Recreating Narnia: an open letter to Netflix

Jon Kuhrt writes:

Dear Netflix,

Congratulations on acquiring the rights to The Chronicles of Narnia. I am writing to share five thoughts on what Netflix needs to bear in mind to make the series a success. I cannot claim to know anything about producing films or TV series. But I do know about Narnia.

Like millions of others, the books have been very significant to me. I read them first when I was a teenager but I have continued to re-read them into adulthood. Unlike any other set of stories, they continue to offer a reference point for some of my deepest questions about purpose, faith, life and death.

Of course Disney’s Narnia film series faltered after three films. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) was a huge box-office hit but was followed by less successful adaptations of Prince Caspian (2008) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). I thought all three films had many good qualities but the abandonment of the project less than halfway through shows the challenges of bringing Narnia to visual life.

But Netflix has an advantage because I think the books lend themselves better to an extended TV series than a feature films.  A series allows more time to develop the core themes, characters and distinctive tone of each story rather than wedging it all into 2 hours.

So, with all this in mind, these are my top tips for how to create a TV series which is true to the books.

1. Understand the thinking behind the books

The author, C.S. Lewis, was both an academic expert in medieval literature and a high-profile Christian author and communicator. He was a brilliant but complex man. Understanding him, his beliefs and his aims in writing Narnia is fundamental. The two best books on this subject are Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis and Rowan Williams’ The Lion’s World: a journey into the heart of Narnia.

Ward’s book is a highly academic dissection of the hidden ‘key’ which Lewis implanted within each book (it was subsequently published in an abridged and more accessible version as The Narnia Code). The mish-mash of themes and diverse myths and legends in Narnia has puzzled and frustrated academic readers for decades. It was one reason why his friend J.R.R. Tolkein disliked the books so much. But Ward argues that the coherence and distinct atmosphere of each book comes from each being based on a different planet from the medieval cosmos. It is a thesis which has won almost unanimous affirmation.

Williams’ book is very different. It is a short but deep reflection on the theology that Lewis was conveying through the Narnia tales.  His opening chapter discusses ‘The point of Narnia’ and he uses Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Augustine to explore the ideas in the stories. He also assesses and responds to the criticism the books have faced.

2. Recreate the distinct atmosphere of each book

No other books have given me such a vivid experience of ‘going into another world’ as the Narnia books have. I now realise this is because of the most fundamental, yet intangible, strength of the books: the atmosphere, mood or tone that Lewis creates. As Ward writes, quoting Lewis:

Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go ‘back to a fruit for its taste, to a region for its whole atmosphere – to Donegal for it Donegality and London for its Londonness.’

Lewis was fascinated by literature which drew the reader into enjoyment of a story by indwelling it—seeing ‘through it’ rather than ‘at it’. Ward coins the term ‘donegality’ to describe this hidden element which establishes an intrinsic quality: ‘

…the inner meaning of a romance cannot be flagged up by the author without altering its true nature. It has to remain hidden, woven into the warp and woof the story.

The challenge for Netflix is that each Narnia book has a distinct ‘donegality’ based on the ancient themes and characteristics associated with the seven planets. This makes them very different to the Harry Potter books, which have a more uniform feel and consistency. Capturing the distinctive essence of each book will be vital to re-create the atmosphere Lewis aimed for.

3. Embrace Narnia’s spirituality

All adaptations of Narnia have to grapple with how they will handle the clear spiritual themes within the books.  Faith makes corporations nervous but ‘theological due-diligence’ will be a key part of the creative and strategic discussions.  I would advise Netflix to be bold and as true to Lewis’ thinking as possible. In its 1980s, the BBC airbrushed spirituality out and this was one factor which made it a poor adaption.  In contrast, Disney were braver in their films. As one newspaper wrote after the box office success of the first film ‘Disney finds a way to worship both God and Mammon’.

However, Disney never got to attempt some of the most theologically challenging scenes in the series.  Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew and its apocalypse and depictions of heavenly re-creation in The Last Battle will be immensely difficult to convey on screen.  These scenes not work without confidence and clarity about what Lewis was trying to get across.

Rather than seeing them simplistically as allegories of Christian faith, it is best to see the stories as deeply infused with spiritual meaning. Rowan Williams answers the question ‘What is the point of Narnia?’ by saying that Lewis is doing nothing less than ‘trying to recreate for the reader what it is like to encounter God’.  He is trying to ‘rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything.’

