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The chronicles of making Narnia

A few cheeseburgers and cheesy productions later, the Christian classic finally comes to life on the screen

NEW YORK—When Paramount owned the film rights to The Chronicles of Narnia, its plan at one point was to set the C.S. Lewis children's classic in present-day Brentwood. Instead of a White Witch wooing young Edmund with Turkish Delight, a cool Californian would win him with cheeseburgers. "They never made it," notes a grateful Mark Johnson, the producer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the first book in the Narnia series and due in theaters Dec. 9.

Thanks to the wonders of computer-generated animation and a unique array of talent, filmgoers instead of enduring cheese are being treated to a golden age for Christian fantasy on film. Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to screen in three stunning installments that culminated in 2003's Return of the King, a film that swept all competition with a record-setting 11 Oscars. Two years later it's still hard to believe that Tolkien's once-obscure Middle Earth fantasy, replete with heavy Christian overtones, has become one of the most successful film franchises in Hollywood history.

That success set the stage for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-an ambitious collaboration involving Mr. Jackson's special-effects wunderkinds along with the small, education-oriented production house Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures.

While previous attempts to visualize Lewis' beloved tales were made (most notably in a 1988 British miniseries), the book has never received the big-screen treatment it deserves. And while many a fan may have longed for a full-scale production that would do the books justice, devotees should be grateful to the C.S. Lewis estate (managed by Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham) that none got off the ground before now.

But it was that other fantasy franchise, Harry Potter, that finally catapulted Walden and Disney into Narnia production, according to Wardrobe's producer, Mark Johnson. "U.S. studios were reluctant to make any movie that had British kids in British situations at its core. They didn't think that American audiences would tolerate that," he said. "When Harry Potter came along and was so successful, I think that allowed this movie to get made as faithfully as it did."

The long journey to theaters this month highlights the complex process involving players who don't always share Lewis' faith and worldview (or sometimes even fully understand them), but who are united by a common respect for the integrity of the work and a desire to remain essentially faithful to it.

When Walden Media president Micheal Flaherty and college roommate Cary Granat, now Walden CEO, formed their production company, "the crown jewel" of film adaptations for them was The Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Flaherty told WORLD. The company began, he said, with an eye towards making faithful film adaptations of great books that would generate greater interest in the books they were based on, and in reading in general.

Much of the credit for creating a straightforward (faithful may be a description debated by purists) adaptation of Lewis' work rests with Walden, the smaller half of the film's production partnership. With only a few productions under its belt (Because of Winn Dixie, Holes, Around the World in 80 Days), Walden looked to conservative media investor and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz and discovered he too had an interest in bringing great books to the screen, and a specific interest in bringing Narnia to life.

But Walden still needed a distribution partner with box-office muscle. Walden had worked with Disney on two films and discovered that "everybody at the company" was committed to making a faithful adaptation with wide distribution, said Mr. Flaherty, "a commitment that they have overdelivered on every day."

With some special effects in the hands of Mr. Jackson's New Zealanders at Weta Workshop, the team looked to another Kiwi, Andrew Adamson. Mr. Adamson is well known as a top animation director-he was behind DreamWorks' two highly creative Shrek movies-but had never directed a live-action feature. With Shrek, however, Mr. Adamson said, "I had taken kind of a fantasy story with animated characters and imbued it with a lot of human qualities, and I think that's what they felt this story should be. Yes, it's a big, epic fantasy story but ultimately it's a story about human characters with human values."

Unlike Paramount, Mr. Adamson said he didn't want to contemporize the classic and wanted it to stay in period. But he did expect the producers "to want to contemporize it, to want to Americanize it, and they didn't. They wanted to be true to the book-which is what I wanted from reading it as an 8-year-old."

