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The Chronicles of Narnia
Do the Narnia Films Subvert Lewis's Vision?
A Response to Touchstone's 'Narnia Invaded'
A thoughtful investigation suggests that the Narnia films are very far from being a faithful representation of Lewis’s own Christian vision of reality.

So declares Steven D. Boyer in his recent article for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. As the subtitle of the article, “Narnia Invaded,” indicates, Boyer’s objection centers around How the New Films Subvert Lewis’s Hierarchical World.

Boyer does a great job of outlining his interpretation of Lewis’s philosophy of hierarchy. In the modern age where democracy is lauded, the idea of royal authority and hierarchical order being a good thing is unthinkable. The abuse of authority has jaded us to the possibility of a “good hierarchy.” Part of what Lewis does in the Chronicles is to demonstrate what a positive hierarchy would look like, and to show that, as Boyer puts it, “[w]hen that order is respected, real joy and freedom are the result.”

I agree. A proper vision of God as our Creator presumes the appropriateness of our subordination to Him. The One who created us knows how we “tick,” and it is only natural that we listen to his instructions on how to live. Part of that instruction includes the biblical idea that we are to follow those who are in authority. (See for example, Romans 13:1-2 and; 1 Peter 2:13-14.)

Boyer goes on to “prove” that the movies “subvert” Lewis’s hierarchical ideals by recounting scenes in the movies which are different than the books. In Walden Media’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter will say to Edmund, “Why can’t you just do as you’re told!?” after Ed retrieves a photo of his father from the house instead of heading directly to the bomb shelter. This is a set up for a scene in the battle against the White Witch.

As it looks like the battle will end badly, Peter tells his brother to get their sisters, find the wardrobe, and get back home to England. Edmund disobeys his brother, and attacks the Witch, destroying the wand, and giving the army some hope while they wait for Aslan to arrive. Boyer sees this as an act of defiance against “high king” Peter, and claims the movie-makers are deliberately sending the message that disobedience is a sign of “maturity and virtue.”

By now, he has grown enough to realize that receiving orders and following them is a sign of immaturity and weakness, whereas independent action, especially when it involves not doing as you’re told, is the sign of strength, maturity, and success.

For Boyer, what the filmmakers do with Peter in Prince Caspian is even worse. Peter, rather than being an example of what a high king should be, is part of the problem. He starts a fight in the subway station. He gets Trumpkin and his siblings lost on the way to Aslan’s How. In the failed attack on Miraz’ castle, he stubbornly refuses to retreat. He becomes impatient waiting for Aslan and says, “I think it’s up to us now. . . . We’ve waited for Aslan long enough.”

What is the problem with Peter? Boyer says that the filmmakers make it clear that Peter’s “brashness and insolence and haughtiness of Peter in the second film are precisely the result of his having been exalted as king in the first one.” He quotes from an interview with Director Andrew Adamson and concludes that the director believes “[t]o be a king at all is to hunger for power forevermore.” He cites the conflict between Peter and Caspian (as opposed to their genial behavior in the book) as proof of Adamson’s jaded feelings about hierarchy.

Is Boyer right? Was Adamson motivated (consciously or unconsciously) to change the stories because of an aversion to hierarchy? Do the changes “subvert Lewis’s hierarchical world” and take us “far” from the Narnia creator’s “Christian vision of reality?” If so, does it really matter?

First of all, it must be said that any Christian view of the goodness of hierarchy is not absolute. Christians are taught by their scriptures that they are to be in submission to authority – but there are exceptions. When the Apostles were brought before the authorities and told to stop teaching about Christ, they replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Daniel refused to obey the king’s decree and openly prayed three times a day. (Daniel 6)

In Prince Caspian, Aslan helps Lucy to understand that she must follow him even if Peter decides to take the party in a different direction. Aslan’s will comes before the will of anyone else in authority.

Was movie Edmund right in disobeying his brother? Admittedly, the movie makers, in their zeal to capture the characters and to tie the war in Britain with the war in Narnia, have made it difficult. Perhaps there is no clear answer to the question. Edmund obviously does what he thinks is right—which could be concluded that he was doing what he thought Aslan would want him to do.

Remember, too, that book Peter does not lead the group to Aslan’s How very well either. In his book, Inside Prince Caspian, Devin Brown argues that Peter is a reluctant leader until the confrontation at the How. Rather than making wise decisions himself, he is bent by the opinions of the group and his expectations that things should be as they were when they were in Narnia before. When Lucy says she sees Aslan, and that he wants them to follow, Peter should have used the logic that he had learned from the professor in the previous book (Lucy is either lying, crazy, or telling the truth) and believed her.

In the movie, Peter follows much the same pattern leading the group as he does in the book. He is not “power hungry,” but reluctant to make decisions without the approval of the group. He leaves it up to a vote as to whether they should follow Lucy. I don’t think Adamson sees Peter as “power hungry,” but as someone who misses the respect he was given as a king. This does go beyond the letter of the book, but I do not think it strays too far from its spirit.

