What did you do this past weekend? I spent part of mine in a Times Square theater full of adult Manhattanites at a movie with talking beavers. And a perky 8-year-old English girl with crooked teeth. And a cute widdle goat boy named Tumnus. No hunks on screen, no babes, and nary a kiss. The only "hot" woman in the movie was a six-foot-plus satanic witch with blonde dredlocks, and a kinky habit of torturing centaurs. The film's stars were teens and children, but there wasn't one kid in the audience. Nor were these moviegoers bused in from some Evangelical church—there were too many women wearing black, holding hands with Nader voters. I wondered aloud if this was a bunch of stoners—but sniffed around in vain for a whiff of the banished herb. Nobody snorted at the moments of outright Christian allegory, or scoffed at the galloping satyrs. Only one person even got up to go to the bathroom. These urbanites sat, spellbound, for more than two hours, some with tears on their cheeks, and at the end they burst into applause. At last I had to face the fact: New Yorkers are into Narnia.
So are Americans: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe made $67 million in its opening weekend, covering almost half its costs, and received glowing reviews from most major papers, including the Logos-phobic New York Times. (Only the lowbrow New York Post and drab suburban Newsday disagreed.) Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a hit—and the prospect of six more Narnia movies, to compete with the Harry Potter franchise and drive C.S. Lewis all the way up the bestseller lists. Look for Lewis sections to spring up in the bookstores, crowding up against the Tolkien shelves, in a veritable onslaught of Oxford Christian whimsy. It helps that so many of the writers who review the movies grew up on the Narnia books, and still remember fondly the moments of imaginative epiphany they provoked.
Does the film cast a spell and make you forget for two hours your adult identity as a sophisticated sinner? The answer is mostly yes.
This is good news all around—and not just because it's going to get people reading Lewis's other, apologetic books, such as Mere Christianity, or his brilliant love story Till We Have Faces. Of course, I do hope the film's success will lead some studio to make films out of Lewis' space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. These adult fantasy tales (especially Perelandra) are brilliantly imagined and executed, worthy of standing alongside The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia books were written for children, and really ought to be compared with The Hobbit, not The Silmarillion.
While it may exercise some red-state rabble rousers like Bill O'Reilly, none of us should get caught up in the question which roils so many critics: How Christian is Narnia? It's absurd to see serious writers dissecting this fantasy for catechetical intent—as if it were a remake of Triumph of the Will or a piece of crypto-Scientology. (It's also, if you think about it, rather offensive; imagine the uproar if someone asked out loud whether a Woody Allen film or Philip Roth book was sectarian propaganda.)
Besides, the answer is obvious: The Narnia books are Christian stories written by a popular theologian for a tepidly Anglican audience, which now find tremendous resonance with a broadly Christian America. And this is nothing new. As any scholar of film could tell you, American movies are rife with Christian tropes and themes—such as the archetype of a lone hero confronting evil, suffering horribly, plummeting into a void of doubt and near despair, then rising triumphantly to redeem the community which had once rejected him. One could rattle off examples almost endlessly, but here are just a few films which students of cinema (such as the eminent ) have singled out as particularly Christ-haunted: It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Shane, On the Waterfront, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Narnia dares to show Christ not merely as a Suffering Servant, but as a king.
The reason The Passion of the Christ made such a splash (beyond the silly noises made by modern-day scribes and Sadducees slandering it as anti-Semitic) was that Mel Gibson reached behind these disguised retellings of the Christ story to shock us with the original—in colors as bold and almost crude as the restored Sistine Chapel, stripped clean of the varnish, dust and smoke. So does Narnia, which subjects its gentle lion-king to sadistic slaughter by monsters from . The sight of Aslan shaved, bound, and stretched out for judicial murder at the hands of the icy anti-mother goddess Jadis should be enough to make almost anyone cry. Nor does the film rush his resurrection. While the viewer is confident that good will triumph in the end—this is not a French or German film—he really does wade through the same despair as the good Lucy and Susan, who caress the fallen Aslan like Christ deposed from the Cross. The grace won here does not feel false or come cheap.
That answers the real question which any of us ought to ask about the film—whether it is more than a piece of mere apologetics for Mere Christianity. Does the film build on the stones of its biblical subtext an edifice of complex characters, engaging plot, and a convincing cinematic world? Is it an airport chapel, or Chartres? To put it another way, does the film cast a spell, and make you forget for two hours your adult identity as a sophisticated sinner, and identify with a band of British refugee children adrift in a wintry kingdom?
The answer is mostly yes. There are moments in the film where one of the children is a little too twee, and you almost want to smack him. Here and there Lewis' bachelor whimsy begins to feel a little strained—but nothing like as often as in each of the last four Star Wars films. (At least here you never feel that one of the characters or events was crafted solely to generate plush dolls or a knock—off video game—though I winced to see Narnia lip-balm at Eckerd yesterday.)
