Friday, February 25, 2005

NYT Misses the Point of Narnia

One could get a case of whiplash reading a recent piece in the NYT Movies Update in which David Kehr opines about Aslan the Lion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He starts his article like this:
As the residents of Narnia like to whisper, "Aslan is on the move." And so he is. But for the moment, Walt Disney Pictures has him on a very short leash.
He gives a summary from a 10,000 foot view of Aslan and previews a huge merchandising blitz for the movie. Then he once again mentions Disney's "special challenge."
But this time, the pros at Disney are wrestling with a special challenge: how to sell a screen hero who was conceived as a forthright symbol of Jesus Christ, a redeemer who is tortured and killed in place of a young human sinner and who returns in a glorious resurrection that transforms the snowy landscape of Narnia into a verdant paradise.

That spirituality sets Aslan apart from most of the Disney pantheon and presents the company with a significant dilemma: whether to acknowledge the Christian symbolism and risk alienating a large part of the potential audience, or to play it down and possibly offend the many Christians who count among the books' fan base.
Geez, is that really so bad? It's being presented as a catastrophe of nearly Biblical proportions. Irony intentional.

Back and forth it goes, a tennis rally of an article. Kehr has chosen to frame his story as a sort of business case in how to cover up the religious content of a religious-themed work, no matter what Disney says about how they intend to honor the religious themes of the work and put it out there as it was written.

Next, un-named Disney executives say that they will not back off from the self-evident Christian themes in the story. Kehr calls in a marketing professor and former marketer for Coca-Cola who describes the story as "an absolute time bomb in these days of extreme sensitivity." Then he follows up with another academic who says that "they can let the Christian mysticism in it either be a subtext or not a part of it at all."

Next, Disney reveals that it has hired the same firm to market the movie to religious audiences that performed that duty for the Passion of the Christ. But Kehr is ever ready to hit the ball back over the net.

Once again, Kehr attempts to reframe the story. "If Disney manages to create a "Star Wars"-like, generalized hero myth of Lewis's work without alienating its Christian fans, the potential rewards are huge." He continues on this line with the only insightful thing he says in the whole article.
As a franchise, the possibilities of "Narnia" seem almost unlimited. It's "Harry Potter" with intellectual respectability and deep cultural roots.
And he follows this with more cynicism. "But how Disney plans to wrestle the Lewis books into line remains a closely held secret."

A few paragraphs describing the marketing plans follow, and then he once again talks about those pesky "religious connotations." This time it's about Disney's image. "Disney does not want to take a side in the culture wars, as it demonstrated when it declined to distribute Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'"

Finally comes a prosaic ending to the article, where he predicts that the movie will speak for itself, and will not have any heavy handed "religious" message inserted into it. Nor will the marketing be purely religious.

I read these novels as a young teen, often sitting in my church's library to read them. In the same library I read other books with a strong religious theme such as The Cross and the Switchblade. Most of these books were preachy. The Narnia books were, to my taste, the best of the lot. They made the reader think without sermonizing. In the books, the Christ metaphor is there without being shoved in the reader's face. So it is hardly startling that a movie adapted faithfully from the books should take the same approach. It is a metaphor, if you will, not a simile. And as with all metaphors, it is possible to pay attention to it or not.

That is exactly how it should be handled in the movie. And from the article, it appears that is how Disney wants to handle it in the movie.

Since that is the only sensible way to adapt the story, all the sturm und drang about wrestling the books into line, defusing the time bomb, and how to hide the Christian metaphors in subtext is irrelevant.

It was utter nonsense to attempt to turn this sensible, sensitive decision into a controversy. Can it really be that Kehr read Narnia and didn't get it? Or maybe, is the truth of the case that he didn't read the Narnia books?

He didn't read it. Didn't care to. That seems the likeliest explanation of all.

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