But this does not mean being preachy. Williams makes the point that ‘there is no church in Narnia, no religion even’. Instead the spirituality is embedded within the ‘non-religious’ action—the bravery, treachery, sibling tension, bullying, reconciliation and forgiveness which are jam-packed into the stories. Spiritual truth is embedded and woven within each story.

4. Get the central character right

The character of Aslan stands right at the heart of the books.  He is the only character who features in all seven books in the series, he sings the world into existence and presides over its end. He is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega of the whole story.

Aslan is very obviously an ‘authority figure’ but Lewis’ achievement is to craft a character who is both immensely powerful and enduringly attractive. And the key to this is subversive nature of his authority.  In an age where there is so much questioning of structural inequality and systemic injustice this is an aspect which Netflix should emphasise.

Rowan Williams draws this out with great insight: in Narnia ‘evil is cast as the ultimate force of reaction; we are invited to see ourselves as living ‘under occupation’ and summoned to join a resistance movement.’ Aslan’s wildness, his animality, represents the unpredictable world of grace which opposes the ‘ordered state of sin’ of the White Witch, King Miraz or the prisons we build for ourselves. ‘Transcendance is the wildness of joy; and the truth of God becomes a revolution against what we have made of ourselves’.

This is why Aslan’s victories lead to riotous partying.  As Williams points out this is an ‘explosion of liberating festivity’ which (uncomfortably for some Christian readers) includes pagan revelry. At the end of Prince Caspian both the god Bacchus and a drunken Silenus make appearances to celebrate the liberation Aslan brings.

Aslan is the focus of hope not because he ‘saves souls’ but because he is the liberator of people and the whole of creation. Getting Aslan right will be a huge part of getting Narnia right.

5. Interpret it for a new audience

The Narnia books have faced ferocious criticism from authors such as Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and others. When Disney released the first film, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article titled ‘Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion’. Rowan Williams engages head-on with the accusations that the books have overtones of racism and sexism and that they glorify violence. Whilst allowing for the fact that Lewis was an author of his time, he accepts the discomfort that modern readers will feel, for example, in how the ‘dark-skinned’ Calormenes are presented.

He also discusses one of the saddest parts of the stories: that former hero Susan is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ by the end of the series. Williams fairly defends this plot-line from those who claim it as evidence of Lewis’ misogyny. More obviously, the old-fashioned dialogue of the children (‘Golly gosh’, ‘By Gum, you’re a beast’ etc) is a turn-off for modern audiences. The Disney films modified this well and used the backdrop of the Second World War at the start of each of the films to provide a more gritty context than conveyed in the books.

If Netflix holds fast to the core of the books (see points 1–4) then stylistic changes and wise handling of aspects which are uncomfortable for today’s audience will enhance the series. All stories needs reinterpreting for a new audience.

The Great Story…

Narnia is a great story, but a key reason for its enduring popularity is because it reflects something of the Great Story of which we are all a part. As Lewis puts it himself in the conclusion of the final book:

“Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

I wish you all the best with the production of the series and I look forward to seeing the result.

Thanks,

Jon Kuhrt, Narnia fan, South London (aged 48)

PS: I contributed to a series of talks at Christ Church New Malden based on each of the seven books of the Narnia Chronicles. Click here to listen to the talks.


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21 thoughts on “Recreating Narnia: an open letter to Netflix”

  1. I can only hope they pay attention to your letter Ian Paul. NETFLIX are not known for their sympathetic treatment of Christianity so all the best with this submission.

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    • I actually thought The Crown episode that dealt with the Windsor course for clergy gave a very sympathetic treatment to the C of E in particular.

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      • I thought the coronation scene was powerfully evocative as it intertwined spirituality, sacredness, duty, and ceremony. It touched me deeply in a manner I had never anticipated – a genuine and good surprise.

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  2. Admission time: never read the books and I’m not keen on the film’s.
    I mustn’t be a Christian I suppose.
    Alan Jacobs book, “The Narnia – the life and imagination of CS Lewis” is worth a look.

