By Sheerly Avni
Walden Media, the production company behind last year’s hit Oscar winner “Ray,” as well as the recent flop “Sahara,” has another hit with its latest release, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Co-produced by Disney Co., the film has opened big, garnering good reviews and bumping “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” out of the No. 1 position at the box office.
The initial success of the film, taken from one in a series of books by C.S. Lewis, shouldn’t be a surprise given the weeks of discussion, debate, and wide press coverage that preceded its opening. Much of the attention has focused on the story’s strong New Testament subtexts, and the marketing of the film to both secular and conservative Christian audiences.
Lewis was an eloquent Christian apologist, and “Shrek” veteran Andrew Adamson has proven a sensitive director. But Walden is run by Philip Anschutz, a wealthy Presbyterian with an avowed conservative agenda. And that prompts a troubling question: Who is the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” on-screen?
First, since religion is the order of the day, a couple of confessions:
- I am an ardent fan of the Narnia books. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Pullman books, none ever came close. I was seduced by the series’ pageantry, wit, adventure and, yes, uncompromising view of good and evil. But mostly I was taken with the idea that magic always hovered nearby—on paintings, in trains and behind doors. I never really trusted anyone who had not, at least once in his life, rapped hard against the back wall of a closet. My parents were highly principled people, but their version of religion reflected a particularly Jewish pessimism: God doesn’t exist, and He’s out to get us anyway. Lewis’ morality, with all his glorious stories of betrayal, faith, lapses great and small, and redemptive bravery and forgiveness, was much more seductive. And every time I came to my mother with yet another pearl gleaned from the worn, seven-book set I took with me everywhere, she would sigh, “Oh, boy, I hope you don’t turn into a Christian.”
- I didn’t. I also never turned to atheism, which seemed an unhelpful philosophical position, perhaps because of the essential arrogance and ultimately human-centered views of the world it advanced. If God was good enough for Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, St. Augustine and John Milton, then he was good enough for me. The greatest evils in history have been committed by the people who believed that the Holy Light shined on them and no other—a concept, it should be remembered, that Jesus himself would have frowned upon. The Holy Light can be God, Allah, Eliyahu or, of course, Reason. (This is why I respectfully disagree with Sam Harris’ atheist manifesto elsewhere on this website: Atheism as a response to fundamentalism pits dogma against dogma. We don’t need to prove that churchgoers are stupid, thank you. We just need to hold them accountable to their own teachings.)
What does this have to do with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the hit movie? A good deal, in part because of its huge success, and in part because the real question we need to ask about it is not how Christian is this film, but whether or not it operates in good or bad faith.
As children’s entertainment goes, the film is quite lovely—exciting, well acted and mostly faithful to the spirit of the books, though there is a preponderance of soaring violins accompanied by much too much of that open-mouthed gaping that adults call “childish wonder” but children call “looking stupid.” In my reading of the books, the four Pevensie children were far too busy working through their new roles as Narnia’s prophesied saviors to waste time on awe or orchestral appreciation. They were in a foreign land, they were cold, they were hungry, and they were on the run. Peter, Susan and Lucy had to decide whether or not to answer the call of destiny, and Edmund, well, Edmund was a traitor.
In Lewis’ hands, Edmund’s betrayal is a fierce and ugly thing. Lewis calls his actions “spiteful” and “nasty,” and paints the boy’s first encounter with the White Witch’s addicting Turkish Delight in the grisly hues of a first-time heroin injection. In the movie, Edmund is just troubled. It’s a small quibble, I suppose, but it takes away from the human agency in the books, and shifts the focus from the human to the holy. As Edmund’s moral comeuppance takes second stage, Aslan’s martyrdom (which the movie calls “Sacrifice” even though Lewis himself used the much more pagan term “deeper magic”) moves to the fore.
Not that the books are unimpeachable. Like the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran, Narnia is a text full of wisdom and moral value, but one with troubling footnotes that ought to be scrutinized and rejected. The citizens of Narnia are divided into species that look particularly like castes. Gender roles are sharply defined (Narnia’s director actually took several sexist statements out of the script). Still, both the series and the movie encourage a morally driven and ethically governed universe in which our actions and decisions have concrete meanings.
Even more important, however, is the fact that Narnian Christianity operates on a symbolic, imaginative level. Religious fundamentalists of all creeds insist on literal interpretations of ancient texts. But creative readings of those same texts offer us a moral blueprint for making our way in the world, and that alone should make the film’s content an antidote to the ugly anti-intellectualism of fundamentalist Christianity.
So does this mean that we can sleep well, knowing that a movie like this one might contribute to our moral edification, our ability to think non-literally and, eventually, more critically about the meaning behind our religious leanings? Can we pony up for popcorn with our consciences clear, knowing that taking our kids to see the film will not turn them into Bush-loving, moralizing, hypocritically dogmatic Christians, or socially conservative devils?
Not so fast. Like “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Chronicles of Narnia’s” blockbuster status is due in large part to Disney and Walden Media’s savvy, two-pronged media campaign targeted at both secular and religious audiences. (I saw the film at 11:30 a.m. in a theater full of Catholic school kids. A girl behind me whispered, “Too bad this is the last time we ever get to see a movie on a field trip.”) Yet, my concern isn’t so much with the people who will pay to see the movie, but rather to whom their dollars are going.
Frankly, I think the chairman of Walden Media, billionaire Philip Anschutz, is a Bush-loving, moralizing, hypocritically dogmatic Christian—a socially conservative devil. His business entities bankrolled the group that put Colorado’s notorious anti-gay constitutional amendment on the ballot in 1992. (Voters approved the measure but it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.) He’s been investigated for allegedly cheating his employees and shareholders (many of his charitable contributions are part of a settlement deal made after a scandal at Qwest, one of his companies), and in 2002 Fortune magazine put him atop its list of greediest corporate executives. He’s an empire-building businessman with an agenda, whose companies have donated more than $700,000 to Republican causes. [ See Bill Berkowitz’s excellent article. ]
When we buy a ticket to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” we not only put money in Anschutz’s pocket, we feed the right’s insidious assault on popular entertainment—a church-state conflation just as threatening to American democracy as religion’s incursions on the White House, if not more so.
Does this mean he deserves to be called a devil? Well, according to what Narnia has taught me about hypocrisy and usurpers, yes. The author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” was a questioning thinker, and a troubled but believing Christian. His books stemmed from a search for moral purpose combined with a lively imagination. Philip Anschutz is a different animal entirely, governed by a particularly venal blend of greed and self-righteousness. He and the White Witch would have understood each other well.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco based film and culture writer.