What Did C. S. Lewis Mean, and Does It Matter? A Preview of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Film)

Drew Trotter, Ph.D.

Drew Trotter, President of the Center for Christian Study, has taught biblical studies, systematic theology and cultural studies at the seminary level for more than twenty years. He received his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Cambridge University and is the author of Interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews (Baker, 1997). Drew also writes movie reviews regularly for the newsletter Critique, and has lectured on film and culture at seminaries, churches and colleges throughout the eastern United States.

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW), when Susan, Lucy and Aslan are standing at the broken Stone Table and the girls are assured it is Aslan speaking to them and not a ghost, the following dialogue takes place:

"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards." (pp. 132-33)

Tonight I’d like to center my talk around two ideas that have to do with meaning in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: 1) the importance of authorial intent, and 2) the nature of reality and its relation to fiction, both literary and cinematic. My training and expertise is in literary analysis, specifically of the New Testament, though I have done quite a bit of work in recent years in film analysis also, and I was fortunate enough to visit the location in New Zealand and discuss the intent of the filmmakers with one of the producers of the film. Ever since then, I’ve wondered what they will do with the film, how it will differ from the book, and whether or not those differences will matter. That is what we will discuss tonight.

First, to set the stage. For those of you who, for the last ten months or so have been living on Mars, the first of C. S. Lewis’s beloved children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, has finally been made into a full-length feature film, which will premiere nation-wide on December 9. The book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the first of Lewis’s seven books to be written, but is actually second in the chronology of the books, and the recently published sets and one-volume editions now universally, I believe, put it second behind The Magician’s Nephew, the novel that tells of the creation of the mythical land of Narnia.

This is not the first attempt to film LWW, but it is certainly the first, big budget, live-action version. Two animated versions and a famous BBC version that combines live action and animation do not come close to doing what this version of LWW is attempting: to put on the big screen a version of the book that will actually feel "real" to the twenty-first century viewer. Three technical decisions contribute to this. First, the movie uses real actors to play fawns, centaurs, minotaurs, Boggles and other fantastic creatures right alongside children and animals from our world. The talking animals of Narnia are sometimes real, and sometimes digital; for instance, LWW uses real wolves and mice in several scenes, though Aslan the lion is entirely computer generated.

Second, wherever possible the filmmakers shot on real locations in England, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic, minimizing the use of constructed sets. Thirdly, the movie begins and ends with extended sequences not found in the book, but which are heavy action sequences, intended to beef up the reality of the film. Whereas the book begins at Professor Kirke’s house in the country where the children have been sent to escape the bombing of London, the film begins with that bombing, allowing the viewer to join with the children in feeling the relief of the Professor’s country manor, and their numinous fear as they come to it. Also, at the end of the movie, we are promised a ten-minute sequence showing the war of the Witch against Peter’s army, a sequence barely mentioned in the book.

These are just a few of the ways Andrew Adamson, the writer and director of the film, tries to make this movie an experience that strikes deeply into the heart to meld its impressions with the world of the viewer. As he said a promotional clip, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes us into realms we can only imagine, and the challenge as a filmmaker is to live up to and exceed people’s imaginations and really transport them to another time and another place." Perhaps some of the other versions of LWW were trying to do that.

Most of them failed for most people that have seen them; at least that is my impression. None of them affected my heart the way the book did and does. For instance, reading it again just last weekend, I still weep at the dialogue between Aslan and the girls around the broken Stone Table, a portion of which I read to begin this talk.

But I get ahead of myself; these are thoughts for my second area of discussion, and I would like to start with my first: authorial intent. Several questions interest us here, when the topic of "meaning" comes up. What would C. S. Lewis have thought of the film, and does it matter? Does a filmmaker have a responsibility to remain true to the novel that inspires his or her film? How does one determine the intent of an author in the first place, and what does that intent have to do with the question of the "meaning" of a book or movie? If I am too brief with my remarks, please be patient with me; there will be time later in the Question and Answer period to sort things out if necessary.

In addressing these questions, first a simple statement: A movie never really "reproduces" a book, any more than a poem "reproduces" a landscape or an event. The two are different mediums, and while both the novel and the movie usually have to do with stories, their similarities pretty much end there. Whole descriptive passages in a long novel can be captured in one sweeping pan shot in a movie, and, vice versa, a single sentence can describe the mental state of a character in a novel that a movie may take several scenes to reflect.

It is widely believed that the reason television and film have not overwhelmed the novel, after fifty and one hundred years of existence respectively, has to do with the power of words to describe the interior life, something filmmakers have tried for years to do, but simply can’t without resorting to boring expository scenes like the one that ends Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a scene that probably ninety percent of those who have not seen the movie in the last year have forgotten even exists. Everyone thinks the movie ends with the old woman’s skeleton grinning at us from the chair because it is the image we all remember, but in actual fact, the killer is subdued, arrested, jailed and examined by a psychologist, who comes in from his examination of Norman Bates and explains to everyone tidily how he essentially became his mother over time.

