Screenshots: “Narnia” a Christian Hit?

by Tom Roush

“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”

What do “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings” have in common? If you posited that both are hit movies, you’d be right, and right on the surface of a much deeper story. In fact, these two tales are based on books by authors who were committed Christians and both are considered to be disguised works of Christian theology. Though lightly disguised by the Hair and Make Up Department, Jesus is in these films; I kid you not.

C. S. Lewis, a fallen then resuscitated Irish Protestant, wrote the Narnia series along with a host of enlightened Christian works that are still popular with the Christian intelligentsia. J. R. R. Tolkein, a brooding and academic Roman Catholic, labored over “The Lord of the Rings” for decades before finally letting it loose.

Both men were prolific; Lewis penned Narnia in seven volumes. If the new film opening on May 16, “The Chronicles of Narnia; Prince Caspian,” is a hit, be prepared for five more summers of Narnia. Tolkein wrote “The Lord of the Rings” in multiple volumes and that still doesn’t account for “The Hobbit,” a companion book that will be a new film in the summer of 2010.

Lewis and Tolkein knew each other and shared many mental passions. Both were veterans of World War I and carried away from that conflict a life altering knowledge of the subterranean side of human beings. They met at Oxford and formed a friendship and later an informal society called “The Inklings,” which gathered weekly to read aloud their new works.

About the two, biographers have said that without Tolkien and his brotherly encouragement, Lewis would not have reevaluated his Christianity, and would not be read or known today. Without Lewis, who constantly encouraged Tolkein to keep going, Tolkeins mammoth “Rings” series might never have been finished.

So, what is the allegorical connection between these two complex and thoroughly modern books and whopper hit films and the story of a Jewish carpenter executed by Romans and told in the bible? Good allegorical fiction never provides parallels that are that obvious, but with Narnia, its a little more straight forward.

Basically, Aslan the Lion is Jesus, and in the first Narnia book and film, Aslan is killed by the White Witch in order to save a little girl, and is later resurrected. In the second book with Price Caspian, young Caspian has been usurped from his rightful throne by an evil uncle, but he is advised that the now unseen Aslan and others are there to guide him. In this respect, Caspian is a sort of Paul of Tarsus meets Hamlet of Denmark. Caspian grows in his faith as the story progresses and you can imagine the ending.

“The Lord of the Rings” is far denser as allegory. Tolkein’s Middle Earth is taken from pre-Christian European myth, but it basically represents our world, with Gandalf and Saruman battling over good and evil like Jesus and Satan. Frodo is the rest of us, haplessly stumbling along without the skills or resources to win, but called upon to perform heroic acts in the name of the triumph of Good. Hobbits are the meek inheritors of the Earth, and all long for the return of the King.

Standing between the film releases of these two related and popular book series is the least allegorical Christian film of all time, Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit the “Passion of the Christ.” The whole point of Gibson’s endeavor was to provide no allegory whatsoever, no interpretation other than the original text of the bible.

In this respect, Gibson succeeded spectacularly; the violence is shown as literally as possible. The film’s distributors masterfully enlisted the help of the more literalist Christian communities around the country to make it the 11th highest grossing film of all time and, in a great irony, the highest grossing R-rated film of all time.

Still, allegory competes well with literalism, at least at the movies if not in the pulpit.”The Lord of the Rings; The Return of the King” is the 9th highest grossing film off all time, beating the “Passion of the Christ” by $7 million. The first Narnia film clocks in at No. 29, but given the resources that are brought to bear in movie releasing these days, box office rankings are getting less relevant as a measure of popular resonance.

“Shrek 2” is No. 3 now, and I have not detected a hint of Christian allegory in that film. But perhaps I’m being too literal.

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