In his books, Tolkien only took the risk of introducing one species (hobbits) we might plausibly call "cute"; the rest of them, even the dwarves, are positively grim. (His elves are existentialists.) Lewis, for his part, showed significantly more daring. To Tolkien's horror, Lewis made of his Narnia books a glittering pastiche of multi-cultural myths. While Tolkien was soberly "Northern," and intent upon crafting a self-consistent world with a history as convincingly grim as our own, Lewis allowed himself to playfully "redeem" elements of many different paganisms, from Spitzbergen to Mt. Olympus. He summons mermaids, fauns, dryads, giants, centaurs, gryphons and phoenixes in a shameless display of ecumenism worthy of a church conference at Assisi. And on the whole it works—far better than it ought to. Lewis's world has all the loveable, sloppy, promiscuous charm of the Harry Potter books, with none of their moral mish-mash. Lewis even dares to redeem one element of our Christian history—which the film does nothing to whitewash—the . As a boy who grew up reading with awe old tales (they won't be reprinted) of Richard and Godfrey and Roland, I thrilled to see the young King Peter dressed as a Christian knight, with the shield of the Lionheart, holding back the jihad warriors of a bloodthirsty false religion. (This was the scene that made me cry.)
While the viewer is confident that good will triumph in the end, the grace won here does not feel false or come cheap.
In other words, this film recalls us both to Christ and Christendom, to the Gospel and the historical Church. To the outrage of pedantic misreaders like The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, the Narnia books dare to show Christ not merely as a Suffering Servant, but as a king. We see the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity go from glory to torture, and then to greater glory—and then to conquest. (It was a tad distracting that when Aslan finally leapt on her, Queen Jadis looked less defeated than, er, turned on—but I digress.) The books go from Genesis not simply to Calvary, but through Easter morning to the brink of the New Jerusalem—and they carry with them millions of readers, performing what theologians used to call . They do so with grace and charm, returning the reader in his mind to the child-like wonder which Jesus Himself found irresistibly attractive. This is no small feat. Those who dismiss Lewis' work as a "mere allegory" should think on this—and remember that other "mere" allegories include The Romance of the Rose, Piers Ploughman, and St. John's Apocalypse.
There was only one important element in Narnia which left me a little unsatisfied, and it was lifted intact from the original: The story of Edmund. As readers will remember, Aslan must offer his life to the killer Queen to redeem young Edmund, the "son of Adam" who briefly but crucially played the "traitor," selling his siblings' safety for the promise of power and a taste of Turkish Delight. When Aslan submits to suffering and death, it is not for all the inhabitants of Narnia, or even for all four humans, but only for Edmund—almost (speaking allegorically) as if Jesus had died for Judas alone. Now theologically this is sound; the fall of Adam was enough to require a Redeemer, and we are taught to piously consider that Jesus died not in general, for "all," but in particular for each of us.
Dramatically and psychologically, this explanation leaves us unsatisfied. The scene in which Edmund "confesses" his sins to Aslan, and walks off "absolved" rings powerfully to any penitent—and reminds us that Lewis was an Anglican who frequented private Confession. But things start to go awry from the moment Queen Jadis demands the blood of Edmund, in fulfillment of the "Deep Magic" which underlies the existence of Narnia. It's impossible to look at poor Edmund—who was never very wicked in the first place—and not feel that he, instead of Aslan, is a kind of scapegoat. All around him are creatures completely innocent, who inhabit an essentially unfallen world. Aslan is not dying for any of them—but only for Edmund. He skulks away with a shame that reminds us of Judas in The Passion. It's true that Edmund fights heroically, and is crowned at the end along with his three siblings. But we still feel bad for Edmund, and a twinge of cognitive dissonance at this departure from the narrative of salvation. We know that Peter, and Susan, and Lucy—and even Mr. Tumnus, and Mrs. Beaver—ought somehow to feel implicated in Edmund and his sin, that in a fallen world every conscious, free creature requires redemption. To heap all the sin on Edmund feels dramatically and theologically wrong. In the Gospel, it was Jesus Who bore the burden of all our sin, Who "became as sin," and in doing so purged us all. That element is missing in Lewis' world, and the lack is troubling.
Lewis’s world has all the loveable, sloppy, promiscuous charm of the Harry Potter books, with none of their moral mish-mash.
But this dramatic flaw—Lewis might have called it poetic license—is not enough to taint the enormity of his achievement, the delight we take in seeing eternal truths depicted so playfully and well, or the powerful contribution to our culture which this film and its (hoped-for) sequels are sure to make. Let us hope for another such gift every Christmas. And I'm looking forward to seeing a little more of Tilda Swinton....