Christian fiction

Losing faith in Narnia, part II

The producers and writers behind "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" say the same thing when describing the challenge they faced bringing the novel to the screen.

The problem, all agree, is that the second book in the classic seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis is not structured like a movie.

The book's plot looks like this: The royal children from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" are whisked back to the magical land of Narnia, where they meet a grumpy dwarf, who tells them a long, sad story that doesn't involve them about a prince they've never heard of named Caspian. So Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie decide to help, which leads to a long, long walk in the woods that eventually brings them to Caspian. Then there is a battle. The End.

That doesn't exactly scream, "Summer movie!"

"Through the magic of C.S. Lewis, that all works quite well on the printed page," said co-producer Douglas Gresham. "However, it's almost impossible to make that plot work on the screen. ... In terms of its story and message, I would say that 'Prince Caspian' is impoverished, in comparison with 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.' But while it may be poorer, as a story, I believe we have been able to make it into a better movie."

To do that, the team assembled by Disney and Walden Media decided to radically restructure the plot, including adding a second act that is not in the novel. That is sure to cause concern among legions of Lewis loyalists, which is a large crowd since sales of "The Chronicles of Narnia" have topped 100 million. The movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $748 million at the global box office.

In this case, it truly helps to know that Gresham -- in addition to being a producer -- is also Lewis' stepson and has been on a 30-year quest to turn the Narnia novels into full-scale motion pictures. Needless to say, he has played a strategic role in talks about artistic changes in Narnia.

"It would be hard to find someone who knows these stories better than I do or cares more about them," said Gresham, whose mother, poet Joy Davidman Gresham, met and married C.S. "Jack" Lewis during the years when the Chronicles were published. "The Narnia stories are a big part of Jack's legacy and, believe me, I am aware of that."

This has been a joy and a burden. Parts of "Prince Caspian" were filmed in the Czech Republic and, while in Prague, Gresham was introduced to the American ambassador. He wryly notes that, when the ambassador inquired about Gresham's role in the project, producer Mark Johnson had a simple reply: "Oh, he's to blame."

The key, said Johnson, is whether the messages in these books remain intact.

"The themes are the most important things," he said, during press events in New York. "You have to say, 'What is this movie about?' The first one was about a certain kind of faith and this one is about losing faith and then regaining it."

On one level, explained Gresham, "Prince Caspian" remains an adventure story about how the kings and queens from Narnia's golden age return to a troubled land and fight to restore "truth, justice, honor, glory and a sense of personal commitment and responsibility" during troubled times. However, the Pevensie children also struggle to believe that Aslan -- the Christ figure in Narnia -- will return and guide them.

The High King Peter, in particular, struggles with the "sin of pride" and his desire to prove he is still in command, said Gresham. This leads to a new twist in the plot, linked to an assault on the castle of the evil King Miraz.

"If anything, this theme that Peter has to regain his faith in Aslan is stronger in the movie than it was in the book," he said. To state this in terms that Narnia lovers will understand, if the younger King Edmund had to face his sins in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," then Peter faces a similar crisis in the new movie.

"This is something we all have to deal with in life," said Gresham. "We all have to realize that no matter how far we stray, there's only one way to come back."

Please let Harry Potter die

Father Jonathan Tobias knows exactly what he will do when J.K. Rowling releases the final volume of the Harry Potter series.

The family tradition is that he reads the entire book out loud to his wife and two daughters. Then, when the final page has been turned, they start debating what will happen next.

Things will be different this time. However, the Eastern Orthodox priest knows how he hopes the last act plays out. Unlike many other ministers, Tobias doesn't want Potter to renounce magic or to lose his adolescent flaws. It would be awkward, he said, for the young wizard to "fall to his knees and make the sign of the cross." His suggestion is simpler than that.

Rowling should let Potter die, because that is what tragic heroes do.

"There is little decent tragedy around" in modern culture, said Tobias, at his "Second Terrace" weblog. "There is a lot of irony, where a non-heroic central character is pitched into the abyss of ambiguity. There is a lot of farce, where burlesque mummers traipse around in varying degrees of moral undress.

"But tragedy? No. ... We do not see the sense of the pollution of evil, and its uncleanness. We have no immediate feeling of the necessity to fix or to cleanse. And we haven't seen much of a fable where the story demanded, clearly, the surmounting and cleansing of evil -- even at the cost of real, hard sacrifice."

