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."

Losing faith in Narnia, Part I

While there are no cars in Narnia, screenwriter Stephen McFeely rolled out an automotive image to express the message at the heart of the second film drawn from the seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis.

At its heart, he said, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" describes what happens "when people lose faith, when you don't keep Aslan in your windshield and he's in your rear-view mirror."

But if the most important thing to do during a life-shaking crisis is to keep one's eyes on a character named Aslan, then it's crucial to know who Aslan is and why following him is so important.

Yet dealing with the Aslan question has been the greatest challenge facing the Narnia team from Disney and Walden Media, which saw the first movie in this franchise -- based on "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- gross $748 million at the global box office, a total that soared over $1 billion with the DVD sales.

The bottom line: Aslan means different things to different readers. This is an awesome equation to ponder since sales of the Chronicles have topped 100 million, while being translated into more than 35 languages.

On one level, Aslan -- which means "lion" in Turkish -- is a magical beast who created Narnia and all of the talking beasts, spirits and people who inhabit it. Period.

Yet if he created this world then it would be logical to call him Narnia's Creator, with a large "C." Thus, many readers see Aslan as a powerful, yet vague, deity.

Then again, it's a fact that Lewis -- an outspoken Christian apologist -- stated that this series offered a sweeping parable of creation, fall, redemption and, ultimately, apocalypse. While the novels can be enjoyed on many levels, the Oxford University don provided a precise description of Aslan's identity in the first Narnia novel.

"I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea," says a talking beaver who helps Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie after the children arrive from the world of Adam and Eve. "Don't you know who is the King of Beasts?"

Thus, Aslan is the son of the ultimate ruler of Narnia and, in the most famous sequence in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he allows himself to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of a traitor. Then, at dawn, the stone altar is empty and Aslan is raised from the dead.

That's a rather obvious metaphor, noted William Moseley, who plays Peter, the oldest Pevensie, who becomes the high king in Narnia's golden age.

"I don't want to go into the ... Christian analogy, but it's obviously there," said Moseley, during recent New York press events for "Prince Caspian," which reaches theaters this weekend. "Aslan represents God. People say every day, 'Why can't I see God? If he's there, why can't I see him?' "

Questions about the absence of Aslan loom over the action in the second movie. When the plot begins, the children have been back in England for a year. Then they are magically recalled to the land they once ruled, only to find that 1,300 years have passed. Narnia is controlled by the evil tyrant Miraz, who has stolen the throne from his nephew Prince Caspian.

It's a time of doubt, corruption and cynicism, in large part because Aslan has not been seen since the time of the four young rulers. The land the children knew is gone and they are tempted to lose faith, in Aslan and in their own mission.

The big problem is that when Aslan finally appears, only Lucy can see him and her visions are mysterious and highly personal.

The youngest queen faces a frustrating paradox that is at the heart of the book's message. As she grows older, Aslan will grow in stature and power, yet it also requires more faith to see and follow him.

"The thing is, Narnia isn't a game" for the children, said Georgie Henley, the 12-year-old actress who plays Lucy. In the context of Lewis' parable, "It's a real world. Although Aslan fades for a while, when he comes back he's stronger than ever and he's bigger than ever.

"I love that saying, you know: 'As long as you grow, so shall I.' "

NEXT WEEK: Douglas Gresham, on turning his stepfather's novel into a movie.

Shadows of THE wardrobe

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The tall wardrobe in the office of the Westmont College English department isn't much to look at, but visitors from near and far keep visiting to peek inside.

A previous owner described this piece of oak furniture as a "perfectly ordinary wardrobe," a big one of the "sort that has a looking glass in the door." It was big enough to hold "a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one," yet the threshold was low enough that a small child -- perhaps a girl playing hide and seek -- could step into it.

It helps to know that this previous owner was a scholar named C.S. Lewis and that he wrote this precise description of this wardrobe, or an imaginary armoire just like it, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." This was the first book published in his classic fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Naturally, legions of Lewis lovers want to see and touch the wardrobe.

