The Passion of C.S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

a film directed by Andrew Adamson

The film is remarkably faithful to the original. The computer-generated animals, including the traditionally domestic Beavers, who speak a kind of rural British dialect, are not too cute; Tilda Swinton, with a crown of ice and gray-blond dreadlocks, is elegantly scary as the White Witch. The transition from the dark furry wardrobe to the bright snowy wood of Narnia, which some psychologists have compared to a birth experience, is striking, and the landscape is beautiful.

The scenes of Aslan’s sacrificial death and resurrection, however, underline the religious allegory perhaps more heavily than Lewis would have liked. Aslan’s progress toward his death at a kind of altar called the Stone Table is a juvenile version of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, complete with ugly scorning and beating and spitting bystanders. Later, as Susan and Lucy watch by Aslan’s body, their postures imitate those of the mourning women in religious paintings, and when Aslan reappears the golden light behind him is High Baroque.

Disney publicists have shrewdly mounted two advertising campaigns for the film, one secular and one sacred. They did not want to scare away other paying customers, but they knew that the Christian overtones of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could make the film tremendously popular with the religious establishment, especially in America. The Chronicles of Narnia were already approved reading for church study groups: in The National Review last year, John J. Miller spoke of them as “the continuation of Sunday School by different devices.” According to some Christian Web sites, all seven volumes of the series can be profitably read as religious fables. The first volume in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, describes the creation of the world and the origin of evil, and contains a sacrament of marriage. Prince Caspian illustrates the corruption and restoration of true religion, and The Horse and His Boy tells the story of the conversion of a heathen. There is a spiritual voyage and a baptism in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the Descent into Hell is featured in The Silver Chair. The final book of the series, The Last Battle, retells the coming of the Antichrist and the Last Judgment.

Even before the film opened, the Disney organization was targeting evangelical Protestantism, and a company called Motive Entertainment was sponsoring meetings for church officials and supporters in 140 American churches, encouraging the use of The Chronicles of Narnia as an inspirational text, with sample sermons available for download on the Web.

Conservative politicians also got into the act, though not without repercussions. Last fall, when the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, chose The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for a statewide reading program, the Palm Beach Post called the move “a cabal of Christian commerce,” and claimed that the state was “opening up the public schools to some backdoor catechism lessons.” An organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State then proposed to sue the state of Florida over the issue.


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.