Voice-over narration can also make up for this expository lack, but there will be no voice-over in LWW, according to producer Mark Johnson. LWW doesn’t even contain any psychology, so are there any inherent difficulties in reproducing it on film? The answer is a resounding yes in two ways. First, LWW, being a book written for children, contains something far more deadly for translation to a movie than psychological exposition. It contains a form of narrative exposition that, if reproduced, would kill any movie dead. I can only call it, "Grandfatherly Advice." Many times Lewis makes remarks like "for she knew it was a very silly thing to lock oneself in a wardrobe" or "And, whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword." Lewis’s style for children is so condescending—and I don’t necessarily mean that is a bad thing—that, when transferred to the screen, it comes off as ridiculously out of date. The BBC production does just that, and it dates the story fatally.

Secondly, Lewis’s plot is simply too meager for a full-length feature for children. The BBC production is very faithful to the book, and it bores one out of one’s mind. It is neither psychologically deep nor adventurous, and this movie must be, if it seeks to capture the audience it is targeting. The addition of plot devices like the bombing and battle mentioned above is almost essential to make the movie work.

C. S. Lewis was famously opposed to movies, though I must confess I could not find anywhere, where he addressed the subject. There is no entry for "cinema" or "film" or "movie" in the indexes of either the Hooper edition of his letters or the new biography by Alan Jacobs, entitled The Narnian. His stepson, Douglas Gresham, in a recent interview in Christianity Today implies that Lewis is known for disliking movies and defends Lewis in this way: "Jack's problem with cinema was that he could see this wonderful technology emerging and developing, and he was worried about the uses to which it was being put. Until recently, cinema has been used almost exclusively to corrupt man rather than to develop man. Some of the great movies have been terrific, but by and large most movies are just to titillate, to excite—stuff to entertain. Basically, I think the Enemy has been running the cinema. It's time we took it back from him." (CT Interview, October 2005). One can see more of Gresham in this quotation than Lewis, but nevertheless, we can safely assume that C. S. Lewis’s first problem with the film to be released on December 9 is that it was made at all.

In the relative absence of clear reasons, it is interesting to speculate why Lewis might have been suspicious of film. Lewis recognized the importance of other artistic forms; music and painting were important, he believed, to the culture of man, though he was skilled in neither. But film—and we could include television here—were rivals for the time young people spend reading, and they were not anything like so worthy a practice, perhaps especially for the kind of story, LWW is: one that reaches beyond simple visible life and tries to get at deeper realities.

Here the power of word, either spoken or written is much more useful—shall we say "better for you"—than film for just the opposite reason found in Andrew Adamson’s statement quoted above. Film replaces the imaginative work of creating pictures in one’s mind of characters, places and times, and that work is good for the growth of the individual. Lewis would probably have wanted them to leave his written words alone, and not replace the images people create in their own minds of Jadis, Mr. Tumnus and Professor Kirke, to say nothing of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is one that many of us believe should perhaps be turned on its head, and I think Lewis would agree. A word is often worth a thousand pictures.

Important as that question is, there are far more important ones. After all, the movies are not going away anytime soon, and this movie will be a reality with which all Narnia participants, whether they be children or scholars, will have to reckon.

What, then, of the ethics of departing from Lewis’s deeper ideas, and making a movie that comes out in a different place than he would have, if we could grant him having something to do with the movie? Here, everyone involved in the film has tried to be as fair and as clear as possible. Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson and representative of the estate, was commissioned by Walden media, who own the film rights to the seven Chronicles of Narnia, with the task of overseeing the production to make sure it did not misrepresent Lewis in any way. He has called it "just keeping an eye on everything to make sure that Narnia stays Narnia" (CT Interview, November 1, 2005).

Gresham had access—and right of veto—to everything: script, sets, actors, storyboards, individual takes, even the product tie-ins. He does admit to having to correct things at times, but this was apparently kept to a minimum. In an interview in Christianity Today, the following exchange took place:

Gresham: There's a difference between stupid mistakes and artistic liberties. When the artist goes too far, you have to rein him in. I'm ready to accept artistic liberties with the director [Andrew Adamson], of course. But there are certain things I think were wrong, and said so. We talked it out and achieved a compromise. Andrew is a very easy man to work with. He respects the material probably almost as much as I do.

CT: Where did you feel like he was off course?

Gresham: Well I wouldn't do that, because those things are confidential between myself and Andrew.

So this did not mean limiting Adamson’s vision; Gresham has made very clear that he thinks the world of the director. The proof will be in the pudding, but at least we can be sure that Doug Gresham is thrilled with the film. He has said that he simply never had to go "head-to-head" with any of the creative people in the process because they all respected the material so much.

In addition, Adamson and the producer, Mark Johnson, have openly declared that they tried to stick as close to the book as it was possible to do. In every interview I’ve read, Adamson has claimed that he is not trying to reproduce the book, but the impression that it made on him, when he read it as a kid, as if these two things are that different. But the only way for Adamson actually to reproduce his impression after twenty years is to refer to the book. Neither Johnson nor Adamson viewed the other movies; the only source they have is the book.

