Adapting Narnia Is Ridiculously Difficult

You might think Greta Gerwig an unusual choice to take on CS Lewis’s Narnia stories for Netflix. And at first glance, few would argue with you. Beginning her career as an actor in mumblecore movies such as Baghead, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Greenberg before transitioning into indie cinema as a film-maker with Lady Bird, Gerwig became a household name with this year’s $1.4bn-grossing, conservative-baiting, slyly subversive comedy fantasy Barbie, a movie that will be remembered as the most topically adroit cinematic event of 2023, despite ostensibly being about a child’s plastic toy.

So what on earth might Gerwig do with Aslan, Eustace Grubb and Mr Tumnus the faun? Gerwig is down to make at least two from Lewis’s seven-book series for Netflix, and the streamer’s chairman Scott Stuber hinted to Variety this week that the films might be more traditional than we might think. “She grew up in a Christian background,” Stuber said. “The CS Lewis books are very much based in Christianity. And so we just started talking about it. We don’t have IP, so when we had the opportunity [to license] those books or the [Roald Dahl stories] we’ve jumped at it, to have stories that people recognise and the ability to tell those stories.” Stuber said Gerwig was currently working out the “narrative arc” of the films, but implied heavily that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be a central focus.

This is pretty much expected, but the idea that Gerwig might zero in on the traditional religious imagery, when she’s known for a movie that went against the grain with such impish if warm-hearted attitude, is less predictable. Having read the books as a (non-religious) child I remember the interminable passages in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in which the four Pevensie children are waiting for Aslan (basically, Jesus-Lion) to turn up. When he finally does, he’s a good deal blander than billed.

Indeed, Lewis seems to have fallen into the same trap as Milton did when writing Paradise Lost (in which the Puritan writer somehow contrived to make Satan his epic hero). The evil White Witch, with her endless supply of turkish delight and natty winter-wear, is a far more enticing central figure. Lewis’s final book in the series, The Last Battle, is even more depressing with its turgid determination to present as an allegory for Christianity’s Judgment Day and the second coming of Christ. Some of the other stories, such as Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Magician’s Nephew and even The Horse and His Boy, where Lewis lets his love of pure fantasy run amok, are a lot more fun.

The three Narnia films made in the 00s, 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2008’s Prince Caspian and 2010’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, were prosaic in the extreme despite the best efforts of the always excellent Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. The idea of Gerwig shaking the architecture with a spikier take on Narnia has a real zing to it, given how careful previous film-makers have been.

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Yet Gerwig is no one-trick pony, and we should not expect Barbie to provide a template for her future career. Her fabulous Little Women managed to ring true to Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel while seeming somehow more real and modern than any previous adaptation. Mr Tumnus will not necessarily be portrayed by Ryan Gosling, and there are not likely to be scenes in which the bearded goat-man berates Aslan for grooming young children into Christianity via the power of not-so-subtle religious imagery and the fact that everyone wants to cuddle a giant lion. Though you rather wish he would.

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