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Wednesday
Jun202001

Marketing Narnia

[Beliefnet, June 20, 2001] 

 Just hours after the New York Times hit doorsteps on the first Sunday of this month, my e‑mailbox began to fill with distraught messages. "Sit down before you read this, in case you start crying," wrote one friend, and another muttered "Poor Lewis must be turning over in his grave." One message was headed, "Lord have mercy on Narnia."

The source of their distress was a Times article that reported, working from a leaked memo, that HarperCollins was planning to perform a marketing makeover on "The Chronicles of Narnia," a series of children’s novels penned by British author C.S. Lewis in the mid‑20th century. Since the debut of the first volume, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," the series has enjoyed roaring success, to the tune of 65 million copies in 30 languages. The news story indicated that HarperCollins hoped to boost this success even further by separating Narnia from its religious roots.

The news hit Narnia fans as sacrilege. Lewis, a traditional Anglican, embraced classic Christianity, and the denizens of Narnia sometimes enact elements of the Christian story. The allegory is handled with subtlety. Young readers often miss Aslan the lion’s resemblance to Christ, for instance, or the apocalyptic echoes of "The Last Battle." Much of the action is simply good storytelling, and doesn’t carry allegorical weight. The books’ faith background, however, is integral.

Much of the uproar was due to a misunderstanding; readers thought that the plan was to de-Christianize the stories. The misunderstanding was reasonable, since the article was confusingly headlined "Marketing Narnia Without A Christian Lion." The publisher has continued to repeat a terse statement that "The works of C. S. Lewis will continue to be published … as written by the author, with no alteration," but the alarming first impression has stuck. Some Narnia fans acknowledge the publisher’s statement, but say they simply don’t trust them, and don’t think they will keep their word.

Though confusion clouded that part of the controversy, other elements were clearer. The memo outlined three changes for marketing Lewis. First, deals have been struck to license Narnia toys, clothing, and plush animals; second, children’s‑fantasy authors would be hired to write new novels in the Narnia series; and third, the publisher hoped to tone down Lewis’ image as a Christian apologist in order to broaden his appeal.

Most fans seem to agree that a line of Narnia plush toys is the least problematic part of the project, provided the toys respect the characters’ era and style. Protecting the dignity of Aslan will be a challenge throughout all these changes. No one wants a goggley‑eyed lion with a string in his back, chirping about self‑esteem.

The new novels pose two separate problems. Fans fear Lewis’s subtlety will be replaced with hectoring p.c. themes out of tune with Narnia’s gentle style. Another is that the books simply won’t be any good. The original novels are deeply personal, rooted in the faith and times of a very appealing man. Lewis was a kindly, modest figure, and a scholar of medieval literature at Oxford and Cambridge who possessed the kind of education no one gets any more. A new writer may be able to jerk his characters around like marionettes, but it’s unlikely she can make them fly.

Where things get truly complicated is with the third point, concerning Lewis’s image as a Christian. The leaked memo was directed to Carol Hatcher, who was developing a documentary about C. S. Lewis for PBS, with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Hatcher had asked permission to quote from Lewis’ works, and the publisher passed along some stipulations from the Lewis estate. The script should not point out the Christian elements of the Narnia stories; Hatcher’s treatment of Lewis’ conversion should not be changed, since it wasn’t "overdone"; and the lasting impression left with the viewer should not be that Lewis was a "Christian apologist."

Hatcher was distressed. She felt that she was being asked to conceal Lewis’ faith, a kind of compromise not allowed to Christians: "Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father," Jesus said. What’s more, Lewis *was* a Christian apologist. Hatcher told the Times that omitting this fact would be like making a documentary about Hank Aaron without mentioning baseball.

Another filmmaker, David Crouse, agrees that Lewis’ faith is huge and should necessarily comprise the bulk of any film on his life. His PBS documentary on Lewis is nearing completion, and he has had no problems with the Lewis estate. This is because, unlike Hatcher, Crouse used few quotes from Lewis’s writings and so "never had to get permission from anyone, and if they asked, no way would we send them the script."

Hatcher is right: most of Lewis’ canon is designed to present aspects of Christian faith to unbelievers as persuasively as possible. "Mere Christianity" still sells 230,000 copies a year, and has been the turning point for untold numbers of converts (including, Hatcher told World, herself). Any biography could not omit this fact, but at present biographers will have to do so in their own words, rather than Lewis’s copyrighted ones.

But HarperCollins’ strategy is also reasonable. Some people find the label "Christian apologist" distasteful, and lump Lewis in anachronistically with the modern‑day religious right. HarperCollins hopes to minimize these associations and present Lewis to these people as a thinker worth listening to. The goal is "to publish the works of C. S. Lewis to the broadest possible audience, and to leave any interpretation of the works to the reader," reads another portion of HarperCollins’ statement.

But to many, downplaying Lewis’ faith seems like one more in a string of insults. Conservative Christians have been routinely saddened to see landmarks of art and literature stripped of their Christian meaning. Lewis, it seemed, would be the exception; his work is of such startling quality, and his faith so indisputable, that surely his persona (and not just his written words) would be left intact. He constitutes for us conservative Christians, in fact, our one clear success in a hostile world. Now that our‑boy‑done‑good, we want him to go on being clearly identified as our boy. For a community habitually wincing in anticipation of disrespect and misrepresentation, the idea of a successful representative is entrancing.

The danger is that we could prize his image, and what it does for us, more than his message, and what he intended it to do. Lewis never wanted to be a symbol. In fact, he questioned whether "little books about Christianity" had much lasting impact. When the general culture is overwhelmingly based on contrary assumptions, such little books present only momentary diversions. He urged Christians instead to write "on other subjects‑‑with their Christianity latent." It’s a good guess that he would prefer his own Christian identity to be something for the reader to discover, just as we gradually realize who Aslan is.

Tampering with the words of Lewis’ books would be a travesty. However, if Lewis is not labeled "Christian apologist," if he’s mainstreamed into the community of other writers, it may help him escape the prejudice that traditional Christians face today. It won’t limit his message. He’ll still be a Christian apologist. Just one who can slip behind otherwise‑locked doors more easily.

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