"Day after day you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into the land of Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia. "There is that part of me that wants to say to each and every one of them, 'Hey! It's just a wardrobe!' ... Yet part of me also thinks that it's funny, and significant, that we are so serious about our literary relics. Why is that?"

There is no sign of declining interest in the life and work of Lewis and this is especially true of the Narnia novels, with more than 100 million copies sold over the past half a century. Meanwhile, the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $745 million worldwide and the first sequel, "Prince Caspian," is slated for a May 2008 release.

Willis has a unique perspective on this phenomenon and not just because he teaches at Westmont, a liberal arts college on the coast north of Los Angeles. The professor and novelist is also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, which includes the Wade Center, a famous center for Lewis studies. This collection includes his desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters and an ornate, double-door oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Wheaton obtained this item in 1973 and researchers stress that, according to the famous author's older brother Warren, this spectacular wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.

Willis remembers the emotions stirred by the arrival of this wardrobe on campus. Some people seemed to think it was an object worthy of worship, because of its connection to the "unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College." Willis even wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, jokingly suggesting that administrators could cut slivers out of the back and sell them as relics.

It's crucial to remember that the Narnia wardrobe is the "threshold to fantasy," wrote Willis, in a 2005 book of essays entitled "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness." For many readers devoted to the novels, this physical wardrobe had become "a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia."

And then there were two, when Westmont obtained its wardrobe in 1975.

This was the last piece of furniture left in The Kilns, the house near Oxford in which the Lewis brothers lived while the Oxford don wrote his Narnia novels and many other books. This wardrobe was about to be destroyed because it was too big to be removed through a narrow doorway created by renovations Lewis had made to his bedroom.

Thus, Wheaton has a beautiful wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales about magic lands full of talking animals.

Westmont, meanwhile, has a Lewis wardrobe that fits the description of the one that the adult writer inserted into his most famous fantasy. It is an ordinary, everyday wardrobe like thousands of others in homes throughout England.

"Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing," said Willis. "They are merely copies. They are what Lewis would call shadows of the wardrobe. What really matters is the wardrobe in the story, because that is the doorway into the land beyond our own -- the true land of Aslan."

The future of Narnia

Soon after the smashing opening weekend of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the Rev. Bob Beltz had a vision of what his Hollywood colleagues might be doing someday just before his funeral.

"They could end up holding the first screening of 'The Last Battle' just before my funeral service. That's about how long it may take us to do the whole series," quipped the 55-year-old Presbyterian pastor, referring to the seventh and final Narnia novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Pre-production work has begun on "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and its creators are shooting for a pre-Christmas 2007 release.

Using a best-case scenario, it would take two years to make each movie, said Beltz, director of special media projects for the billionaire media entrepreneur Philip Anschutz. That would mean 12 more years and the last film would appear in 2017. But what if there are snags?

"Seriously, when we started seeing those first really big numbers roll in at the box office, that's when it hit me," said Beltz. "Some of us worked on this first movie for a very long time and now it seems like we may literally get to work on the Chronicles for the rest of our lives."

Of course, Anschutz and his Walden Media associates were convinced that the Narnia novels -- with 100 million copies sold over the past 55 years -- could turn into the kind of family-friendly franchise that makes Hollywood insiders see visions of "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." That's why Walt Disney Studios helped pour $180 million into creating "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Within days of the movie's release, Beltz and other members of Narnia team knew that they had a green light. At the beginning of this week (Feb.28), the global box office for first Narnia movie was nearing $664 million. And for fantasy fans that are keeping score, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has rung up $288,193,914 at the U.S. box office since its Dec. 9 release, while "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which came out three weeks earlier, is a nose ahead at $288,733,970.

Director Adam Adamson of New Zealand will return for the next film, along with the young quartet of British actors at the heart of the first film -- Georgie Henley, 10, Skandar Keynes, 14, Anna Popplewell, 17, and William Moseley, 18. In "Prince Caspian," the four heroes return to the land of Narnia soon after their first adventure, only to discover that centuries have passed in Narnian time. With the help of the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure in the series, the children fight to bring the young Prince Caspian, the rightful heir, to the throne of Narnia.

