Narnia’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and the follies of faith on film

Evangelical Christian filmgoers don’t seem that impossible to please. But, like Harry Potter fans, they prefer the plot to stay as is.

It’s been exactly a month since the release of the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third of the Chronicles of Narnia movies and domestically, box office receipts have been disastrous.

Thirty days on the nation’s screens have brought in $91 million, which is better than several other films released at the same time. But a film based on one of the world’s best-known series of childrens’ books should have grossed twice that by now.

The series’ 2005 first installment “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” helped its creators rake in $745 million worldwide. This was followed up in 2008 by “Prince Caspian” (the second book in the Narnia series), which earned $419.6 million worldwide “Voyage’s” dreary US debut ($24 million box office on the opening weekend compared to $55 million brought in by predecessors “Caspian” and $65 million brought in by “Wardrobe”) was a bad omen. Word was already out on the Christian street that the plot had been substantially tinkered with and so the faithful didn’t show.

A lot of people criticized Prince Caspian for veering substantially from the plot and throwing in a number of innovations that CS Lewis – the British scholar who wrote the children’s series in the 1940s and ’50s – would have never approved. (One was the budding romance between Prince Caspian and Queen Susan, one of the quartet of children dispatched by Aslan, the Christ-figure lion, to save the planet Narnia from Caspian’s foes. The passionate kiss exchanged between the two at the end of the movie unnecessarily sexed up the narrative.)

Dismayed by the tampering with a perfectly good story, the movie’s Christian fan base pulled back from the series and Disney films dropped the franchise. Twentieth Century Fox picked it up and made a concerted effort last February to bring in Christian leaders who were shown film clips (but unfortunately not the whole movie) so they could talk up “Voyage.”

This visually rich narrative about a magical sea voyage to the ends of the Narnian earth was expected to succeed where “Caspian” had failed. That is, until several lead personalities connected to the film couldn’t stop apologizing at every turn for the overtly Christian nature of Lewis’ narratives. First, it was Liam Neeson, the voice of Aslan, who told the London Daily Mail that his character symbolizes Buddha, Mohammed and other spiritual leaders throughout the ages, as well as Christ.

Then it was producer Mark Johnson telling the Hollywood Reporter that “resurrection exists in so many different religions in one form or another, so it’s hardly exclusively Christian…..We don’t want to favor one group over another – whether these books are Christian, I don’t know.”

There was also this strange interview in Christianity Today magazine with Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, one of the movie’s co-producers. He talks about the pressures he faces in trying to keep the movies true to his step-father’s vision versus efforts by filmmakers to water down the story’s message.

Some time ago, “Voyage” director Michael Apted told a Christian TV radio station in New Zealand that he wanted to present the story in “an evenhanded and interesting way; and not to be, in a sense, narrow-minded about it, either narrow-minded in a faith way or narrow-minded in an agnostic way. I have to open my heart to what the stories are about.”

“Narrow-minded in a faith way”? That sure didn’t inspire confidence in the movie’s religious fan base.

We didn’t hear similar apologies from JK Rowling about her Harry Potter movies being too witchy nor Philip Pullman about his first movie, “The Golden Compass,” being anti-God. All this naysaying created an ominous buzz among Narnia fans.

“When marketing a film it’s always wise to avoid saying things that offends a film’s core audience,” Mark Joseph, author of “The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia’s Journey To The Big Screen,” told me.

“I couldn’t imagine the filmmakers behind the film ‘Milk’ distancing themselves from homosexuality or saying the film was about whatever sexual orientation viewers wanted it to be about. It is what it is. And Narnia is what it is: a story about a particular religious tradition involving a Deity who sacrifices and resurrects himself,” Joseph said.

Evangelical Christian filmgoers don’t seem that impossible to please. But, like Harry Potter fans, they prefer the plot to stay as is. For instance, there is a strange scene near the end of “Voyage” where seven swords are stacked upon each other to create enough energy to obliterate evil. That theologically weird episode was not in the original book. Neither was the White Witch, a character played by Tilda Swinton who I thought was killed by Aslan in “Wardrobe.” The filmmakers can’t let go of her. She’s got cameos in “Caspian” and “Voyage.”