"We tried to be as faithful to the book as possible," said Mr. Johnson. That's what fans of the book, particularly Christians who appreciate the way the story is rooted in the truths of Lewis' faith, probably care about most. But Mr. Johnson noted, "Lewis himself never really saw these as Christian books. Obviously he is a Christian in his views and values, but they were not specifically that-we just wanted to be true to the book so that if you find religious meaning in the books, hopefully you'll find it in the movie."

Arguing that the Narnia tales are not "Christian" books misses the depth of Lewis' belief. "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else," he famously said. Overlooking the significance of his faith produced some interesting twists in the screen adaptation, at one point actually adding a scriptural reference.

At the climax of the movie's final battle, Aslan the lion says, "It is finished," a statement nowhere found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yet Mr. Adamson seemed surprisingly unaware of the statement's obvious religious imagery. Asked why it was added to the script and whether it was meant as a direct biblical allusion, Mr. Adamson responded: "Not intentionally. I actually honestly didn't know that. The thing I wanted, the thing I was really going for there is for Aslan's sadness-there's a moment where Aslan and the White Witch stare at each other at the end where they are both accepting their fate. Aslan accepts that he is going to have to kill her; she accepts she is going to be killed. To me, I didn't want to send home the message that war is an ideal solution. I wanted Aslan to regret the fact that he was going to have to kill the White Witch. I wanted a line that he could turn to Peter and really just say, 'it's over,' 'it's done.'"

While Mr. Adamson agrees that "the ideas of good and evil and of forgiveness and sacrifice are very present in the book and I think that's what makes it so universally appealing," he added, "I didn't really think a lot about the religious aspect of the film. . . . I think that because I set out to make a movie of the book, I think I've stayed really true to the book and I think people will interpret the movie the same way."

Keeping the story on track seems to have largely been the responsibility of C.S. Lewis' stepson and keeper of the estate, Douglas Gresham.

Mr. Adamson described him as "a huge cheerleader" of the project but said he disagreed with him about keeping one scene from the book which the director considered sexist.

Father Christmas gives weapons to the children but tells the girls, "I do not intend you to use them, for battles are ugly when women fight." Mr. Adamson, considering the line sexist, told Mr. Gresham, "C.S. Lewis may have had these dated ideals but at the same time there's no way I could put that in the film." The two compromised, Mr. Adamson said, with Father Christmas on-screen saying, "I hope you don't have to use them because battles are ugly and fierce."

Overall Mr. Adamson said he agreed with Mr. Gresham on most things. "He was a huge asset at times when I was adapting, particularly in the writing process, when I could call him up and ask, 'Does this take anything away from what Jack [C.S. Lewis] intended?' or 'Does this addition change things too much?'"

Mr. Gresham's expertise, explained Anna Popplewell, who plays the oldest sister Susan in the movie, "reminded me of the responsibility to the huge family of readers and the importance of the story."

The actors who play the Pevensie children are not movie stars. Younger Lucy's Georgie Henley, in fact, had not acted a day in her life, yet moved to New Zealand for filming with her mother, away from her father and two sisters.

Aslan, too, presented a learning curve. Initially cast as a real lion, the production team ultimately decided that-ironically-made him unrealistic. In the movie he is a computer-generated lion, except on the Stone Table, where he is a puppet. Throughout he is voiced by Liam Neeson.

Mr. Gresham proved invaluable in keeping the production lifelike. Said Mr. Flaherty: "In addition to Douglas' encyclopedic knowledge of all things Narnia, he actually brings a wealth of personal discussions with Jack about Narnia to the table. Having Douglas' integral involvement was the next best thing to having C.S. Lewis himself."

Hearing from these players, discovering that they are sometimes slightly at odds with one another, and-it can be argued-with Lewis himself, should help readers and moviegoers understand just how many different ingredients come together in the translation of a book-the unadulterated perspective of a single author-to the screen, a much more diverse collaboration. That overall the movie remains faithful to its source material is a testament to the power of Lewis' story and to the deep magic of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Andrew Coffin

Andrew Coffin

Andrew is a former WORLD correspondent.