Tobias is one voice in a global digital chorus debating this issue at myriad websites with names like and Potter fans have, after all, purchased more than 300 million copies of the six novels.

The faithful have been sweating ever since Jim Dale, the voice behind the U.S. audio-book editions, claimed that the author had told him Harry would die. Then Rowling stunned British television viewers by revealing that she had tweaked the finale (the last word is "scar") so that "one character got a reprieve, but two die that I didn't intend to die." And Harry Potter? She answered, "I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks, 'I'm going to kill him off because after I'm dead and gone they won't be able to bring back the character.' "

Podcasting guru Emerson Spartz of spoke for millions when he said he couldn't believe that Rowling would build her series around a "kid whose life sucks and then he dies."

Nevertheless, Tobias is convinced that Potter combines many characteristics seen in heroes through the ages. He was born to greatness, but suffered the tragic loss of loved ones. He has special gifts, glaring weaknesses and carries the burden of a haunting prophecy that hints at tragedy, triumph or both. Supernatural trials? Potter has seen it all.

"A hero is not perfect. In fact, his flaws are part of what make him great," said Tobias, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church outside Pittsburgh. "By the end of a story like this one, the hero has simply become too big to remain in this world. This kind of hero is born for a purpose and he dies for a purpose."

Thus, it's significant that Rowling -- in an early interview with a Canadian newspaper -- noted that she is, in fact, a Christian. "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me. ... If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader -- whether 10 or 60 -- will be able to guess what is coming in the books."

Also, Rowling has acknowledged the influence of beloved Christian works like the seven-volume "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis and "The Lord of the Rings" cycle by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these fantasy classics, noted Tobias, feature endings that combine death and rebirth, along with the bittersweet passing of a magical age.

"Part of being a hero is to have a great love and to be willing to make a great sacrifice for that love," he said. "It seems to me that Harry Potter has been walking down that same road. ... It's just hard to see him going home and settling down. He's been through too much."

All those Left Behind Catholics

Catholic writer Carl Olson was struggling as he led his audience through the maze of competing Christian beliefs about the Second Coming of Jesus.

There are premillennialists who believe Christ will reign for 1,000 years on earth. But it wouldn't be fair to lump them with the ultra-literal premillennial dispensationalists, he noted, since these camps contain bitter rifts over the timing of "the rapture." That's when the trumpet sounds, the dead rise and Christians soar to meet Christ in the air. Then there is the ancient amillennial stance, without a 1,000-year kingdom. Oh, and don't forget the postmillennialists.

Rows of middle-aged, cradle Catholics in Salem, Ore., gazed back -- utterly lost.

"I was getting absolutely nowhere," said Olson. "So I finally asked them: 'How many of you have ever heard a single sermon or even some kind of talk at church about what the Catholic faith actually teaches about the Second Coming?' There were 200 or more people there and four or five hands went up. That's what you see everywhere."

These Catholics didn't know their catechism. But, many could quote chapter and verse from another doctrinal source -- the "Left Behind" novels by evangelical superstars Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. This amazes Olson, who was raised in what he called a "strong, fundamentalist Protestant" home before converting to Catholicism.

The first 11 novels have sold around 50 million copies and that doesn't include the racks of children's books, audio editions, games, comics, DVDs and music products. Now the climactic "Glorious Appearing: The End of Days" is out, complete with a warrior Christ on a white stallion leading the angelic version of shock and awe.

The powers that be at the New York Times were struck by this scene: "Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of God."

For millions of modern Catholics, this is more exciting than the works of Justin Martyr, Augustine and the Second Vatican Council. Olson said it's hard to know what chunk of the "Left Behind" audience is Catholic, but publicists say that 11 percent is a good estimate.

This shouldn't be foreign territory for Catholics, said Olson, author of "Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?" In every Mass, they say they believe Jesus will "come again in glory to judge the living and dead." Catholics are taught -- along with Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans and many others -- that "the rapture" will follow a time of tribulation and happen at the Second Coming, not seven years earlier as taught in the "Left Behind" series.

But it's hard to resist thrillers in which the mysterious Book of Revelation is decoded into visions of United Nations plots, global media, Chinese armies, Israeli jets and, well, Satan running the Vatican.