The clock is already ticking. With the interconnecting plots, the actors playing the Pevensie siblings cannot look radically different even though they will be two to three years older than they were while filming "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." To further complicate matters, the two youngest children -- the characters Lucy and Edmund -- are featured in the next novel, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

The key to the whole project is the response of the millions of readers who have shared the novels with their children for decades, said Douglas Gresham, the 61-year-old stepson of Lewis and co-producer of the first film. He stressed that he will work on the Narnia movies as long as he is able to do so.

As important as the movies are, he said, the ultimate goal is to faithfully deliver the author's stories, symbols and themes. The books must have the last word.

"The challenge for us as filmmakers, and I have had to become one, is that everyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia ... has a firmly cast picture, a precise visualization, in their mind of what Narnia looks like, what the creatures look like, how they should behave and how they should seem," said Gresham.

"We must produce films in which we equal or exceed every single one of those visual imageries. If we do that, then I believe that readers who love the books will keep going to theaters and we'll be able to complete the series."

Citizen Anschutz on a mission

The loaded words appear early and often in articles about entrepreneur Philip Anschutz of Denver.

The list includes "elusive," "reclusive," "mysterious" and many others. Most writers then note that Anschutz has not granted interviews since 1974 and the image is complete -- he is a ghost worth billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Anschutz does have ideas and, on rare occasions, he shares them in public. Consider this statement about movies and the bottom line.

"Speaking purely as a businessman, it is of utmost importance ... to try and figure out a way to make goods and products that people actually want to buy," he said, in a speech last year. "I don't think Hollywood understands this very well, because they keep making the same old movies. ...

"I don't think they understand the market and the mood of a large segment of the movie-going audience today. I think that this is one of the main reasons, by the way, that people don't go to movies like they used to."

This speech received little, if any, attention when it was delivered at a Hillsdale College forum. Once again, Anschutz avoided the mainstream-media radar.

But this is changing, in part because he is backing a big-bucks entertainment project that cannot escape attention. The man Fortune once called "the billionaire next door" is changing his public non-image.

Atlantic Monthly described the old Anschutz this way: "He is worth more than $5 billion -- down from $18 billion at the height of the 1990s boom, when Qwest Communications, which he founded, was one of the highest of the high-flying tech stocks. He is a devout Presbyterian and a staunch Republican who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to right-leaning candidates. ... He owns oil fields, railroad lines, the country's finest collection of western art, a network of farms and cattle ranches, five Major League Soccer franchises, Regal Entertainment (the country's largest chain of movie theaters), and two daily newspapers -- the revived San Francisco Examiner and the newly launched D.C. tabloid of the same name."

Now the Anschutz story has a new lead. His Walden Media studio is working with Walt Disney Pictures to create a franchise that could catch "The Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars." The goal is to film all seven books of the 20th Century's most beloved work of Christian fiction -- "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis. The $150 million production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" arrives on Dec. 9.

The scandal of an evangelical mogul has mainstream Hollywood whispering a nasty word that begins with the letter "p."

It isn't "profits." It's "proselytizing."

After all, the studio's mission statement -- yes, a movie studio with a "mission statement" -- declares: "Walden Media believes that quality entertainment is inherently educational. We believe that ... we can recapture young imaginations, rekindle curiosity and demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue."

Eyebrows are up in power pews as well as corporate boardrooms, especially after two years of passionate debate about faith and film.

As evangelical activist Charles Colson said: "If you happened to stumble across a devout Christian in Hollywood, you'd likely assume he was one of two things: He must be Mel Gibson, or he must be lost." On the other side, Jack Shafer of said bluntly: "Nobody dumps millions of dollars into the movie and exhibition business -- or newspapers -- to uplift the masses. There's got to be an angle."

Anschutz has heard the curses and hosannas. But he told the Hillsdale forum that the edgy Hollywood elites will, ultimately, respect someone who brings his own money to the table and succeeds.

