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Evangelicals and Hollywood engaged in battle over Chronicles of Narnia

God or fantasy? Evangelicals and Hollywood are engaged in a battle to claim "The Chronicles of Narnia" for their side.

By Colleen O'Connor
Denver Post Staff Writer

November 22, 2005

Who owns Narnia?


Or Christians?

In these polarized times, with millions at stake, fighting over the cultural legacy of a fictional kingdom created by a man who died 42 years ago isn't as crazy as it sounds.

Some say a holy war is waging over Disney's much-anticipated holiday blockbuster, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Conservative Christians claim the story as their sacred ground. After all, they say, its author is the legendary Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

"I'm fine with pagans picking up on our story," says Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, a nonprofit that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television.

"It's funny to hear them say, 'How can they dare co-opt this?' I think, 'We didn't co-opt you. You co-opted us because you thought you could make money off it.' "

On the other hand, since the book's debut in 1950, generations of children have loved the magical, snowy world of Narnia, and its battle between good and evil.

Now adults, these Narnians believe the upcoming movie should empower children, fire their imaginations and encourage them to read via the seven-volume fantasy series.

"C.S. Lewis wrote these books for everyone," says Perry Moore, the movie's executive producer and author of the illustrated companion book.

"It was my favorite book as a kid, and I have very vivid memories of reading it when my mom gave it to me at age 8. I burned through it all in one sitting."

The beloved children's classic, which has sold 95 million copies in 55 years, is part of a gigantic wave of Narnia mania that will soon crash upon popular culture. Look for Hasbro's Narnia action figure under Christmas trees this year, along with Narnia board games, puzzles, porcelain dolls, and trading cards.

General Mills already Web Extra Narnia

Click here to watch the trailer for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." touts recipes for "enchanted snacks inspired by the magical land of Narnia," including Icicle Clusters and Snowdrift Crunch. McDonald's Happy Meals will include Narnia toys - and kids can even brush afterward with Narnia toothbrushes from Oral-B.

"Chronicles of Narnia" is that rarest of intellectual properties. It appeals to both secular audiences, especially fantasy and sci-fi fans, and conservative Christians - a prized demographic thanks to its box-office punch that made Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" a $611 million phenomenon.

In addition to corporate tie-ins, Disney also massively marketed to Christian audiences by hiring Christian marketing firms - the same that powered "The Passion" into such a hit - while simultaneously denying that it's a "Christian" movie.

"This isn't supposed to be a Christian film, any more than (Lewis) set out to write a Christian book," says Douglas Gresham of Dublin, Ireland, Lewis' stepson, a staunch Christian and co-

producer of the upcoming film.

"Everyone and no one owns Narnia. Narnia owns itself."

Walking a fine line

It's a risky strategy: Heavily marketing to Christians could turn off non-Christians.

"Hollywood is starting to freak out a little bit because they don't want to alienate the mainstream audience," says Nicolosi.

"They walk a fine line," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly.

"Evangelicals would like to claim C.S. Lewis as their own because of his prominence in pop culture," she says.

"It validates the way they like to be seen. If Lewis were here and you asked him if he wrote this book for Christians, I think he'd say no. Nor did he write it as an evangelistic tool. I believe he wrote it as a children's book."

In the 21st century, however, Christians have a coveted seat at the cultural table. They've engaged in a tug-of-war over scenes and dialogues critical to the book's Christian message, including precise wording during the coronation scene.

"There was such a brouhaha over that, Disney went bonkers," says Ted Baehr, co-author of "Narnia Beckons," and chairman of The Christian Film & Television Commission.

Controversy inspired Time magazine to run "How to Tell if 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is a Christian Film," a story that included an "evangelical sniff test" listing specific sentences that must be in the movie for Christians to stage those repeat viewings that made Gibson's movie so successful.

Even within the Christian community, this approach is controversial.

