Netflix Is Traveling to Narnia

Lewis’ fantasy stories aren’t massive Tolkien-esque epics, and they should be adapted accordingly.

Given that Amazon is making TV series based on both The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time novels, it’s not surprising that Netflix would want to get into the top-shelf fantasy adaptation business, too. And so they’ve announced that they’ll be producing a new series of movies based on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

Since I love Lewis’ novels, I honestly don’t know how to feel about this news. The previous Narnia movies were serviceable, but they always felt a bit off. For starters, they seemed to be aiming for the same massive scope as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films even though Lewis’ novels rarely have the same epic tone as Tolkien’s legendarium. After all, Tolkien wrote myths; Lewis wrote fairy tales. The Narnia stories are much smaller in scope and a good deal lighter and, dare I say, more whimsical than Tolkien’s (though this, in no way, diminishes their serious-ness).

Second, there’s the question of the Chronicles’ theological content. While I firmly believe that non-Christians can enjoy Lewis’ writing as much as Christians — a good story is a good story — there’s no question that Christian theology was intricately woven into the Chronicles’ pages.

The genius of Lewis, however, is that while he never watered down the Christian content — for example, Aslan is clearly a Christ figure and his sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is clearly a reference to Christ’s death and resurrection — he wrote it in such a way that it never comes off as preachy or propaganda. His foremost goal was telling a good, imaginative, and fanciful story, with the theology informing, enhancing, and deepening it. Hopefully, Netflix’s producers will realize that they needn’t shy away from the novels’ religious aspects, and instead, trust in Lewis’ original, imaginative storytelling.

Finally, Lewis’ novels have been criticized as sexist and racist. Regarding the first criticism, that usually refers to Lewis’ treatment of Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle. However, it could be argued that the series’ greatest hero (aside from Aslan), and the character who is frequently held up as the model for others to emulate, is Lucy Pevensie. And she’s no mere token. She drives much of the early story, and her honesty, courage, and steadfast loyalty to Aslan, Narnia, Mr. Tumnus, etc., are constantly praised. Other female characters, like Jill Pole and Polly Plummer, receive similar treatment.

The charge of racism is trickier. Lewis’ depiction of Calormen, a large nation to Narnia’s south that was modeled after Middle Eastern cultures, is often less-than-flattering. At times, it can seem like a caricature to modern sensibilities. I suspect that Netflix will adjust this aspect, which I believe could be done without diminishing Lewis’ story.

That being said, it’s worth noting that Lewis does include a couple of Calormene characters who aren’t caricatures, or at least, become more complex as the story proceeds (and one of them, Emeth, raises some of the series’ most interesting theological questions). And as others have pointed out, the Narnian characters themselves are unafraid to treat the Calormene with respect. Lewis even describes a mixed relationship (when the Calormene noblewoman Aravis marries Prince Cor), something that would’ve been quite progressive for Lewis’ time.

No schedule or dates have been announced for Netflix’s adaptation. From the aforelinked EW article: “It’s not yet clear how many pieces of content will be produced and what form they will take. Producer Mark Gordon describes multiple productions’ and both stellar feature-length and episodic programming.’ Gordon added, Narnia is one of those rare properties that spans multiple generations and geographies.’ ”

Going back to what I said concerning the previous Narnia adaptations, this talk of “multiple productions” and “stellar feature-length and episodic programming” fills me with some dread. Again, The Chronicles of Narnia aren’t epic tales à la The Lord of the Rings. They’re smaller, humbler, and more modest, and therein lies their charm and special-ness. If they must be adapted, then they should be adapted accordingly.