Some atheists find it hard to like or admire C. S. Lewis’s popular fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. The biblical allegories, the parallels that swap Jesus for a lion, pieces of silver for Turkish delight, and the general themes of hierarchy, monarchy, betrayal and suffering are, to some non-religious minds, problematic aspects when seen in the context of children’s literature. I am an atheist. I do not believe in a God of any kind, nor do I worry about securing my place in heaven after I am dead. This is not to say that I do not know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, loyalty and betrayal and many of the other moral lessons that form the basis of Lewis’s first Narnia novel (although second novel in reading order). But I am fully able to enjoy the books and watch the films without getting too bothered. And the first big-screen Narnia adaptation, 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is a near-masterpiece – a colourful, wondrous and brilliantly enjoyable experience, and a very faithful retelling of one of my favourite childhood books.
The film starts with a scene that wasn’t in the original story. An air raid is occurring in World War II Britain, and the Pevensie family are running to get into their bomb shelter. They realise they have forgotten their father’s photo (he is away fighting), so there is a mad dash back to grab it from the house. All very cinematic, all very family friendly, all very sentimental, all very Disney. But, as I said in my recent review of War Horse, not all sentimentality is bad, and sometimes we need a bit of emotional manipulation. We enjoy crying as we see the mother wave goodbye to her children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, as they are driven away by a steam train to be evacuated to the country. Our tears mark our humanity and we enjoy being swept up in the manipulation.
In case you don’t know the drill, the jolly-happy youngsters discover a magical world in an old wardrobe they find in a room of the large manner house they go to stay in. Lucy discovers it first. She meets the faun Mr. Tumnus. Edmund meets the White Witch. When all the children finally end up in Narnia together, and meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, they learn of Aslan, the great lion who is to save them from the reign of the White Witch. But Edmund has other ideas, and leaves his siblings to warn the Witch that, by entering Narnia with his siblings, he is putting her rule at risk. As the ancient prophecies go, when “two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve” sit on the thrones to rule Narnia, her power will crumble.
Of course, things inevitably end up in an all-out war between the good (Aslan, friendly talking animals, all the kids including Edmund once he apologises for his betrayal) and the Witch and her evil cronies. But before the big battle we get the crucifixion scene, where Aslan hands in his own life in exchange for the life of Edmund. Here things get very biblical.
It is true that up until the point of Aslan’s self-sacrifice one could completely disregard any religious metaphors and Christian undertones. But, as writer Polly Toynbee discussed in The Guardian around the time of the film’s original release, this is where awkward questions start to arise. The explanation of Aslan’s resurrection is so clearly connected to the story of Christ’s return that a secular reading of it lacks the power and impact necessary for such a momentous moment in the story. My argument, I’m afraid, comes purely from my own feelings towards this aspect of the text and the film. I do not mind the story having a Christian message. If you want to believe it, that is your choice. For me, it adds another rich layer of understanding to the story.
The Narnia novels are joyful escapism, whatever your religious views are. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a sensible book to begin with, was an enormous success when it was released in 2005. Director Andrew Adamson’s visual imagining of Lewis’s fantasy world is equal to Peter Jackson’s vision of middle-earth. The first Narnia film dares to keep childish joy and a tangible sense of wonder and awe about it, even at a time when many filmmakers are trying to re-imagine old classics as dark and very serious.
The acting of the children (or teenagers, one could argue) takes a bit of getting used to. But everything fits rather cutely into a cosy storybook feel. This isn’t gritty reality we are meant to be witnessing. It’s a fantasy. Whether you are flexible with your interpretations of the allegorical messages, agree with the Christian undertones, or remove yourself from the discussion altogether, it’s still hard not to enjoy the sheer emotional spectacle of it all.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), directed by Andrew Adamson, is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, certificate PG.