Narnian spirit: C. S. Lewis’ religious themes in the books, the films — and any films to come

With a new Blu-ray edition of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader available March 3, here’s a look back at the series so far … and a look ahead.

SDG Original source: Crux

The Chronicles of Narnia film series has been somewhat at sea since The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). Early reports in 2011 suggested that book 6, the creation-myth prequel The Magician’s Nephew, might be next up, rather than book 4, The Silver Chair, which follows Dawn Treader both narratively and in publishing order.

In 2012, Walden Media, which coproduced the first two films with Disney and Dawn Treader with 20th Century Fox, lost the film rights, reportedly triggering a seven-year moratorium on the C. S. Lewis Company undertaking future productions without Walden. But in 2013 it was announced that the C. S. Lewis Company was partnering with producer Mark Gordon (2012, The Messenger) to adapt The Silver Chair. The projected year of release, according to, is 2016.

After a five-year hiatus, casting is an issue. Actually, it was an issue almost immediately; Micheal Flaherty, co-founder of Walden, told me when Dawn Treader opened that Will Poulter, who plays beastly Eustace Clarence Scrubb, had shot up several inches to over 6 feet.

Flaherty is a Christian, as is billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns Walden. Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, a consultant with the C. S. Lewis Company and a co-producer or executive producer on all three films to date, is also a Christian.

It’s not surprising, then, that the religious dimension of Lewis’ stories is reflected in the films so far — in varying degrees.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most successful in this respect, partly because the religious meaning is so deeply woven into the plot structure.
  • Prince Caspian fares least well — again, partly due to the source material, though the adaptation is problematic.
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader drifts furthest from the source material, but manages to tell a satisfying story with significant spiritual dimensions, not all from Lewis, but not necessarily contrary to him.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the book) is fundamentally a story of a cursed world liberated by the sacrificial death and resurrection of a divine figure, the Lion Aslan. As Lewis develops his mythology, Aslan is not so much a Christ figure as a fictional representation of the Second Person of the Trinity in another realm of creation. Aslan’s death also redeems one of the book’s four sibling protagonists, Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes), whose actions have placed him under the power of the satanic White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

Both the divine sovereignty and mortal vulnerability of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) are compromised; the film captures neither his unflappable calmness in a parley with the White Witch nor the stumbling and sorrow of his via-dolorosa walk to his execution at the Stone Table.

The 2005 film, directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Puss in Boots), hits all these main points, but misses major motifs in the book. Lewis represents the redemption of Narnia mythologically as the end of winter and the beginning of spring; he devotes pages and pages to melting snow and blossoming new life. The movie is too busy with its action-movie beats to pay much attention to this.

Both the divine sovereignty and mortal vulnerability of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) are compromised; the film captures neither his unflappable calmness in a parley with the White Witch nor the stumbling and sorrow of his via-dolorosa walk to his execution at the Stone Table.

Prince Caspian (the book) depicts the return of the four siblings to Narnia 1300 years later, where they have become figures of distant myth. While a lesser work than the books that precede and follow it, the story offers a vision of mythic imagination triumphing over Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism, of faith that goes beyond sight.

The 2008 film, again directed by Adamson, misses nearly all of this. Neither the theme of skepticism and the climactic mythological riot in Lewis’ book is done any justice at all. That doesn’t make it a bad film, and it’s not without spiritual elements, but it follows the broad strokes of Lewis’ story while capturing very little of his meaning.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the book) is an Odyssey-like episodic journey that begins with a redemption allegory and ends with the pursuit of Heaven, or “Aslan’s country,” in the utter East beyond the Narnian world. Rotten Eustace is transformed into a dragon, revealing the greediness and selfishness in his heart all along, and is restored by a life-changing encounter with Aslan.

The film, directed by Michael Apted (Amazing Grace), again botches the story’s central mythological element, in this case the journey toward the east, toward the dawn, the sun. There is still a ship called the Dawn Treader, but barely a line of dialogue, and not a single shot I recall, even to indicate in which direction the ship is sailing, let alone to bring out its significance.

Moral and religious themes are somewhat better handled. The undragoning of Eustace is treated differently in the film, but it’s still Aslan’s gift of grace to Eustace. And a crucial speech from Aslan at the climax is word for word from the book. Flaherty told me in a 2010 interview that he insisted on these points, emphasizing that any compromise here would fatally compromise the book’s meaning.

With Flaherty and Walden now out of the picture, will any of Lewis’ intended meaning survive in any future Narnia films?

Gresham is still involved, but I can’t say Gresham has always impressed me with his understanding of his stepfather’s work. Among other things, he told me in 2010 that he saw no significance in the Dawn Treader sailing toward the dawn, which is a little like calling Beatrice an irrelevant detail in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Anything could happen, but I’m not optimistic.

Note: Book numbers in this article refer to the original publishing order, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as book 1, rather than the narrative order publishers have followed in numbering the books since 1994, with The Magician’s Nephew as book 1.

Fantasy, Narnia, Religious Themes