The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Is Christianity in film adaptation a Jewish concern?
By Joe Eskenazi
NCM Ethnic Media
Weekly of Northern California
Reprinted with permission.
December 13, 2005
A mega-blockbuster film, financed by a fervent Christian and
bursting with Christian overtones, is being mass-marketed to -
guess who? - Christians.
Church groups are buying up whole theater showings. Advance screenings
have been held for pastors and ministers, who have given the film
their blessing (literally). Catholic publishing companies are
putting out companion guides.
And the Jewish community is
well, no one knows quite what
to think. That's because the film in question isn't Mel Gibson's
"The Passion of the Christ." It's "The Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe," the special effects laden adaptation
of British author C.S. Lewis' classic 1950 children's book.
The $250 million film was produced by the owner of the San Francisco
Examiner, right-wing evangelical billionaire Philip Anschutz,
who also owns Walden Media. Walt Disney Co. helped, especially
on the distribution end. In fact, many of the same firms that
so successfully recruited whole congregations to attend showings
of "The Passion" have been contracted again for "Lion."
The re-oiling and firing up of the machinery that pulled Christians
into theaters and made "The Passion" a huge hit, as
well the subtle nature of the film's Christian message, has given
some Jews reservations, however.
Orthodox Rabbi Judah Dardik read "Lion" in school,
and was immediately hooked. It was only years later that he was
told it was steeped in Christian allegories. He was "surprised
and embarrassed," he says. "I hadn't realized. I felt
Re-reading the series, he saw more and more allegories, and could
never appreciate the books as mere fiction again. Now he sees
them as beautifully written theology.
"Should Jewish children see this movie or read the books?
I'm unsure. My personal jury is still out. I read them
Clearly it didn't affect my personal theology," said Dardik,
the spiritual leader at Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation.
Anschutz, like Gibson, is a figure who makes many liberally minded
people uncomfortable. His Walden Media in recent years began creating
Christian-friendly films short on sexual content and profanity
(drug abuse and philandering were trimmed from last year's Ray
Charles biopic "Ray," for example). Anschutz is also
an avowed evangelical who was attracted to Lewis's "Narnia"
tales for the same reason others in the business were wary - its
"Lion," however, is no "Passion." Contrary
to the extremely negative reaction "Passion" garnered
from Jewish organizations, the marketing of Christian allegory
as popular entertainment in "Lion" has created hardly
a ripple in comparison.
Like the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the story is
one of the books that nearly every child has read.
Millions of readers (and, now, moviegoers) who thoroughly enjoyed
a fantasy tale of four World War II-era British children tumbling
into the enchanted world of Narnia via a wardrobe, and fighting
medieval battles alongside talking animals and mystical creatures,
would be surprised to learn that "Lion" and the six
other books in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia were seeping with Christian
The latent nature of "Lion's" Christian message, and
the fact that one can be completely oblivious yet still enjoy
the story, allows the film's producers to promote "Lion"
on two levels: one method for avowedly Christian audiences, and
another for everyone else.
While the uplifting Christian message is pitched to pastors and
church groups, the theatrical trailer features a dazzling array
of special effects created by Peter Jackson's WETA, the company
the New Zealand-based director founded to tackle "Lord of
the Rings," and huge battle scenes.
But just as Sigmund Freud might have uttered "sometimes
a cigar is just a cigar," the message to secular audiences
is, "sometimes a divine lion with the voice of Liam Neeson
who dies for man's sins and is resurrected is just a lion."
Disney, whose major task comes in marketing and distributing
this film, is allocating about five percent of its promotional
budget to wooing Christian groups.
Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at U.C. Berkeley's Haas School
of Business and the former president of marketing and distribution
for Columbia Pictures, describes the formula as "a very effective
use of that money
that audience does not have as many films
as it wants."
Sealey, however, sees "duplicity" in the way Disney
is shying away from mentioning the Christian message Lewis infused
throughout the series in its general publicity materials.
In a "Narnia Educator Guide" Sealey found on the film's
Web site, Christianity is not mentioned once.