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    • I’ve read quite a few good books but disliked the films, so I wouldn’t judge a book by its film. (I’ve also seen some excellent film adaptations.) I enjoyed “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” film, although like many action films, it stretched the narrow escapes beyond credulity. I was disturbed by “Prince Caspian” – it almost (for a while) destroyed my appreciation of the books, it missed the spirituality entirely, and it threatened to undermine some of my faith convictions (happily, not for long). Although “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” makes some significant changes to the story as told in the book, it does it more sympathetically I think, and the result isn’t too bad.
      On the other hand, every time I return to the books I find something of spiritual value. And although I remain unconvinced by Michael Ward’s thesis in “The Narnia Code” – I haven’t read the fuller version – I agree that each book has its distinctive character. “Prince Caspian” has captivated me in recent times as a story about what Richard Beck (of “Experimental Theology” blog) calls re-enchantment.

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  3. “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

    This is how reading CS Lewis affected me:

    When I read the quote above in the book it made me think about creation, that each day must have been complete in itself. The morning stars must have sung together at the end of each day as if in a grand finale only to have been surprised that God then wrote another chapter better than the last. Each day double the previous size. Extrapolate our world now to what it will become, exponentially greater on day one in the New Jerusalem, then, greater again on day two. Heaven on earth will be a continual growth, forever.

    And CS Lewis’ house is worth a visit too.

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    • Lewis was in the infantry in WW1 and loved it , apparently. A battle lasts for 10% of a book but 40% of a film. Violence is overplayed in a film

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      • Lewis said that soldiers are *prepared* for death, which preparedness is precisely the state we must all inhabit.

        He also often emphasised that it is not a matter of whether or not we shall die, for we certainly shall; and many live long and are unprepared whereas others live a shorter time and yet are prepared – so old age could be overrated. Thankfully he achieved what he set out to achieve while never seeing 65.

        He also had a bit of a thrill in WWI along the lines of: ‘This is war – this is what Homer wrote about.’ .

        A duel such as that between Peter and Miraz is a means of earning one’s spurs, graduating in life and fulfilling one’s created purpose as it were.

        All of life is a battle – not 10% nor 40% but 100%.

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  4. Excellent letter. I’m also re-reading these books at the moment, and I don’t hold out much hope that anyone will truly do these stories justice in our secular cultural moment – only because I think the foundations and meta-narratives that underpin these stories are largely lost in our present age.

    One note – the third film made, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was not made by Disney. This may account for what I felt was a much better fundamental grasp of the themes of the book series, being made much more explicit in this film, especially towards the end.

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  5. There’s a story about Walt Disney; don’t know if it’s true.
    At the opening of WaltDisneyworld, a reporter said to Walt’s widow, “It’s a pity Walt didn’t live to see this day.” “He did”, she replied.
    He had imagination, but it wasn’t grounded in scripture.
    As with Walt, so with OT believers! They lived to see the day of Christ.

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    • And so with us, and the return of Christ, but grounded in God’s word, God’s revelation, not flights of imagination, even sanctified imagination.

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  6. Some further thoughts., after being taken back to Alan Jacob’s book. “The Narnian the Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.”
    1. Ward’s thesis: It’s hard not to be skeptical of Ward’s argument because Lewis flatly told a young reader that the series was unplanned: “When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and I still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found I was wrong.” (“The Narnian”; Alan Jacobs)

    2. Lewis’s thinking.
    Perhaps the is a need to read all of his writings, particularly on Christianity,to understand the Chronicles:
    “The echoes (of different genres) yield not mere repetition but rather a set of powerful insights or concerns being refracted through different facets of experience.
    “… a strong unity of consciousness or single- mindedness – or what Owen Barfield called his “presence of mind” (” somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything”)
    ” A more organic treatment of his thought and work is called for.” The Narnian – Jacobs

    3 Myth. Writing to Arthur:
    ” Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with a tremendous difference THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED: and one must be content to accept same way in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing himself through “real things.”( Jacobs again.)

    It is here where the heart of the Chronicles can be found: Lewis is laying bare the unseen reality behind all opposition in philosophy, science. humanism, the enclosed material-world-view -system, in all their manifestations, including higher and form criticism, Bultman et al.

    4 Examples of this are:
    4.1” Aslan singing Narnia into being. Uncle Andrew can neither see nor hear it. The longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very ofteh succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon heard nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything elseeven if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he only heard a snarl.

    4.2 The Last Battle
    “The dwarfs are for dwarfs” is proclaimed so insistently and repeatedly – they teach themselves so well – that they make themselves incapable not only of receiving Aslan’s gifts but eve of recognising that anyone is giving tgem anything:
    ” Well at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for Dwarfs.”
    ” You see “, said Aslan. “they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief . There prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison: and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out”. Jacobs again

    5 I remain to be convinced that any of this could be transferred and translated pictorially without losing the full import of allusions, without being waylaid and reduced to the realm of fairy story, or genre of “magic realism”.

