The evergreen C.S. Lewis

Whew! Christianity has not been washed out of film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Michael Coren | Dec 21 2010 | comment  


And so it continues. The third of a series of Disney movies based on the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was the first, then Prince Caspian, and now The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Are they any good? Well, of course they are. Are they as good as the books? Well, of course they’re not. There have been perhaps two or three movies that have improved on a book – usually not a very good book – and a dozen or so that have cleverly captured the essence of the written original. The inherent problem is that the better the book, the more difficult it is to replicate it on the big screen, in a totally different context and genre.

The Dawn Treader movie is in 3D, because Hollywood has decided that 3D is what audiences want. They don’t. At least not unless it makes a movie much more fun. In this case it is almost entirely unnecessary, and the dark shades that 3D glasses create hurt rather enhance the thing. Still, this is not a major problem. The special effects are glorious, the acting is surprisingly good, the music is delicious and – thank you, Lord – Christianity and God have not been jettisoned. I realize that to remove faith from a book by C.S. Lewis would be like removing Russia from Tolstoy, but this is pretty much what happened in the big screen version of Shadowlands, the magnificent play about the relationship between Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman. Suddenly it became a story of modern man growing up when he faces loss and deciding that it was all worth it anyway. The original scenes of Lewis praying, of his discussions about religion, of his briefly losing his Christian beliefs and then recapturing them, are almost entirely lost.

Not so in Dawn Treader. As the movie opened the actor who provides the voice of Aslan, Liam Neeson, made some fatuous remark about Aslan being Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, or anyone you want. Shut up, Liam! That is a world away from what Lewis was saying and is totally inconsistent with the story of the Narnia books. Aslan, for example, gives his life for humanity – and makes you look extremely silly. Oh what fun it would be if he compared Mohammad to an animal in an Islamic country, and then discovered the difference between the faiths, and that contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, religions really are quite different.

But one actor’s remark cannot a movie kill. It works, which should come as no surprise, in that author Lewis was one of the finest minds of his generation and perhaps the greatest Christian apologist of modern times. Yes, a Christian apologist. A man who spoke and wrote for and about his faith. A devout, orthodox and even conservative Christian. In the contemporary west he would probably be described as a bigot and face the anger of secular liberals and various Human Rights Commissions.

Born in November 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis became a lecturer at both Oxford and Cambridge University. His genius was the ability to convey highly complicated and complex ideas in a straightforward and understandable manner. Like some grand champion of common sense he sliced away at cluttered thinking, double-talk and atheism.

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils," he wrote. "One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."

In 1952 Lewis's Mere Christianity appeared. The title reflected the author's attempt to remove Christianity away from those who would adapt it, dilute it, change what is pure and perfect into something that is confused and confusing. He showed that a belief in God was logical and that from this belief an acceptance of Jesus Christ was unavoidable.

He reversed the equation offered by the secular world, that it is the thoughtless who become Christians, the thoughtful who reject it. Simply, he summed up the arguments like an angel:

"There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of Heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want to spend eternity playing harps. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs."

In the 1950s Lewis met and fell in love with Joy Davidman, an American convert from Judaism. The marriage was beautiful but brief and Joy died in 1960.

After Joy's death Lewis wrote a short book entitled A Grief Observed, an exploration of his own feelings following his wife's death. "Grief still feels like fear," he said. "Up till this time I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness." He told friends he could no longer remember Joy's face. Until it came to him that she was there all along, just waiting. Her face shone again in his mind and God's love and certainty overwhelmed his pain.

Though his remaining years were never as happy as those spent with Joy he wrote and lectured, becoming a famous man in Europe as well as North America. He died in 1963, on the same day as John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a mere President; Lewis was much greater - a mere Christian.

Because the man has become an industry, there are all sorts of people who want to criticize the Narnia movies, because that is what critics do. They’re wrong.

Legions of the uninitiated will now be exposed to Lewis’s work and ideas and that is the way it should be. Some of those who see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will leave the theatre unchanged but others will realise that they have met a Christian story told by a Christian man and their lives will be transformed. What better Christmas present could there be?

Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto, Canada.

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