But the question remains: Have they retained the deeper ideas of the novel or "just the story?" This question really moves us into our second area of discussion: What do we mean by the "meaning" of a film, or of a book for that matter?

When I was on the set in New Zealand and had the chance to talk to an Associate Producer on the film, Tom Williams, I brought this subject up. He responded by talking to me about Star Wars and the ideas of Joseph Campbell on the nature of myth. Campbell, you may recall, taught at Sarah Lawrence College for thirty-eight years, and is perhaps best known for the idea of the "monomyth," which he described most popularly in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Basically cribbing Carl Jung, Campbell believed that all religions taught the same thing (though he admits in his famous interviews with Bill Moyers just before he died that he did believe that Hinduism taught it best). The "it" was a myth that comes out of the collective unconscious of man that "God" is a figment of the imagination of man, and that "all spirituality is searching for the same unknown transcendent force from which everything came and into which everything will return"(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell). He did not believe that this "transcendent force" existed apart from humankind.

As far as I can tell, the filmmakers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe believe that Christianity is a story that many of course believe is true, and that is clearly taught in the book. However, they also believe that the story has touched so many people outside the faith because it taps into this deeper mythic construct, which is, in fact, the truth lying underneath the "truth" of the Christian story. This is certainly so, if they buy into Campbell’s mythology as fully as they seemed to, when I discussed the matter with them.

C. S. Lewis’s view of myth and its relation to his stories is complex, and would find some agreement with Campbell’s, but fundamentally he disagrees on a number of crucial points. Lewis had been brought up on the materialist construct of Freud and Frazer in the early twentieth century and had believed for many years that all religions were mythic, i.e. unhistorical, in a very similar sense to Joseph Campbell’s belief. Many of his earliest discussions with J.R.R. Tolkien, when Lewis was still an unbeliever, though already a theist, were about this very thing. Eventually, Lewis came to believe in a Christianity that held onto both myth and history and incorporated them both into a belief that Christianity is a myth, but more than a myth because it actually tells of real history and a God who, in space and time, became Incarnate, a word so important to him, he almost always capitalizes it.

In many places, Lewis lays down his ideas on the subject; one of the best is at the end of a brief essay in God in the Dock, entitled "Myth Became Fact." It will be helpful for us to quote it at some length:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist—the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name—need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life…

Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded…that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block, if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the chilled, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.

Here we see: 1) the melding of delight and obedience; 2) the validity of faith and reason; 3) the affirmation of myth and fact. And what does all this have to do with Lewis, LWW, and what the book has that the movie needs to have?

In a letter to a Mrs. Hook in December of 1958, Lewis discusses the difference between myth and allegory:

By an allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial or literary) in which immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects, e.g., a pictured Cupid allegorically represents erotic love (which in reality is an experience, not an object occupying a given area of space) or, in Bunyan, a giant represents Despair.

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, "What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?" This is not allegory at all… This…works out a supposition.

Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan’s picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal: but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.

So what must be there, if LWW is to remain true to Lewis’s vision? One could argue that the dialogue at the Stone Table, the death and resurrection of Aslan, the pure evil of the Witch, the remarkable description of the children’s reactions the first time they hear the name Aslan—that all these and more must be there, if the story is to stay the same. It seems to me, however, that none of the particulars are important. They are not pieces in a well-constructed allegory, which put together form the essence of Lewis’s story. Instead, the Christian must see and hear a story that bears the marks of the Savior, whether it does so in ways that make others appreciate and enjoy it without discerning the Christian "meaning" in it at all, or not.

On one level Lewis intended to create a children’s story that would delight. So have many others from E. B. White to J. K. Rowling, but they do not all tell the same story. At a second level, Lewis intended to create a world, induce a feeling, make the ancient story, the Myth Become Fact, real again in a new and fresh way. This last he did, and if Adamson does not, he will have failed, for he will not have induced the same experience Lewis did. It may be similar, but not the same.

Must everyone get the same "meaning" from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for it to remain true to Lewis’s intent, or, better, for it to delight and instruct?

No. But, in the end, the movie will be judged by whether or not it tells a story that is true. The closer it sticks to historic Christianity and its interpretation of reality, the better it will be and the more universally accepted it will be, because Christianity is a myth that we all know and believe deep down is true. Unfortunately, Jadis understood this level of the magic of Narnia, as the devils do of Christianity, and tremble. This is the level of myth.

But whosoever will can go beyond this to a level of meaning that reflects an even deeper magic from before the beginning of time, a magic that imparts meaning to all who will accept it, a magic that claims the Myth has become Fact. My hope is that this will be what Andrew Adamson gives us and that this magic will be your experience as you watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on December 9.

© Drew Trotter. Transcript of a lecture delivered at the University of Pennsylvania Veritas Forum,November 11, 2005. See the author's seminar page, Show & Tell: The Christian & the Movies in Contemporary America at the Center for Christian Study near the University of Virginia.