Monday, May 26, 2008

Bozell on Caspian and Lewis

Brent Bozell has piece on Prince Caspian in which he makes some comparisons and points that I've made before, particularly on the relative success of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Golden Compass.
Before any of the “Caspian” box office figures came in, [Richard] Corliss asked in Time magazine: “Can God make one movie franchise a hit and another a flop?” It’s quite clear that “The Golden Compass” flopped badly. It debuted last December to a seriously disappointing first-weekend gross of $25 million, and finished its sorry American run with only $70 million. No sequel is expected for that God-killing trilogy. Meanwhile, “The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe” grossed $291 million in the U.S., and “Prince Caspian” is off to a soaring launch, and the third Narnia installment, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” is already slated for release in May 2010.

As I said at the time, "it should not surprise anyone that a work whose fundamental premise demonstrates contempt for the deeply held beliefs of a large portion of its target audience fails to achieve financial success."

I agree with Bozell on this, obviously. But then he goes into the content of the Narnia books, and Lewis' intentions, and I think makes some serious mistakes.

Was “Caspian” toned down from the book? Yes, perhaps because there are bureaucrats in Hollywood who still presume that explicit faith is a commercial problem. When the first Narnia film came out late in 2005, Disney publicity executive Dennis Rice rushed to distance the film from Christianity. “We believe we have not made a religious movie,” he told the Washington Times. “It's just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature.”

That statement surely would have horrified the author.

First, if Prince Caspian was toned down, I confess that I missed it. There is no explicit theology in the book, only the presence of Aslan. Once one associates Aslan with Christ, one sees some theology in the book, but it's all there in the movie as well. The explicit Christian doctrine from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is, of course, the sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan. Does someone want to argue that that was toned down? I don't think so.

As to the quote from the executive, far from horrifying Lewis, I think he would have agreed with it happily. Lewis did not think of the Narnia books as being, as they are frequently called, "Christian allegory." They were children's stories, written to entertain. He wasn't writing explicit Christian stories, he was preparing a "mission field" as it were, so that children might be more receptive to the Christian message when they were later exposed to it. In 1938, he noted that the response of the critics to Out of the Silent Planet demonstrated ignorance of its Christian themes and subtexts. He later wrote to a friend that "I think that this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelisation of England; any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under cover of romance without their knowing it1."

As longtime Lewis friend and biographer George Sayer wrote about the Narnia stories (emphasis mine),
the main theme of the stories is the conflict between good and evil; characters such as the white witch represent the forces of evil. The stories are not meant to teach Christian doctrine. They are written first as stories that children could wholeheartedly enjoy, and secondly as stories in which some of the imaginary episodes rather resemble the true events of the Christian faith. He did not want the resemblances to be pointed out by adults, nor even did he expect them to be noticed by more than a few children. His hope was that when, at an older age, the child came into contact with the real truths of Christianity, he or she would find these truths easier to accept because of reading with pleasure and accepting stories with similar themes years before.

Bozell goes on to say that
Religious people will sense a strong religious undercurrent in “Caspian.” Even toned down, the plot echoes the Acts of the Apostles, and how those early believers could have faith in Jesus after His ascension to Heaven. The religious themes are re-organized so that only the little girl Lucy sees Aslan and trusts he will eventually aid the children. That’s unlike the book, where all four of the Pevensie children, those kings and queens of Narnia – Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy – each meet with Aslan in their walk of faith.

That's just wrong. The storyline of the movie did not exactly follow the storyline of the book, but these two things are true of both: Lucy saw Aslan and the others did not believe her, and they all saw, and walked with, Aslan before the story ended. If you begin without the preconceived notion that Aslan represents Christ, you see substantially the same story and themes from the book and the movie. And if you begin with the preconceived notion that Aslan represents Christ, you see substantially the same story and themes from the book and the movie. While the movie-makers padded the story, they were faithful to the themes and "feel" of the book2.

1 - Letter to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V, July 9, 1939

2 - Faithfulness to the "feel" of the book is, I think, debatable. The books are more "intimate" than the movies so far, but it's difficult to portray the battle in the book, short though it is on the printed page, and maintain that intimacy. Faithfulness to the themes is less debatable.

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