Bringing Narnia to the Screen

Disney is poised to release The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, a film based on the fantastical children's books by C.S. Lewis. Kim Masters reports on the journey from book to film and the quirky family behind it.

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This holiday season, Disney will release what it hopes will be the first of several films based on "The Chronicles of Narnia," a series of children's books by C.S. Lewis. The first of those books, "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe," came out in 1950. Even though that book became an icon of children's literature, it took more than half a century for Hollywood to attempt a big-screen version. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

"The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" tells the tale of four British children who tumble through the back of a wardrobe into a magical world.

(Soundbite from "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe")

Unidentified Man: What are you doing here?

Unidentified Child: Well, I was hiding in the wardrobe in the spare room and...

Unidentified Man: Spare room? Is that in Narnia?

Unidentified Child: Narnia?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Unidentified Child: What's that?

Unidentified Man: Well, dear girl, you're in it.

MASTERS: The children fight an epic battle against the White Witch, who has brought permanent winter to Narnia. They are guided by Aslan, a lion often seen as a symbol of Christ, though Lewis, a devout Christian, never said that was his intention. For Douglas Gresham, one of Lewis' stepsons, seeing the book come to the big screen is the fulfillment of a long-held dream. He says he feels that he grew up in Narnia.

Mr. DOUGLAS GRESHAM (C.S. Lewis' Stepson): How do I describe this? It's difficult. There was no sort of outward recognition that what we were talking about was fantasy or was fiction. We just accepted Narnia as if it were a real place.

MASTERS: Gresham met Lewis when he was eight years old. His mother, a Jewish New Yorker, had begun a correspondence with Lewis. She finally moved her family to England to be near him. When Gresham first met his stepfather-to-be, he says he was already enchanted with the Narnia books.

Mr. GRESHAM: For me it was huge. I was gonna meet the man who was on speaking terms with High King Peter of Narnia and Aslan the great lion. I expected him to be wearing silver armor and carrying a sword.

MASTERS: That's not what he found.

Mr. GRESHAM: He was a stooped, balding, professorial-looking gentleman with long nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, basically, and very shabby clothes indeed. Mind you, his personality soon eradicated any visual deficiencies I might have found.

MASTERS: Lewis died in 1963, leaving the rights to the Narnia books to Gresham and his brother, David. The two have followed very different paths. David is a Talmudic scholar who promotes Jewish education. Douglas is a Christian who describes himself as a non-denominational lay minister. They are not in touch, as Douglas acknowledges.

Mr. GRESHAM: It's not as though we had this big row and sort of decided to go our separate ways and never speak again or anything like that. Nothing like that ever happened. We just were never close. I mean, he's so different from me that I don't understand how his mind works and he obviously doesn't understand how mine works, and we just go our separate paths.

MASTERS: But that wasn't the stumbling block that kept "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" from becoming a Hollywood movie. While a few television versions were made, movie studios didn't seem to know what to do with the material. Mark Johnson is the producer of the film.

Mr. MARK JOHNSON (Producer): American studios didn't think that American kids wanted to see anybody other than themselves, so that they didn't have any tolerance for British kids--kids who talked differently and had a different set of experiences.

MASTERS: For a time, Paramount even considered setting a version of the film in contemporary Los Angeles. But then, preconceived notions about American audiences and British schoolchildren fell away.

(Soundbite from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone")

RUPERT GRINT: (As Ron Weasley) I'm Ron, by the way. Ronald Weasley.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: (As Harry Potter) I'm Harry. Harry Potter.

MASTERS: Between Hogwarts and "The Lord of the Rings," the way was paved. Meanwhile, says director Andrew Adamson, technology had progressed to a point where it was possible to create a computer-generated world of mythical creatures.

Mr. ANDREW ADAMSON (Director): There was no way to do this even five years ago that I think would have been very visually truthful to the book.

MASTERS: The film's producers took a chance on Adamson, who co-directed "Shrek" and "Shrek 2." He had never done a live-action film, much less one packed with 1,400 effects sequences. Adamson is a New Zealander who read all the books in the Narnia series as a boy. The first thing he did was to make a set of notes about his magical memories of the books.

Mr. ADAMSON: And then I reread "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe," and I was kind of shocked, and I had that sort of sinking feeling of `This is a lot more work than I thought it was going to be,' because it was much more. I mean, by example, the battle which I remembered as this huge, epic battle of all these mythological creatures, in the book it's about a page and a half, and it's all in retrospect. It's Peter basically telling Aslan what happened while he was away, which, needless to say, doesn't work so well cinematically.

MASTERS: In fact, Adamson says Lewis left much to the imagination.

Mr. ADAMSON: One of my favorite lines in there is something to the effect of, `I can't tell you how bad this was or your parents won't let you read the book,' and that's such an evocative thing as a child that you just fill in all of that stuff.

MASTERS: Adamson says Pauline Baynes' illustrations from the book influenced his choices, and he felt encouraged when members of the crew, mostly New Zealanders who had also grown up with the book, said everything looked just as they had imagined. Adamson says he and Gresham also were in sync, for the most part.

Mr. ADAMSON: The only thing that we had had really a serious debate about is some of what I saw as sexism that still existed from sort of 1940s ideals that I wasn't willing to put in the film.

MASTERS: Adamson says he persuaded Gresham to update a bit by pointing out that Lewis had written the book before he met Gresham's mother. After that romance blossomed, Adamson argued, the female characters in Lewis' books became stronger. So one of Aslan's lines, `Battles are ugly when women fight,' was changed to, `Battles are ugly affairs.' Adamson says Gresham also agreed to let one of the girls, Susan, put her bow and arrows to use.

Mr. ADAMSON: He didn't want Susan to actually kill somebody with the bow, which was fine, you know. I definitely wanted her to use it, but she didn't actually need to, you know, take someone out.

MASTERS: One big question as "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" heads into theaters is whether Disney can sell it as a Christian movie, attracting the crowds that flocked to "The Passion of the Christ," without alienating a broader audience. Disney says some marketing has been directed to Christian groups, but the film is for everyone. Gresham, very much aware of his role as Lewis' stand-in, says that's fine with him.

Mr. GRESHAM: As a committed Christian myself, there would always be a temptation to push a bit of Christianity into the movie, but I think that would be an immoral and unethical thing to do. I would like far better, and had decided, of course, a long time ago, to simply make an accurate and faithful representation of the book in the film medium and let the audiences decide for themselves.

MASTERS: Gresham says his stepfather did not set out to write a Christian book for children. The real question he posed to readers, Gresham says, is how they would measure up if they found themselves fighting a battle in Narnia. Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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