Heavenly Features

Moving into the mainstream, the Christian right tells Hollywood to have a little faith

This Friday, Ang Lee's tragic gay romance Brokeback Mountain rides into limited release, having already drawn the ire of conservatives—one blogger calls it "the next step in the Gay Left's Indoctrination Program"—and the fury of Christians, angry with Hollywood's heathen ways. But there's another film opening this weekend in over 3,000 theaters nationwide that suggests the movie industry isn't so sacrilegious after all.

Based on C.S. Lewis's Christian parable, Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe marks Hollywood's first move to court the evangelical audience since Mel Gibson's independently financed and distributed The Passion of the Christ, which grossed over $600 million worldwide in 2004. No longer relegated to low-budget fringe fare like the apocalyptic Left Behind sermons, Christian entertainment is entering the mainstream.

Financed by Walden Media's Philip Anschutz, an evangelical Christian billionaire who has funded organizations that oppose abortion and gay rights, Narnia is being sold to both a standard fantasy audience as well as a Passion-type fan base. For the Christian audience, Disney has hired Motive Entertainment, the marketing agency that Gibson's Icon Productions used to galvanize churches and religious leaders. One Christian group, BarnaFilms, whose aim is to be a "catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States," has sold an estimated 500,000 tickets for preview screenings the day before the film opens.

Mane attraction: Skandar Keynes (right) with Aslan
Disney/Walden
Mane attraction: Skandar Keynes (right) with Aslan

The movie's director, Andrew Adamson ( Shrek), says in press materials that Lewis's tale of four children who discover a magical world is simply "the story of a family, [exaggerated] to the level of the battle between good and evil." But the Christian community is rallying behind the film as a "discipleship tool," as Thomas Williams, author of The Heart of the Chronicles of Narnia: Knowing God Here by Finding Him There, writes on the website pastors.com. Williams cites the film's "specifically Christian content," such as "God's providence, prayer, temptation, joy, sin, Heaven, creation, redemption, God's love, and other doctrines."

Earlier this year, evangelicals expressed concern on websites that Hollywood producers would soft-pedal the story's Christian principles. But those fears have now been allayed by former nun Barbara Nicolosi, head of Act One, a Los Angeles–based Christian screenwriting program. "People particularly want to know if Aslan comes off as a Christ-figure, or just some warm and fuzzy magic lion," she writes in a press release accompanying her new book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture. "Well, I personally cried every moment Aslan was on the screen. . . . So, I am going to say that Aslan is absolutely discernible as a figure of Jesus—for those who have eyes to see."

Within the Christian entertainment community, Narnia is not just another $150 million Disney family movie. With its Jesus-like "vision of Aslan getting shaved and killed," as Nicolosi notes, it's a victory that mirrors what the Christian right has accomplished on a larger scale, according to Didi Herman, co-author of Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics. "The Christian right has adopted an approach that involves attempting to reshape dominant culture from the inside," she says. "Often this is at the local level," for example, getting onto school boards to impact education policy. "In terms of cultural change the strategy is similar: Get conservative Christians into the media, into the film industry, and the values and politics of those institutions will change."

In a speech delivered last year at the Hillsdale National Leadership Seminar in Florida, Anschutz outlined his plans for Walden Media: to make family films that are "entertaining," but also are "life affirming" and "carry moral messages." Upcoming Walden projects include Disney's Bridge to Terabithia, based on former missionary Katherine Paterson's children's novel; Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, starring Ioan Gruffudd as an evangelical abolitionist pioneer; and an adaptation of the vaguely Christian children's book The Giver (set up at 20th Century Fox, which recently launched foxfaith.com, a reportedly thriving website that directly targets the family-values set with titles ranging fromThe Passion to Woman Thou Art Loosed to Doctor Dolittle).

Anschutz also outlined an educational unit that is in contact with some 10,000 schools. The teacher's guide for Walden's release of Narnia, for example, encourages secular educators to emphasize themes of "forgiveness, sacrifice and faith that shine throughout the book and film."

But there is no explicit mention of Christianity in Anschutz's speech or Walden's materials, reflecting another strategy among members of the Christian right that involves cloaking their goals in secular language. As Didi Herman explains, "The [Christian right's] more sophisticated elements quite consciously avoid religious rhetoric; they know it doesn't work. The language of sin, apocalypse, redemption results in them being 'loonified' by the media." For example, Mel Gibson, in discussing his latest project Apocalypto (also to be distributed by Disney), rejected rumors that his new film was an end-times narrative inspired by sacred Mayan texts, saying at a press conference that it is "not a big doomsday picture or anything like that."

Indeed, Barbara Nicolosi, who encourages her students to emulate her favorite author Flannery O'Connor and films like Todd Field's In the Bedroom and Jim Sheridan's In America, says she wants the arts to "explore the spiritual side of human nature. Too much art is coming from the one limited perspective of pure materialism."

Along with writers like Dean Batali ( That '70s Show) and Scott Derrickson ( The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and producers like Ralph Winter ( X-Men), who all teach at Act One, Nicolosi is leading the charge from the inside, calling for Christians to learn the craft of filmmaking and work within Hollywood. "To write a movie that's unintelligible outside of the [Christian] community is a weird thing to do," she says, citing films like the Left Behind series. "It just keeps Christians on the fringes of our own culture."

Some veteran Hollywood producers seem to agree. A number of projects in development tread a fine line between proselytizing and mass-market entertainment. The former head of Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment, Howard Baldwin, who has made overtly Christian films ( Joshua) as well as secular cinema (Ray), says his new company Baldwin Entertainment Group is making movies about the "triumph of the human spirit," but the company is also developing The Second Son, based on Charles Sailor's novel about a construction worker who may be the second coming of Christ. Producer Gale Anne Hurd ( The Terminator) is developing Magdalena, a faith-based action-adventure about female warriors descended from Mary Magdalene, and former Paramount president Frank Yablans is producing a biblical epic called The Lamb. As Bob Berney, one of the masterminds of The Passion's release, says, "The actual dollars dictate what happens: If the studios make films that can succeed that really target that audience, I'm sure they will."

Certainly, post-Passion, the Christian demographic is more important than ever before. "The audience and network for attracting and organizing said audience is very much there and the apparatus, from marketers to grassroots teams, has gotten way more developed and sophisticated," says Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution for THINKFilm, which next Easter plans to release The Big Question, a documentary about the existence of God shot on the set of The Passion of the Christ.

But will this growing industry affect un-Christian entertainment like Brokeback Mountain? Fortunately for Brokeback, the film's reported $13 million budget is small enough that Focus Features need not cater to a massive audience (though they wouldn't mind it). As the film's producer James Schamus recently said at a post-screening Q&A, "If you're a homophobic asshole, I don't care. Just stay away." On the other hand, Disney has a lot more riding on Narnia, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line as well as a potential franchise for the company's beleaguered film unit (which just reported a $313 million loss).

Still, judging from the dozens of stories published in the mainstream press about the Narnia-Christian connection—The New York Times has run at least six since February—the "secular" establishment seems to be worried. As Nicolosi says, "The idea of religious people acquiring media and artistic expertise is chilling to the secular left. I suppose they imagine that we will be as unfair and propagandistic with cultural power as they have been. But I pray we won't be. We have to answer to God for how we treat people."

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