"Lots of Catholics tell me that 'Left Behind' can't be bad because LaHaye and Jenkins have the pope getting raptured along with the good guys," said Olson. "They don't even notice that this pope is considered a radical because he has started preaching what sure sounds like evangelical Protestantism. In other words, he's a real Christian. The next pope turns out to be Anti-Christ's right-hand man."

Meanwhile, most priests and bishops are silent, said Olson. Many fear being called "fundamentalists" if they even discuss issues of prophecy and the end times. Others may not believe what their church teaches.

The Catholic bishops of Illinois did release a "Left Behind" critique, claiming: "Overall, these books reinforce an unhealthy and immature belief in a harshly judgmental God whose mercy we earn by good behavior." But Olson said too many Catholic leaders refuse to take seriously the content of the books, movies and television programs that shape the beliefs of their people.

"If you want to be a good shepherd, you have to care about this stuff," he said. "These kinds of books and movies are where most Americans -- including Catholics -- get their beliefs and attitudes about faith and spirituality. ... You cannot wish these things away. They're real."

Yes, there is a Mitford

Just north of Columbia, S.C., there is an unincorporated community called Mitford.

As far as author Jan Karon knows, this is the only place in North America that bears the name of the mythical North Carolina mountain town she has made so famous with her novels.

The real Mitford has a Baptist church and a barbecue joint and that's about it.

"Now what more do you need, I mean, if you really stop and think about it?", asked Karon, before letting loose with a Southern hoot and a cackle.

Yes indeed, all that the Mitford lady needs to tell most of her tales is a busy church, a gossipy diner and the people who frequent one or the other or both. She has taken these humble ingredients, slipped them into the structures of the British "village novel" and created a franchise that keeps taking small-town virtues into the uppity territory of the New York Times bestseller lists.

"Who would want to read books with no cussing', no murder, no mayhem and no sex? ... How can something so innocuous as these Mitford books sell 10 million copies?", asked Karon, speaking at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., just before the release of "In This Mountain," the seventh Mitford novel.

"This is what I think. I think there was a wide vein of readers out there who were just waiting for someone to write a book about them, about their dreams and their lives and their values. ... With Mitford, we look at the ordinary lives and see something extraordinary and dramatic and full of feeling and worthy to be observed."

The books revolve around Father Timothy Kavanagh, a shockingly orthodox Episcopal priest who is so behind the times that he even converts people to Christianity. Late in life, the shy bachelor marries Cynthia Coppersmith, a witty blond divorcee who moves to Mitford to create her award-winning books for children. The surroundings yield legions of colorful characters.

Karon began writing books in the early 1990s in the picturesque town of Blowing Rock, N.C., and other pieces of Mitford can be found in her life. When she was six she wanted to be a preacher. When she was 10 she wanted to be an author. Today she is an author who crafts the words spoken by one of America's most beloved preachers.

But the witty blond didn't start writing until mid-life, when she abandoned her career as an advertising executive and escaped to the mountains. The pain of a divorce and the sweetness of a newborn faith figure into her story as well.

Thus, her fiercely loyal readers keep asking: Is she Cynthia?

No, says Karon, Cynthia has better legs.

But the questions keep coming. Is Barnabas, the priest's scripture-friendly dog, going to die? Now that the Appalachian urchins Dooley Barlowe and Lace Turner have grown up, will they get married? What will Dooley do with the fortune the late Miss Sadie secretly left him? Where does Uncle Billy get his corny jokes? And what is livermush, anyway?

Then there is the ultimate question. In the new novel, Father Tim crashes into his own mortality and even survives a near-death experience. Karon has promised that the next Mitford book, "Light From Heaven," will end the series. Readers now ask: Is Father Tim going to die?

"No, he's not going to die," she said. "This is about his LIFE."

The books are relentlessly cheerful, even though Karon weaves in dark threads. There is schizophrenia and depression, greed and grinding poverty, child abuse and alcoholism, disease and death. But most of all there is faith, even though her books fly out of secular bookstores.

Karon said it would be impossible to edit out her beliefs. It would be like trying to filter a shot of brandy back out of a cup of coffee. Once they're mixed, they're mixed.

"Even if I never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, I can't hide from you who I am," she said. "In truth, the work that has no faith is for me not a whole work. It may be an amusing or credible or clever work, but not a whole work. Faith is a critical and urgent and necessary component of human wholeness."