worried about the Lord of the Rings, and I loved those (although not quite as much as the books). I guess I'll just have to see it...
I have a quick point concerning why someone who is not Christian "should" know the Easter story. Let me begin saying that I agree with Anthony and think that all Americans should at least know the basics of the Easter story. Such a requirement, however, should be based on its prevalence in high and pop culture but not simply because Christianity is the dominant religion in the US. I'm Jewish and I keep a New Testament as a literary reference (very handy!), not because I feel some obligation to vast majority of the US but because I do such shocking things like read books and attempt to understand them. I remember growing up in an entirely Jewish community when I was about 7 and reading the Narnia Chronicles. The second Aslan got offed, I immediately saw it as an obviously Jesus reference, apparent even to a 7 year old. It didn't bother me; I kept reading. What's their to be "duped" by? I'm scared to tell this guy that maybe Animal Farm is about more than just a farm. I will NOT be seeing the movie, however, because I am absolute Narnia purist concerning the fabled BBC miniseries on the books.
Jake, feel free to avoid the movie if you feel like that's what you need to do as a "Narnia purist," but I think you've got to look at the context in which Lewis opposed the cinematic adaptation of the books. It seems fairly clear that Lewis' opposition was based not on the concept of making Narnia movies, but rather than feasibility of doing them justice. Whether that can be done at this point is a matter of fact for you to determine, but you've gotta remember that Lewis wrote these books over 45 years ago.
Jake: I think your reasons for knowing the basics of Christianity are what I referred to when I was speaking of cultural literacy. Nevertheless, it's a bit of a distinction without a difference: If Christianity is (and has been) the dominant religion in the U.S. since its founding, it would be passing strange if it weren't prevalent in high and popular culture.
Not entirely a distinction without a difference -- you'd need to know Christian references for humanities education in many non-Christian but Commonwealth nations, simply because of the imperialist influence. I bet that at least for the first few decades after Independence, more Indian PhD theses were written on English-language than Hindi (or other Indian)-language literature.
I just have to say I saw it and Narnia was ALL it should be. Very well done and true to the story and feeling of the book. People may compare it to LOTR, but it never was similar, except as a magical fantasy story. And if you recall that it was written for a children's level (as LOTR was NOT), then you will see why these two stories are not meant to be compared. But most interesting to me is all this Christian*/*Biblical* comparison. I NEVER felt that reading these books nor does it really strike me in this movie...except the basic Good v Evil (as Christ is the good v Satan the evil), and the supposed allegories to the Easter Resurection. But it's more a magical realm with about as much "biblical" as reading Greek Mythology of fauns and centaurs, and minotaurs. NOT biblical really at all. But funny that they try to *sell* it that way. (And there is Father Christmas...true to the story line.) I do recommend it as faithful to the feel and sense of the books, and a good rendition of a childhood favorite (without added pro-forma Hollywood cutsie references or throw away lines to tart it up.) It is the story as told in the book. :-)
I don't even remember at what age I first picked up these books but I loved them and read the whole series in about a week...and never got the religious aspects. I probably read them three times over the course of my childhood and never saw it until I was told about it...and I have to admit I felt a little, I dunno, betrayed maybe. Here I thought these books were just really great, clean, wholesome fantasy, and then I find out they're based on and promoting a viewpoint and story I find repugnant. I haven't been able to read the books since, and have had no desire to. I probably will go see the movie though, my little brother wants to and I have to admit, it looks good.
Hrmph. Lets put this in context. I read the Narnia books when I was somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8. Since I don't remember studying metaphors till I was maybe 9 it was a bit much to ask me to spot that the big talking Lion was actually the small baby in the manager at Nativity services, much less the chap on the cross who got mentioned at Easter, but basically doesn't figure much in primary school theology. Karen's comment about Greek myth struck me as a good description of my views as a child about how I was supposed to think about this stuff. I mean come on, there are centaurs in there... The theological metaphor did confuse the hell out of 8 year old me when I read the 'Last Battle' and found the experience so odd that I hated the book and haven't reread it since. (other reviewers have suggested I may have just been reacting to the fact that it's not much good) Either way, when I did find out about the metaphor as a teenaged atheist I was pissed off. These after all are childhood classics, books which for the most part I loved. Suddenly someone was telling me that they were written to 'educate' me which from my rebellious teenage view meant 'indoctrinate me into a religion I had no interest in'. The feeling of being duped was strong, and remains to this day. This is a pretty common response among British teenagers, where probably 30-50% will cheerfully describe themselves as atheist. I don't know the exact numbers, but I do know the UK is one of the least religious societies in the world these days, which may explain why teenage disenchantment over this is so common.

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