Disney and Walden Media's $150 million production of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- the second installment (but first to be published) in the classic, seven-part series of children's book by C.S. Lewis -- will be released widely in theaters Friday. But thanks to the efforts of the Barna Group, hundreds of thousands of moviegoers will be attending advance screenings for Christian congregations across the country on Thursday night. Disney hopes that the same network of churches and marketing firms that helped Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" burn up the box office can do the same for "Narnia," which is ostensibly the tale of four British kids' adventures in a fantastical world populated by a faun, a talking lion and a white witch, but has been widely read as an allegory of the Gospel.
Though Disney downplays the possibility of alienating secular viewers, the film and its aggressive marketing have already reignited the cultural contest over Lewis' legacy. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik has fired a salvo, writing that Lewis' fellow Brits were "embarrassed" by his sermonizing and that his stateside admirers "have made him hostage to a cult." But at least one Brit -- "Narnia" co-producer and Lewis' stepson, Doug Grisham -- is not shy about the movie's Christian message. Grisham has been speaking to pastors at "Narnia" preview events in New York and elsewhere, and can be heard on this prologue (3:59, Windows Media) to Focus on the Family's radio production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," explaining that Lewis "was often bemused that children were far quicker than adults to pick up on the many connections between his books and the greatest of all books." (The clip is made available by the C.S. Lewis appreciation site Into the Wardrobe.) To hear Lewis himself read from "The Four Loves," click on this selection (10:00, Real Audio) from the vintage BBC recording -- said to be the only existing recording of Lewis' voice -- made available by Audible.com. And in this cut (2:26, MP3) from Mars Hill Audio, Alan Jacobs, author of the new Lewis biography "The Narnian," says that "almost everything that Lewis really cared about and deeply believed in found its way, somehow, into the Narnia books."
Adding another wrinkle to the controversy over the film is this 1959 letter to a BBC producer -- published in the European e-zine nth position -- in which Lewis writes that he is "absolutely opposed" to a TV version of his Narnia books. "Anthropomorphic animals," he writes, "when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare." To top off the irony, Lewis also complains about Disney's "vulgarity."
Still, almost everyone can agree that "The Chronicles of Narnia" are classics of children's literature, and Lewis never objected to reading them aloud. So feel free to listen to these clips from the Salon audio archive. In the first (10:03, MP3), actor Michael York ("Austin Powers," "Romeo and Juliet") reads the first chapter of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," in which young Lucy discovers the portal through the wardrobe to Narnia. And in the second (17:42, MP3), Kenneth Branagh reads the opening passage of "The Magician's Nephew," the volume that provides Narnia's back story.
-- Ira Boudway