In the final book of the Narnia Chronicles, THE LAST BATTLE, King Tirian learns that the sacred trees of Narnia are being cut down by the evil Calormenes to be sold as common timber. Outraged, the King demands to know who gave the order to cut down the trees. When the King is told that Aslan himself has given the order, he is horrified:
"Aslan," said the king at last in a very low voice. "Aslan. Could it be true? Could he be felling the holy trees? "Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for?"
As the Walt Disney Corporation prepares to launch a $150-million adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe," the words of King Trinian seem strangely prophetic. Disney, in partnership with Walden Media, is hoping to turn the 7-book series into a commercial bonanza. For the past year, Disney has been marketing, merchandising and selling Narnia with a zeal that would shame even the Calormenes.
While shopping at Costco last week, I discovered Narnia Play Station and X-Box games for sale. Two movie soundtracks (one Christian pop, the other secular) have been released. Nineteen new versions of the Narnia books have been issued by publisher Harper Collins. Included among the Narnia merchandise are charm bracelets, pendants, calendars, Mega Bloks, stickers, stationary, key rings and a Narnia-themed box game. Those who visit a promotional website (Narnia.com) are encouraged to "Experience the magic of Narnia at a mall near you!"
For many evangelicals, the thought of Disney getting its clutches on Narnia is deeply troubling. Their worst fear is a Wardrobe malfunction: that the Christian message of the books will be distorted, diluted or otherwise lost in translation.
Not all Christians share those fears, however. Some view the film as an opportunity for the Christian allegory to reach a new and larger audience. The film is being directed by Andrew Adamson, who also directed the Disney blockbuster SHREK.
Although Christians are seen as the core "fan base" for the film, Disney has been careful not to promote it as a Christian movie. Instead, Disney has marketed the film through schools, libraries and other niche marketing groups, such as Hispanics and military families.
To lure the Christian audience, Disney has hired some of the same consulting firms that promoted THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which grossed more than $611 million worldwide. These firms have targeted Christian churches to drum up grass-roots support, attempting to convince them that Disney will deliver a faithful adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic. Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis, has been touring the Christian circuit, lending his support to the film. Disney also has invited small groups of Christian opinion-makers to the company's Burbank studios for briefings and advance screenings. Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian-oriented MOVIE GUIDE, called the presentation "a wonderful dog-and-pony show. I think they're going to do a great job marketing to the church."
Will the Kingdom of Narnia survive under the rule of Disney? For now, the battle lines seem to be drawn between those who would preserve Narnia as something holy and unworldly and those who would cut down the sacred trees and turn it into a theme park or a shopping mall. In the words of C.S. Lewis scholar Bruce Edwards, "Aslan must again be the one to save Narnia, to rescue it from becoming just one more kingdom swept away in the homogenizing flood of popular culture that jettisons its core convictions and compelling charm."
Peter Larson is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio, and a contributing editor to PRISM.