"Because of what happened in politics and the huge success of 'The Passion of The Christ,' the evangelical community is kind of power-mad right now," says Greg Wright, a Christian pastor who works as senior editor for the website Hollywood


"They can wield a tremendous amount of power in Hollywood, and that ends up being terribly seductive."

Outside the Christian community, where fans want their fantasy epics stripped of religious trappings, this approach triggered a backlash.

"If the Disney Corporation wants to market this film as a great Christian story, they'll just have to tell lies about it," atheist and fantasy author Philip Pullman was reported as saying to The Observer. He called the book both "racist" and "misogynist."

Pullman's comments ignited a passionate debate on the BBC News website:

"As an atheist ... I don't want evangelicals using these books to fuel fundamentalism in the 21st century," said a resident of Cambridge, England, using the pseudonym Lucy Pevensie, one of the Narnian characters.

But in the real world, Lucy loses. Conservative Christians don't just plan to use the new Disney movie as an evangelical tool; it's been happening all along.

Back in 1980, when Baehr was president of the organization that created the "Chronicles of Narnia" for CBS television, he received many letters from people who tuned in to the fairy tale and suddenly found themselves accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

"I was surprised," says Baehr. "It's just a wonderful, fantasy, make-believe story. I just didn't expect that."

A few years ago, when the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" movies grossed more than $4.5 billion, Hollywood producers suddenly realized only one untapped fantasy epic remained: "The Chronicles of Narnia."

"It was a very frenzied time," says Moore.

"It was difficult to watch everyone in Hollywood suddenly call (Gresham) because they thought fantasy movies were back in fashion. They'd just woken up to the fact that this beloved masterpiece of a book existed. "

For more than a year, Moore and his colleagues at Walden Media - funded by Denver billionaire and Evangelical Presbyterian Philip Anschutz - had wooed Gresham, working to convince him they'd make a movie faithful to Lewis' vision.

Their success means that two of Hollywood's hottest fantasy franchises, "Lord of the Rings" and "Chronicles of Narnia," are based on tales penned by two Christians devoted to God: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

An atheist for most of his life, Lewis converted at age 32 after a long talk with his friend Tolkien, a Catholic then writing "The Lord of the Rings."

Both writers - Oxford academics who talked theology, metaphysics and fantasy over drinks at the local pub - believed that myth and fairy tale best expressed universal truth.

"Without Lewis' encouragement over many years, 'The Lord of the Rings' would never have appeared in print," writes Colin Duriez in "The C.S. Lewis Chronicles."

They saw themselves as not as "Christian writers" but writers who spun fantastic narratives from a Christian worldview.

"Lewis liked the pagan heritage out of which Christianity arises and gets focus," says Bruce Edwards, a leading Lewis scholar. "He called paganism 'the good dreams of humankind.' That's what Narnia was intended to be - a good dream."

Actually, Narnia sprang from Lewis' dreams. As a teen, Lewis had a vision of a faun in a snowy wood, carrying parcels and an umbrella. At age 50, he decided to make a story out of the image. Lewis was dreaming of lions at the time, and the character of a lion-messiah named Aslan jumped into his mind. "The whole Narnian story is about Christ," wrote Lewis in a 1961 letter to a child.

"That is to say, I asked myself, 'Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?' The stories are my answers."

Myths and fairy tales had entranced Lewis since childhood. He revered the power of fantasy to touch hearts of all ages, and conjure universal truths.

"Let the meaning (of Narnia)come from the story," says Marjorie Lamp Mead, associate director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, the world's largest holding of Lewis materials.

"You may not accept his Christian faith, or the spiritual significance that is Christian in this story. But that is not the only way to appreciate this story."

It's strange magic when Christians and non-Christians can sit in the same theater and see entirely different movies. "Whether or not you like (Lewis') agenda, the Chronicles of Narnia works as literature," says Wright.

"The test of the film is whether Narnia succeeds as cinema. If so, it will be successful whether or not Disney throws the right amount of money at it, or whether the evangelical community gets on board. Evangelicals are as bored with bad art as the next audience."


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