Return to Narnia
How contemporary writers are revisiting — and revamping — C.S. Lewis’ literary kingdom
When Netflix announced a deal in early October to develop new movies and TV projects based on C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Laura E. Weymouth observed a mixed response online. “Some people were really excited,” she says. “Some people were like, we have a lot of new fantasy literature that’s more diverse and modern than the Narnia books: why not adapt one of those?”
Weymouth herself was cautiously enthusiastic. A Narnia obsessive since childhood, her enchantment with Lewis’s saga has always been tempered by disappointment over how Lewis writes his female characters, reinforces cultural stereotypes and champions colonial narratives.
That’s why Weymouth built her own Narnia, complete with a contemporary update, in her debut YA novel “The Light Between Worlds.” Weymouth, who was raised in the Niagara region and now lives in New York state, is part of a group of contemporary writers re-evaluating Lewis’s series.
In some ways the beloved children’s literary classics are more relevant than ever. Fantasy is not such a dirty word in the blockbuster glow of epics such as Harry Potter and “Game of
Yet in revisiting Narnia, Weymouth found elements felt outdated. Though Lewis himself dismissed readings of his work as Christian allegory, the religious subtext of the books has polarized some readers and Weymouth, who was raised Mennonite, steered her novel away from taking a religious stance.
She also found Narnia to be a curious Anglo-Saxon bubble in a literary moment when diverse characters are enjoying unprecedented popularity. “I started to realize the latent imperialism and colonialism and a white saviour aspect of the book,” Weymouth says. “The Light Between Worlds” includes people of colour as well as a love interest who is disabled and disfigured.
But, most of all, Worlds shows the consequences of traumatic events.
As in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” siblings escape England during the Second
World War and visit a mythical kingdom. However Weymouth focuses on how sisters Philippa and Evelyn process what happened to them once they are home from the fantasy world, where they have waged war alongside their brother Jamie in defence of the fairies, centaurs and tree spirits of the Woodlands.
The novel shows the siblings’ most urgent battle is with themselves. Upon their return to England, they struggle with disordered eating, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Philippa’s siblings accuse her of having an obsession with “powder and pumps,” a pointed callback to Lewis’s dismissal of Susan. In the final Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” the character of Jill Pole sneers that Susan’s “interested in nothing more nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”
“I think most women and girls from a very young age realize that C.S. Lewis did a poor job with Susan,” Weymouth says.
Weymouth reveals how a beauty ritual can carry hidden depths as she takes the reader inside Philippa’s head as she applies her makeup.
“My face is a perfect mask that blocks off any glimpse of the lost girl within,” she writes.
Hamilton playwright Anna Chatterton (“Gertrude & Alice”) also recognized an opportunity to give Narnia a modern makeover. The Governor’s General Award for Drama shortlisted playwright is writing the script for a new stage adaptation of “The Horse and his Boy” that will première at the Shaw Festival next year.
“It’s racist,” she says bluntly. “The Calormenes are loosely seen as being from the Muslim world. They have dark skin and they have turbans and it’s all very different.
“They’re the bad guys and the white, blond, blue-eyed Narnians are the good ones. We have obviously just gotten rid of that.”
While writing the script, Chatterton, who has a six-year-old daughter, was also conscious of elevating the place of women in the story.
In her Narnia, Aslan is a woman.
“The diehards are going to be upset but that’s OK,” she says.
Chatterton has rewritten another pivotal character, The Hermit, as a woman as well. She also gave Susan a more substantial role than the damsel in distress she plays in the book. It wasn’t hard — she just borrowed lines from her younger brother Edmund.
For his own Narnia-inspired children’s novel “The Lost Magician,” British children’s author Piers Torday saw an opportunity to redeem the character of Edmund who, in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “is lured into betraying his siblings by the White Witch with a fistful of Turkish Delight.
“I didn’t like the way that Edmund was punished in the book in a very moralistic way,” Torday says.
“He is groomed really. He’s a victim. He’s treated like he’s a little sneak but why do we punish curiosity?”
In “The Lost Magician,” which has yet to be published in North America but is available online through retailers such as Amazon, Torday imagines four siblings in the wake of the Second World War who discover a library that leads to a world called Folio, where stories and facts share an uneasy coexistence. Torday rewrites the Edmund character as Evelyn, whose curiosity draws her into a forbidden area of the library called Never Read, because “in her experience, if a parent or a teacher told you not to do something, it was imperative to do it.”
“I quite enjoyed challenging the orthodoxy that those characteristics in children, not being polite and saying what you feel, actually maybe are attractive and are not just bad manners,” Torday says. “If you are a little girl trying to get her voice heard in a male-dominated world, that’s maybe how you need to be. That could be a good thing for a child to have in a story for a change.”
Torday hopes that Netflix will continue to remodel Lewis’s wardrobe.
“I think it would be great if they made it contemporary and properly diverse and inclusive,” he says.
“The heart of the story is gold but it’s very much of its time. I think they could find a whole new [audience] all over the world.”
Netflix is developing new movies and TV shows sourced from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which inspired this 2005 film.
In her young adult novel “The Light Between Worlds,” Laura E. Weymouth tried to avoid the religious overtones and a “white saviour aspect” of the original Narnia.
In “The Lost Magician,” Piers Torday alters characters but keeps Narnia’s “heart.”
“The Lost Magician,” by Piers Torday, Quercus, 304 pages, $22.44.
“The Light Between Worlds,” by Laura E Weymouth, HarperCollins, 368 pages, $21.