"My reasons for getting into the entertainment business weren't entirely selfless. Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn't at times understand the market very well," he said. "I saw an opportunity in that fact. Also, because of digital production and digital distribution, I believe the film industry is going to be partially restructured in the coming years -- another opportunity. ...

"My friends think I'm a candidate for a lobotomy and my competitors think I'm naive or stupid or both. But you know what? I don't care. If we can make some movies that have a positive effect on people's lives and on our culture, that's enough for me."

Beyond the Baptist boycott

It was a cheesy ad slogan sure to raise eyebrows during the summer battle for the teen-movie bucks -- "Got Passion? Get Saved!"

An acidic take on a Christian high school, "Saved!" was crafted to make evangelicals punch their boycott buttons. It featured clean queen Mandy Moore as a Bible-throwing harpy from Hades. Macaulay "Home Alone" Culkin played a hip cynic in a wheelchair who shared cigarettes and sex with the school's lone Jewess. Its all-tolerant God offered a flexible moral code.

MGM promoted the film directly to believers who were sure to hate it.

"It seemed like they did everything they could to get a boycott," said Walt Mueller, head of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. "They wanted a boycott. They needed a boycott. I am sure they were stunned when they didn't get one."

The film cost $5 million to produce and grossed only $8.8 million, after a quiet sojourn in selected theaters. The bottom line: "Saved!" was an intriguing test case for those pondering the impact of media boycotts. Looking ahead, will Southern Baptist executives balk at saying the words "Disney," "boycott" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the same sentence?

The crucial word-of-mouth buzz never arrived for "Saved!", perhaps because the conservatives the film set out to bash often turned the other cheek and declined to provide millions of dollars in free publicity.

It helped that the film took so many pot shots that it even offended some secular scribes.

Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post said the best adjective for "Saved!" was "condescending" and that it was as "preachy as its finger-wagging victims." Glenn Whipp of the Los Angles Daily News said the movie's creators wanted audiences to "know that it's important to practice tolerance of others -- unless, of course, those others are Christians."

Still, The Los Angeles Times did its part to help the studio by seeking condemnation from the usual snarky suspects -- Catholic League President William Donahue, op-ed columnist Cal Thomas, Christian Film and Television Commission czar Ted Baehr and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Apparently Pat Robertson was busy that day.

But no one uttered the b-word -- boycott. "Saved!" didn't even create a buzz at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I vaguely remember hearing of that movie, but that's about it," said Dwayne Hastings of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission media office. "I didn't get a single call about it, or a single email. It simply did not make a blip on the Southern Baptist radar."

This is interesting, since Hollywood remains a hot issue for Southern Baptists and other moral conservatives. Years after the national headlines, the 1997 Southern Baptist vote to boycott the Walt Disney Co. remains in effect. The convention cited a wave of "anti-Christian" media products, Disney policies granting benefits to partners of gay employees and "Gay Day" events at theme parks that angered many families and church groups.

There is no sign that the Southern Baptist leadership is re-thinking this stance. This summer, the Rev. Wiley Drake of First Baptist in Buena Vista, Calif., a strong Disney critic, floated a convention resolution commending the studio for producing the patriotic movie "America's Heart and Soul." His motion was ruled out of order.

"I want a specific action commending them for what they are doing," said Drake.

Hastings said it's hard to image the convention retreating and ending the boycott. It's just as hard to imagine Disney apologizing to Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, an upcoming series of films based on the fantasy fiction of the best known Christian writer of the 20th Century would certainly raise questions. What if Mel Gibson provided the voice of Aslan, the Christ-figure lion?

"It's possible that there could be a resolution praising Disney for doing Narnia. Of course, this assumes that they offer some kind of accurate rendering of the Christian vision and beliefs of C.S. Lewis," said Hastings.

"But the whole point of the boycott is for people to stop and think about their choices. I'm sure that millions of Baptists went to see 'Finding Nemo' and they watch ESPN like everybody else. But they are thinking twice about giving Disney their money and support. People are learning to be more selective."