Douglas Gresham, the step-son of C S Lewis, has said that he believes that the Holy Spirit led him to Walden Media and Andrew Adamson because of their desire to be “faithful to the books.” (See the video interviews at CBN.com.) In a recent interview, Will Poulter, who plays Eustace in the upcoming Voyage of the Dawn Treader, commented:

Everyone was trying to stay very true to the book.  The directors insisted on that.

So, are the movies, including the upcoming Dawn Treader film, “faithful” and staying “very true” to the books? Or, have they strayed “very far from being a faithful representation of Lewis’s own Christian vision of reality?”

The answer to this perhaps hinges on what Lewis was actually trying to do. Will Pouter went on in the interview to say

[The Christian message is not] hidden, but those who find some satisfaction in indulging those themes are able to access them.  That’s what’s great about it.  It doesn’t in any way eliminate any audience members.  If anything, it just broadens the audience that Narnia appeals to.  [The themes] transcend the boundaries of religion, rather than being purely accessible to Christians.  The themes of redemption and temptation and just faith aren’t necessarily… related to religion.  Some people find faith in their lives outside of God and believe in temptation and redemption just as much as someone who is religious. I don’t think it constricts Narnia’s appeal, which is great.

He was adding to what Georgie Henley had already said in response to a reporter who had indicated that the films do not “beat you over the head” with the Christian ideas.

We’ve always wanted to appeal to a really wide audience, because that’s what the books do.  The books are classics, and they appeal to so many people.  I don’t understand why people would think that it should be sidelined to a different audience—like a Christian audience or whatever.  We have themes in the film that if you want to look for you can look for. And you will find—of course you will.  That’s the way C. S. Lewis wrote the book.

Miss Henley gets it.

As I have covered the Narnia movies over the past few years, I have heard and read many comments from Andrew Adamson. My take on him is that he was raised in a conservative Christian environment, but that he has turned to a more “secular humanist” approach as an adult. This certainly has (in my opinion) flavored what we see in the movies, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Lewis did not intend the Narnia stories to be evangelistic tools in the sense that many evangelical believers use that term. He had no illusions that people would become Christians just by reading the books. They are intended as “universal” myths which happen to point to Christian truths, but, as is true of pagan myths, definitely do not contain the information needed to become a Christian. Christians often see the Christian themes all too well because they are looking for them, not because they equate exactly to Christianity. (Aslan’s death for Edmund is not exactly the same as Christ’s death for all humanity.)

Take, for example, the phoenix—the ancient pagan myth about a bird that rises from its own ashes. Christians have, since at least the second century, seen this myth as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. The ancient pagans did not write it as such, but it is still a powerful symbol. People do not become Christians by learning about the phoenix. The bird can be used to help people understand, but the myth does not contain all the information they need.

The same is true for the Narnia stories.

4 Responses to “The Chronicles of Narnia”

  1. Greg Wright  

    Nice analysis, Mark. I’m sympathetic to Boyer’s point because I feel Adamson’s films, while clearly faithful to the books at a certain level, pandered too much to cultural relevance in key ways. While Dawn Treader reverses that trend somewhat, it doesn’t entirely — but it grates on me less for some reason.

    But you do a nice job of counter-argument here. What the films subvert is, quite possibly, not Christianity but Brittania.

  2. Mark Sommer  

    Thanks, Greg. I am sympathetic to Boyer’s view, too—to a point. But I felt his stated premise (which I quote to lead the article) was a bit much.

  3. Devin Brown  

    Hello, Mark. Thanks for an enjoyable and thought-raising piece.

    Lewis’s portrait of hierarchy in Narnia is more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

    What if one’s natural superior does not know what to do? Then, as Lewis suggests in Prince Caspian at the gorge scene, advice and even a vote might be in order.

    What if one’s superior is in the wrong? Near the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we find a clear example of the need, under certain circumstances, to defy hierarchy. Reepicheep and Lord Drinian refuse to allow Caspian to leave the ship and even threaten to bind him and force him to stay until he comes to his senses. Here had the hierarchy been respected, real joy and freedom would most certainly not have been the result. Here an act of defiance was clearly the right thing to do.

    So when is it permissible to disregard hierarchy and act against the authority of one’s superior? Lewis suggests that in a less than perfect society with less than perfect leaders, whether Earth or Narnia, the notion of hierarchical obedience is never simplistic.

  4. Mark Sommer  

    Thank you for taking time to leave a comment, Dr. Brown. That is an excellent example near the end of Dawn Treader.
    By the way, I am enjoying reading your Inside Narnia books. I hope to have a review of Inside The Voyage of the Dawn Treader posted next week.
    Hope you are having a great Thanksgiving.

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