Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Books to Movies: The Chronic... cles of Narnia

Last holiday season, I gave myself a little project, for my personal edification and enjoyment: I would read all seven books in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series. I've been a lifelong fan of Lord of the Rings, and you can re-read the trilogy only so many times per year, so I figured I'd branch out. The Narnia books are quick and easy to get through, but time has been a premium for me lately, so I've only been able to read up through the third book: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Which is significant, because that was the third and latest Narnia movie to hit theaters.

The next step in the movie franchise is unclear. Will the fourth film in the series be The Silver Chair (the fourth book published) or The Magician's Nephew (the last book published, but the first in the chronology of Narnian myths)? SPOILER ALERT: All the familiar actors have been phased out of the story, so there's no concern with aging, as there was with Harry Potter. No one on imdb or Wikipedia has the answer, so I'm assuming the question doesn't yet exist.

My question is: How can any film studio worth its salt let this opportunity for a potential seven film series, with the stories already written and a fanbase already determined, pass them by? It would be embarrassing for everyone involved if they had to cut the project short 3/7ths of the way to the finish line. And in this age where everything's a franchise and new ideas for films are all but extinct, how can they not get to seven movies? But just how viable is a (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) Jesus allegory in a time where the most talked-about movies (Social Network, King's Speech, The Fighter, 127 Hours) are based on recent, true stories rather than myths? That's part of what I aim to find out with this project.

This project isn't my first experience with the Narnia books. When I was much younger - still in the "reading with my parents" stage - we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together. I remember enjoying it very much, so, naturally, we moved on to Prince Caspian. Caspian was alright, kind of nondescript - I didn't absorb much of it until the end when Aslan (big lion, allegory for Jesus) declares that the two oldest of the four main characters (Peter and Susan Pevensie) were too old to ever return to Narnia.

This rubbed me the wrong way, even at a young age. I had just spent two whole books getting to know these characters, and now they can't come back to Narnia because of some arbitrary rule? I mean, if they had died valiant hero's deaths, that would be one thing. But, no, you can't come back because you're too old!? Come on. This isn't the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, it's a magical kingdom with adventures to be had for young and old alike. Peter and Lucy are great, but you can't go freezing out the HIGH KING OF NARNIA just because he's had too many birthdays. The whole thing struck me as wrong. So we quit reading and never got any further in the series.

Many years later, in 2005, Disney released the first in Walden Media's series of film adaptations of the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I saw it in theaters and, just like the book, I enjoyed it very much. Tilda Swinton turned in a nice performance as the White Witch, Weta Digital's share of the visual effects were impressive (if not quite up to the standards they set with Lord of the Rings), and the movie did a pretty good job overal of balancing the cartoony elements with the gritty action.

I wasn't committed enough to the franchise to return to theaters three years later for, Prince Caspian, a sentiment seemingly shared by most potential viewers. Despite a budget 1.25 times the size of its predecessor ($225 million vs. $180 million), the sequel took in about 44% less in ticket sales ($419 million vs. $745 million). Disney then turned the franchise over to 20th Century Fox, who trimmed the budget for the next film, 2010's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (to $140 million), but got less in return ($387 million). That's still a pretty impressive haul, especially considering this down economy, certainly enough to warrant a fourth film in the series. I mean, if Harry Potter's going all the way to seven films (eight, actually), why can't Narnia go the distance as well?

But, as I mentioned before, there seems to be no real consensus on what the next film will be. Nor does there seem to be all that much anticipation. It's hard to build up a lot of momentum when you wait two and three years between films. Our attention spans are lessening, and furthermore, it appears that our collective movie-going tastes have shifted from the fantasy fare of the mid-00's to futuristic sci-fi alien times. So Narnia might simply have missed the boat in terms of immediate relevance.

I definitely see the remaining four movies getting made, even if on a much lower scale and to much-reduced fanfare. The intellectual property of Narnia is too valuable to be left unmined, especially with achievement in visual effects all the rage these days. Perhaps I will have read all the books by that time.  But if you thought the first book was heavy-handed with the religious imagery, ol' C.S. lays it on plenty thicker later. I don't think today's movie-going public will turn out in droves for a two-hour faith-based allegory. But, who knows, I've been wrong before...