Narnia: kingdom for kids, empire for adults

Issue 

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Based on the Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis

In cinemas

C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia were written in the 1950s for children's Christian education.

A stuffy, long unmarried university don, Lewis feared English kids were losing the stout virtues of classical education, high-Anglican spirituality and hearty, Tory, stiff-upper-lip colonialism. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian film reflects many of these values.

Into his overtly simple tales, Lewis poured the full breadth of his classical expertise. Over seven short volumes he managed to insert Platonic philosophy, facets of Christian theology, an argument against modernism and a great deal more.

The great lion, Aslan (Jesus) inspires a magical land that realised all Lewis's fantasies: ancient Greek gods and nature spirits living happily with talking animals and perfect examples of English breeding — the Pevensies (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy).

The series is brilliantly imaginative and, read out loud to children, inspires a love of books. That is true despite Lewis's intruding narrative voice that, for example, mocks progressive education and boys who cry, and advocates corporal punishment and the superiority of males.

Fast forward fifty years and "Narnia" is now a brand, a series of industrial-strength, big budget, Disney Corporation spectaculars competing with the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises.

But in annexing Narnia Disney also wants to colonise another kingdom. Ever since Mel Gibson revealed Christian box office power with his sado-masochistic The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has been pandering to the US right-wing Christian lobby groups.

Disney's Narnia offers Lewis's strong stories, computerised special effects and Christian virtue to satisfy this market. But Lewis was a complex writer, lacing his tales with problematic messages for the lobbyists and producers.

Lewis grew up in a period when the tight strictures of Victorian sexuality were fraying. A layer of the English intelligentsia started nostalgically idealising classical Greek sexuality and pagan religion. It showed up in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, the dancing of Isodora Duncan and even the art of Australia's Norman Lindsay.

Lewis's sexuality was repressed for most of his life. His sublimated passions, fears and prejudices are refracted through Narnia. Thus, Narnia's most dangerous evil is the beautiful, giant White Witch — a fierce, devouring woman.

The main thrust of Lewis's Prince Caspian is the cost of failing to act on what one knows to be right, that is, the importance of personal integrity and the social pressures distracting from it. Lewis's focus was Christian faith, but it applies in all areas of commitment.

Director Andrew Adamson rewrites whole swathes of the text. Enhancements from the rewriting are good, witty dialogue and the stronger role for Queen Susan, obviously based on the Artemis stereotype by Lewis. Lewis was uncomfortable with girls intruding into the male domain of fighting, but not in the filmic Narnia. Susan is gutsy and (I'm sure Lewis is turning in his grave) displays a touch of the Aphrodite stereotype — yes, a hint of romance!

Adult female sexuality was a theological problem for Lewis. In The Final Battle (the last book) he reveals Susan has lost her loyalty to Narnia (Christianity) through a flippant interest in parties, make up and fine clothes. How will Disney, the original home of Britney Spears, deal with that?

Another element to watch out for is the role of the dwarfs, Lewis's symbol of the English working class. These unruly, independent-thinking, hard working simpletons are divided into sub-groups: red (loyal forelock tuggers who know their place) and black (disloyal, atheistic communists).

In both literary and cinematic Narnia, good and evil, nature and civilisation, gods and demons battle it out. And, allegorically, the stern voice of bourgeois authority speaks. For all that, it is very well worth visiting because there are very few tales that offer such a rich engagement with intellectual life.