The day after Christmas, cinemas began screening The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a film adaptation of one of the novels belonging to The Chronicles of Narnia written by CS Lewis. It attracted record attendances and within weeks it had grossed US$536.5 million worldwide. Four months on and the film is about to gain even greater audiences and earnings: for it is scheduled to be released on DVD soon after Easter.
The film’s popularity is not surprising, given that the seven novels that comprise The Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 85 million copies in the half century since their first publication. That translates into a lot of children and once-were-children who love Lewis’s fantasy and who might reasonably be expected to watch the film.
Of course, a good book can be made into a bad film, in which case lovers of the book will shun the film in droves. In this instance, the record cinema attendances are testament to the film’s outstanding quality.
Although it lacks some of the book’s detail and subtlety, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation. (Most of its departures—as when the Witch’s sledge is drawn by polar bears instead of reindeer—are minor and inconsequential.) The plot is intriguing, the action is well paced and the principal characters—the children, the Lion, the Witch—are nicely realised. Furthermore, the cinematography and effects are superb. Indeed, creatures such as the centaurs and minotaurs, along with the final battle in which they are involved, are stunningly realistic.
Despite its fine qualities, the film was greeted with hostility by some critics when it was first released. These critics did not deny the quality of the acting, the cinematography, etc. Their anger—not just annoyance, but real anger—was directed at the author of the book and one of the characters of the film. These critics were incensed by what they perceived to be the film’s “message”.
In order to consider this “message”, it is worth recapping the film/book.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children (brothers and sisters) unwittingly leave our world through a magic wardrobe and enter another world called Narnia, which is inhabited by talking animals and mythological creatures such a fauns, unicorns and centaurs. This world is under the spell of the White Witch, who has blanketed everything in the snows of a century-long winter.
The children learn from a pair of friendly Beavers that “Aslan is on the move.” Aslan is a magnificent Lion who has been away from Narnia for a long time. He is the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea and the rightful King of Narnia and the Beavers are confident that he will defeat the Witch and put an end to the winter.
Unfortunately, one of the children, Edmund, joins up with the Witch, betraying his brother, his sisters, the good animals and the Lion in the process. Edmund has a miserable time with the Witch, who decides to make a sacrifice of him. But as she whets her knife, Aslan’s followers rescue him and take him to their camp.
Aslan forgives Edmund, but the Witch demands to have him back. She tells Aslan, “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Aslan acknowledges the truth of the Witch’s claim, but offers his own life as a ransom for Edmund’s. The Witch accepts his offer and subsequently humiliates and kills him. The two girls mourn beside his body throughout the night, but in the morning he returns to life and goes on to defeat the Witch.
This, in brief, is the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What infuriates the critics is the character of Aslan and the part that he plays in the story. For they say that the Lion of the film represents the Jesus of the Bible. And in this claim they are partially right.
CS Lewis was a Christian. Indeed, in addition to seven fantasy novels and three science fiction novels, he wrote many books and essays explaining and defending the Christian faith. And it is an open secret that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reflects aspects of his Christian worldview.
However, it is a mistake to think that the novel (and after it, the film) is an exercise in propaganda. Lewis is not like the old communist party hacks who valued literature only as a means to eulogise and advance “the cause”. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he loved literature and mythology and fantasy. He wrote it to be enjoyed in its own right. Whether or not he had a “message” in mind, he wanted his novel to engage the imagination of his readers and to give them the sort of pleasure that good fantasy writing can give.
But the film’s critics downplay the literary excellence of the book and the imaginative mastery of the film in order to make their case against Lewis and his faith. How dare he adopt Christianity, let alone advocate it! The temerity of the man!
In a review tellingly titled “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion” (The Guardian, 2 December 2005), Polly Toynbee expresses considerable venom towards the film, the book and the author. In particular, she despises the way that Aslan dies for Edmund and then rises from the dead, which she rightly recognises as an allusion to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for sinners and his subsequent resurrection. She cannot bear the possibility that children might be influenced by the film to think about Jesus and what (according to the Bible) he did to save us.
Toynbee consoles herself, however, with the fact that few children today know anything at all about Jesus and the Christian faith. She states: “Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. … so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion. After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn’t say what Easter celebrated. …” So, according to Toynbee, most (British) viewers will be protected by their ignorance from the Christian undercurrents of the film. Yet Toynbee is still unhappy. She declares, “All the same, children may puzzle over the lion and ask embarrassing questions.”
I suspect Australia is similar to Britain in the levels of ignorance about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith and the significance of Easter. But unlike Toynbee, I take no comfort from this. I welcome the prospect that the film may cause children—and adults, too—to puzzle over the Lion, which may in turn lead them to ponder the Lion’s archetype, the Lord Jesus Christ.
To assist those who have seen the film and are puzzling over the Lion, let me mention some of the parallels between Aslan and Jesus.
Aslan is the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea: Jesus is the Son of God. Aslan came to Narnia at the same time as Father Christmas: Jesus came to Earth on the first Christmas Day. Aslan is noble, fierce, courageous, forgiving and kind: Jesus is noble, fierce, courageous, forgiving and kind. Aslan laid down his life for Edmund: Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for all the Edmunds of the world. Aslan’s death paid the price for Edmund’s wrongs: Jesus’ death paid the price for our wrongdoings. Aslan rose again from the dead: Jesus rose up from the grave. Aslan defeated the Witch by his death and resurrection: Jesus defeated Satan by his death and resurrection. Aslan made the children kings and queens of Narnia: Jesus ennobles all who trust in him and makes them heirs to the Kingdom of God.
CS Lewis modelled the Lion of Narnia on “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”, as Jesus is called in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 5:5). He deepened the character of Aslan by drawing upon the character of Jesus. It was an artistically bold and brilliant thing to do. The novel (and now the film) reverberates beyond itself because of it.
Yet without doubt Lewis intended the analogy to work both ways. He wanted to enrich the character of Aslan by likening him to Jesus, yes—but he also wanted to honour Jesus by likening him to Aslan. He drew upon Jesus to create Aslan so that Aslan might draw people to Jesus.
To learn more about the Lord whom Lewis loved—not to mention the Lion whom he created—read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. These are the historical eyewitness accounts about Jesus from which Lewis drew his ideas for Aslan.