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    • Lion-Witch-Wardrobe is Jupiter but not to the extent that it must have been planned to be. Likewise Prince Caspian and Mars. Consequently, once the decision was made to have 7 books not 2, the matching up with heavenly-bodies could have taken place at that point by allotting retrospectively to LWW and PC the most apposite candidates. Michael Ward notes your objection 1 and addresses it.

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  7. Christopher,
    It seems as though that could fall into the realm of literary criticism that Lewis was so opposed to, where people saw connections with certainty and ascribed meaning and intent which were not his, of accademics making a meal of things.
    But, I stand to be corrected. There’s no mention of how Ward addresses Jacobs point;
    to be clear, the point made and the quotations are from Jacobs book.
    And it seems so easy to upgrade thesis to fact, especially in the academy of experts.
    Again, in that regard, Lewis, in the ” Fern seed and Elephants” sets out his four bleats against liberal biblical criticism from the likes of experts such as Bultman.
    His Fourth bleat seems most relevant to this article.
    Lewis’s essay is linked within M Bird’s link.
    https://mbird.com/2010/05/fern-seed-and-elephants/

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  8. I don’t understand the link between the books & the planets. Are we getting into astrology here? Could some learned person please explain

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    • It was already apparent that each book had its distinct overall atmosphere. ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ was planned to be ‘a v green and pearly story’ (in some ways similar to Perelandra in this respect) -we could, for the sake of argument, call it ‘rhapsodic’ while Silver Chair is ‘gothic’. But leaving that aside, we can agree that the former is a Heaven story and the latter a Hades story. Not too great a leap then to Sun for the former and Moon for the latter. The 7 are:
      Magician’s Nephew – Venus (Witch prominent, supremely beautiful but deadly)
      Lion,Witch,Wardrobe – Jupiter (spirit of Kingship and kingly court, Aslan, Father Christmas)
      Horse and His Boy – Mercury (story of swift flight)
      Prince Caspian – Mars (war)
      Voyage of Dawn Treader – sun
      Silver Chair – moon
      Last Battle – Saturn, world grows old, Father Time.

      We can see that LWW and PC are among the less convincing, hence could be retrospective. Anyway, Michael Ward’s masterly study has all the annotated detail.

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    • Is it astrology? Lewis was a mediaevalist and the 7-planets system is central to the world he inhabited as a scholar.

      This enabled him to have a healthy view of the good things of life (more healthy by far than in most Christian theologies, and more prominent – so often in Christian theology the world itself in all its richness seems like the unmentioned elephant in the room – but not in his case). He even sees the planetary spirits as equivalent to angels in the Cosmic Trilogy. For example the descent of the true Venus at the culmination of the trilogy. The powerful realities behind the initial impulse to create/worship the GrecoRoman divinities are very good indeed in their place – even (Prince Caspian) Bacchus/wine. But as Susan says and Lucy forthrightly affirms, it would be very much another matter if Bacchus were not in the context of Aslan. Lewis’s ‘Eucharistic theology’ (as it is generally called) focuses on the wonder of what the thing we call food (another of these creational miracles) really is. This baptising of pagan impulses results from his realisation that a good-pagan/Christian integration is not merely possible but leads to a much fuller and richer, less incomplete approach. This realisation was key in the whole process of his becoming a Christian.

      Astrology focuses on the movements of the planets and the characters that may be assigned to the supposed shapes of the zodiacal stars. Whereas Lewis’s concern was with the realities that led people to feel towards the true God by worshipping Venus, Mars etc in the first place.

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        • Hi Jean – I would really encourage you to get Michael Ward’s book ‘The Narnia Code’ as he introduces it all really helpfully and addresses questions such as the astrology one you raise. If you are up for a denser and more academic take, ‘Planet Narnia’ is excellent too. thanks, Jon

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        • Christopher has put it very well.

          Another good source for Lewis’s thought about the Influences of the planets (I want to say ‘the best’, but haven’t read the others) is his own work describing the medieval worldview for university students. He felt, IIRC, that they would miss the point of much of the literature he loved, studied and taught if they didn’t understand the body of thought that produced that literature. So his last book was ‘The Discarded Image’. It’s illuminating and, because he loved the subject matter, also restful and beautiful.

          TL;DR – read ‘The Discarded Image’.

          Reply

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