"The issue is secular audiences," he said. "Will
they appreciate seeing a religious message without knowing it?
[Disney] should make a statement; they should let people know.
The lion is resurrected
It's a great piece of entertainment
and you can enjoy it if you're Christian or not. However, the
underpinnings of the work reflect the New Testament."
The stealth-marketing campaign may lead to non-religious viewers
feeling "duped" when they find out about "Lion's"
Christian message. But it wouldn't be the first time. Sealey recalled
that last year's Nicolas Cage film "National Treasure"
was also successfully target-marketed to Christian audiences in
a manner highly different than the general ad campaign.
Lewis was a theologian who wrote with a Christian message in
mind, and the parallels between the Narnia tales and the New Testament
easily fall into place. For starters:
- Narnia is a magical kingdom created by the divine King Aslan,
but currently in a state of perpetual winter due to a curse of
the evil White Witch. The four children (two "Sons of Adam,"
two "Daughters of Eve") stumble in via the enchanted,
eponymous wardrobe, and become the disciples of Aslan. Like Judas,
the child Edmund betrays his siblings and Aslan to aid the White
Witch. He is saved when Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed,
not unlike Jesus.
- Aslan is resurrected, and the White Witch is vanquished. The
four children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. Peter -
not a coincidental choice of name - becomes High King.
- In the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, fittingly titled "The
Last Battle," an army of people described in a manner recalling
the medieval Turks and aligned with a donkey in a lion costume
(a false god, if you will) invades Narnia. Those who believe in
Aslan pass through a gate into another realm. After a terrifying
moment passing through the gate, a beautiful kingdom is revealed.
Aslan decrees that he has ended Narnia just as he began it, and
the four children, who died in the world of postwar Great Britain,
can now live with him forever in paradise along with other believers.
You figure it out.
Pastor Earl Palmer is an instructor and co-founder of Berkeley's
New College and a scholar on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. While
Tolkien and Lewis saw their tales as "stories of the marvelous,"
Palmer admits Aslan is a fairly loosely veiled Christ figure.
But this wasn't a surprise coming from Lewis; prior to writing
children's books he was an author of Christian religious tracts.
"Lewis said you can take a rock out of your shoe but you
can't take an idea out of your mind. His faith is in everything
he writes," said Palmer, the senior minister at Seattle's
University Presbyterian Church. "I always say that you should
let the story flow over you. Don't try to interpret it. Later,
when you look back, you'll see certain biblical allusions. There
are theological themes, just like in 'Lord of the Rings.'"
"There's one funny line (Lewis) put in a letter. He said,
'Children know who Aslan is,'" said Palmer. "The great
golden lion, son of the emperor from beyond the sea, is a Christ
But that doesn't worry Rabbi Harry Manhoff. Christianity has
never been something that scared him, and he isn't about to start
now. He read the books to his children, and though they're now
adults, if he had young kids going to see the film, he'd rather
they didn't know about its Christian underpinnings.
He related an anecdote from when the Jewish musical "Fiddler
on the Roof" went on the road to Japan. Following the show,
audience-members approached the cast and said, "We don't
understand why you'd put on this play anywhere else in the world.
It's such a Japanese story."
The moral of that story, according to Manhoff, the spiritual
leader of San Leandro's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom
and the holder of a Ph.D in Christian studies is, "people
take away from a movie whatever they bring to a movie. I don't
think Jewish kids who go to this movie will be converted to Christianity
just because a character dies and those who trust him go to a
Besides, he said, Jewish moviegoers of an earlier generation
watched overtly Christian films such as "Ben-Hur" or
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" and didn't beat a path
to the nearest baptismal pool. Why should today's filmgoers be
"Could [this film] be used for a darker, sectarian purpose?
Probably anything can," said the Rev. Charles Gibbs, director
of San Francisco's United Religions Initiative, an interfaith
institute. "But at this point I am not concerned this movie
will have a detrimental impact on interfaith work or lead to a
backlash against any particular groups."