On Wednesday morning, The C.S. Lewis Company broke the news: they’d sold television and film rights to Netflix. In a joint announcement later posted by Netflix, they promised that the streaming network, alongside eOne Films, would “develop classic stories from across the Narnia universe into series and films for its members worldwide.”
What does this mean for one of the world’s three favorite British sword-and-sorcery fantasy series starring protagonists shorter than the average adult, copious amounts of tea, and vague but overt Christian themes? Is this a blatant attempt to compete with Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings series? Will Netflix ruin the story? What does this mean for the film series from a decade ago? What about Reepicheep?
What is the Heart of Narnia?
Originally written in 1950 by C.S. Lewis, who staunchly denied that the books were intended as Biblical allegory, the seven books comprising The Chronicles of Narnia are beloved for their deep fantastical themes, expansive worldbuilding, and loving characterizations. They’re especially beloved by Christians, who see in the stories what Lewis calls “supposition”—the answer to the question he asked himself, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?”
Narnia certainly parallels and mirrors our world, being populated by humans but also by talking animals who have the same flaws and sins that humans do. The humans who drop into the Narnian world from time to time see a land of adventure, excitement, and great drama. But you probably love the world for Aslan, the “Jesus” of Narnia who created, died for, and ended the story of Narnia across the septology.
So what will Netflix have to do to remain faithful to this source material? First of all, it can’t shy away from the deep spiritual content. The books are more than mere adventure fare; the spiritual themes interwoven into the story are impossible to detangle from the story itself.
Second, it can’t add “dark” elements that don’t already exist. 2010’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader film added the “green mist,” a malicious entity that waylaid Caspian and the crew of the Dawn Treader in the film, but not in the book, largely adding to its poor reception among fans.
Third, the series or films must remain hopeful by the end of each book. One of the most endearing parts of the series is its eventual optimism, and removing that would be a grave mistake for people who want to see good triumph over evil.
Is this a blatant attempt to compete with Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings series?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Will Netflix mess this up?
There has been some negative reaction to this announcement—surprise, surprise—from people who are concerned about the streaming giant’s track record of adapting beloved childhood books into content for their platform. Anne with an E, Bright, Death Note, and Marco Polo are often cited as examples of their poor adaptation skills or ineptitude at original content in general.
However, these concerns may be misplaced due to a confusion introduced by Netflix’s use of the phrase “Netflix Original” to refer to anything they put any money into at all.
Anne with an E, for instance, was originally developed by the CBC in Canada. The worldwide distribution rights were purchased by Netflix during the development process (which is why they call it a Netflix original), but they did not actually make the creative decisions; except for the title, which they changed from “Anne” when they acquired the rights.
Death Note, similarly, was developed by Vertigo and Warner Brothers. The film was in preproduction and just about ready to start shooting when Warner pulled out, but Netflix came in and funded the completion of the film. Marco Polo, likewise, was developed by Starz and then the Weinstein Company before being purchased by Netflix.
And while Bright may have had poor reviews from critics, the audience seems to have loved the Will Smith fantasy cop film; giving it far better audience reviews than the critics assigned it.
A better comparison, for our purposes, might be A Series of Unfortunate Events, with which Netflix was involved at the start alongside Paramount and received stellar reviews for not only inherent quality but also faithfulness to its source material. In the same way, The Crown, Orange is the New Black, and Stranger Things featured Netflix as a producer from the start with excellent results.
So really, the “Netflix originals” that aren’t very good weren’t made by Netflix at all; and until the first episode airs, concerns about the show’s quality don’t really hold water. I think Netflix has proven themselves capable of a task of this magnitude, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the whole thing.
What does this mean for the film series?
Most recently, Narnia has seen the silver screen via the Walden Media series, which began in 2005 with the Disney-released The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe—starring William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley as the famous Pevensie siblings. After a lukewarm reception for 2008’s Prince Caspian, Disney dropped off the project; 2010’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was released by 20th Century Fox, and received even poorer reviews.
Walden’s rights to the series expired in 2011, though; and despite announcements by Sony and eOne about a film version of The Silver Chair in 2013, 2014, 2016, and early 2017, no preproduction seems to have occurred, leaving the film essentially dead in the water before the Netflix deal was even announced. Since the eOne team is working on the Netflix show or films now, there are likely to be no further announcements about that film; and I doubt we will see Moseley, Popplewell, Keynes, or Henley as the Pevensies again.
What about Reepicheep?
One way or the other, the stalwart leader of the Talking Mice of Narnia will be entering our homes by way of Netflix in the coming years. As will the graceful Bree and Hwin, who I’m very excited to see on screen. I’m refraining from judging the series until I see it, but I’m very excited to make my return to Narnia again soon.
Further up and further in!