I will never forget the day that I was introduced to the Chronicles of Narnia.
I was a nine year old girl, at an afternoon party on the day of my baptism. There was a big package sitting on the table, wrapped up with a bow. Tearing the paper away I saw a box containing seven hard-cover books.
Naturally a set of books isn't the most exciting thing to a child, but I remember opening the cover of the first book and seeing a name plate with the picture of a great golden lion on it. Little did I know of the adventures in store for me.
I have loved the Chronicles of Narnia since my dad first read them aloud to me by the fire. What makes them so special, though, is the wisdom and comfort they have brought me with each additional reading as I have grown up. They even served as my chief comfort one lonely spring break as I huddled in chilly Boston, exhausted and overwhelmed in a deserted and grimy dorm room. The stories have become ever deeper to me as I have become an adult, and delight me just as they did when I was nine.
So it didn't surprise me to see the box office tallies from this weekend. In the middle of December 2005, when people are afraid to say "Merry Christmas" because it isn't politically correct, Hollywood has given people a chance to show in cold hard cash, what they are hungry for. This past weekend, Americans paid over 67 million dollars to see the well worn and loved tale of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
Lewis' story, the first of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series, debuted this weekend as the second-highest December opening ever! It trails only the final film in Peter Jackson's three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings three billion dollar success story was especially difficult for Disney to digest. The mouse house had turned down Rings when Jackson presented it to them years ago. Regaining their marketing equilibrium became even more difficult when Gibson's The Passion of the Christ skyrocketed to become one of the highest grossing films (independent at that) of all time. So after Paramount let its option on Narnia lapse, Disney teamed up with Walden Media to make Narnia. It seems fortunate that Paramount let the project go since it was planning an updated Narnia set in modern Los Angeles where the children were staying with the Professor in order to avoid an earthquake. The White Witch tempts Edmund not with "Turkish Delight" but with "Cheeseburger and Fries"! Heaven forbid!
Narnia's week end gross proves again that well done family movies can be good for both moral and financial health. Disney execs have all but forgotten last quarter's disappointing loss.
At first glance it makes all the sense in the world that the first Narnia movie should be a smash hit. It is a charming story of four children, Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie, escaping the grey backdrop of World War II England to a land full of adventure, wonderful and strange creatures, and magic. Even outside Narnia the crusty old professor that the children are sent to stay with has a twinkle of whimsy about him as he channels Lewis' own character.
As the story of Narnia unfolds, the children come face to face with troubles in the magical land, as well as their own inclinations that can play into the hands of the evil and alluring White Witch. The children must face danger and uncertainty, assured only by the fact that they are working on the side of Aslan the lion, the rightful king of Narnia.
The story builds to a climax as Edmund succumbs to the temptation of personal glory and falls prey to the White Witch, betraying his family and the other Narnians. In order to redeem Edmund and save Narnia, Aslan offers himself as a sacrifice, and is bound, humiliated and killed. Aslan appears grand and believable, exuding power and warmth through state of the art graphics and a masterful performance by Liam Neeson. After Susan and Lucy mourn over his body, draped limp over the stone table beneath a suddenly gray Narnia sky, the stone that he lays upon cracks, his body disappears, and he returns with glory, having defeated death itself, to save and free Narnia.
Lewis' image of redemption flows powerfully through the movie as Narnia undergoes a transformation from a white, icy place where it is "always winter and never Christmas" to a lush, blooming, chirping wonderland before the children's eyes. Hope becomes palpable as great lakes and rivers of ice melt, and surging water and brilliant flowers burst onto the screen.
Aslan's resurrection and the children's new found virtues of valiance, justice, gentleness and magnificence are just a few of the ingredients of Narnia that start to make some reviewers defensive. In the face of the movie's success, arguments are flying about that it is just inappropriate to acknowledge and consider the sacred themes that permeate the battles and triumphs of Aslan and the Narnians. Some articles claim that we should stick to the surface of the story and ignore the possibility that the Pevensie children's trials and accomplishments in Narnia represent great, universal human struggles and experiences.
One New York Times reviewer argues, "If everyone stays on his own level – the surface for adventurers, and the depths for believers – we can all enjoy, so long as the advertisers stay out of the way." What the review seems to miss is the fact that Lewis' story need not be picked apart or broken down into allegorical parallels or symbols in order to convey depth and meaning to its audience. The tale has depth and richness organically that shines through unless it is intentionally blocked out.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile for those trying to hold onto the "surface level story" while discarding the "icky religious" part to step back for a moment and honestly consider what makes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a story so powerful. Why is it that it continues to hold fascination for adults and children alike on the big screen in 2005, just as it has for the last half century even as many children's stories have passed in and out of people's hearts and imaginations?
Maybe The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has such power to charm and inspire because its characters, conflicts and king are not random fabrications, but uncanny windows into life—in Narnia, Word War II and 2005 alike. Tucked snugly into the Pevensies' adventures in delightful Narnia is the story of sin, resurrection and redemption—the story of Easter—the story of Christmas. Just maybe we are flocking to the movies because C.S. Lewis paints not only a world we can escape to, but an incisive piece of truth that is more real than gas prices, the stock market and the rush of Christmas shopping—more real than 67 million dollars.
Perhaps it rings true because it is true.