And there is not enough of Aslan, who got some of his best lines from the book omitted in the film. Some of the good theological quotes did make it into the closing scene but no sooner had the credits started to roll than viewers were assaulted by “There’s A Place For Us” by Carrie Underwood about “faith” and “love” and the line “we can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe” to make sure viewers walked out feeling good about themselves. CS Lewis must have spun in his grave.

The series does need to go on but maybe its current set of directors, writers and producers would do well by their audience (and perhaps their bottom line) to see the Christian nature of Lewis’ books as a plus, not a minus. Otherwise, what will happen when it comes time to shoot “The Last Battle,” the final book that is about the Second Coming? Will Hollywood include Buddha and Mohammed in that one?

Did “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” get religion? What do you think? What cinematic portrayals of religious books have you liked?


Image courtesy of Walter Lim.

Written by

  • Muddy_Buddy_2000

    I think the Narnia books are so good, that like Harry Potter books they should not be modified in any way. The religion in the books is not overbearing, and as a Christian Kid I only loosely made the connection at best. A extra kiss or two is okay though, lets not be childish. One thing about the books that was weird is that the children had grown up and were considering marriage before they left. Then they go back to being children after being adult kings and queens, but that is part of the story.The bottom line, when making a movie based on any famous book, do not presume to change it. Chances are overwhelming that the screen writer is not good enough to improve it, and if by some miracle the screen write is good enough, it still will piss off the fans of the original.

  • Sajanas

    Lets be honest, the Narnia books are weird, weird things, and the movies they made from them uncomfortably straddle fantasy and religion, and adult and children entertainment. The books are Christian allegories, but I find that they don’t examine much of Christianity, but merely recapitulate some of the stories. It never addresses why Aslan just loafs in at the last minute to save everyone instead of preventing problems in the first place, or why his sacrifice matters when he is just going to pop back up the next day. If it is just a multiday inconvenience, is it really a sacrifice? And the reasons for both his sacrifice and resurrection are ‘magic’, the nature of which are odd and unexplained. Compare Narnia to Lord of the Rings and you’ll see the clear difference between works by a Christian with Christian themes, and someone who want’s to make the Christ story cooler and more appealing to children who don’t know better.Adults can find better fair to examine their religions, and children can find entertainment that isn’t trying to preach to them.

  • globalone

    One of the better movies depicting the Christian story? The Matrix.

  • jwkeener

    Metropolitan Jonah’s title is actually “His Beatitude” Sorry for the mistake.

  • VAnative4

    I am so glad that the Post has brought Julia Duin to the site! She is one of the best religion reporters around, and I hope you will give her lots of free reign. Congrats on a great addition to On Faith!

  • jwkeener

    Ms. Duin, Just wanted to let you know I’m glad you will be able to continue to write at the Washington Post. I’ve followed your articles on the Times for several years and enjoyed every single one of them. I look forward to your story on His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah. I wish you well at the new job!

  • Nick40

    Despite the rather compressed nature of the film, and all other things considered, I think the production crew did a g job adapting the book.The dashing, chivalrous Reepicheep inspired me to write a song several years ago, after reading the book. The primary inspiration was Reepicheep’s yearning to travel to Aslan’s country at the end of the world, a main theme in the book that, unfortunately, was mostly absent from the movie.I recently pitched the song, “Eastward,” to Twentieth Century Fox hoping they would pick it up as a trailer for the movie… but alas it was not meant to be.Anyone interested can have a listen here: Will Poulter was outstanding as Eustace!

  • joshypoika

    Well I might agree with your statements about the faith content of the new Narnia movie, there’s one main reason I didn’t go to see it yet: I thought it looked like a bad movie. I love the Narnia books, and loved “Wardrobe.” When “Caspian” came out, I saw it, and thought it was ok, not great. Seeing the trailers for this one, I just said “meh.” Further faith content wouldn’t have driven me to or away from the movie, but good movie-making is what draws me into a good movie.This is where the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies were successful. They not only stayed true to the books and the required content, but they also were good movies in and of themselves. Granted, I haven’t seen “Voyage” yet, but it just wasn’t appealing to me as a movie. Perhaps I can be proven wrong.Thanks for the great blog! I just discovered it, and I’ll keep reading!