In the early-2000s, as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films elevated the fantasy genre to new heights on screen, the Walt Disney Company was eager to get in on the action. Thus, Disney partnered with Walden Media, who owned the film rights to C.S. Lewis‘ The Chronicles of Narnia books. Together, the two studios planned to adapt the beloved young-adult fantasy series into movies. The source material totaled seven books, and after Disney and Walden made over $745 million dollars on their inaugural adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, it seemed promising that the entire series would come to life on-screen and become a bankable franchise for both companies. However, as the subsequent films earned less and less at the box office, and the books became increasingly challenging to adapt, The Chronicles of Narnia movies seemingly came to a premature end, with only three of the seven books ever making it to the screen.
Shrinking Box Office Returns Halted ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ Franchise
After the success of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in 2005, Disney and Walden adapted Lewis’ second The Chronicles of Narnia book, Prince Caspian, in 2008. While the sequel fared decently with critics, it only earned $419 million at the box office. That may not seem like an immense drop from Wardrobe‘s performance, but considering that Caspian was made on a $225 million budget against Wardrobe‘s $180 million, it did not bode well for The Chronicles of Narnia franchise. Prince Caspian‘s underwhelming returns along with other budgetary conflicts led Disney to cease involvement with The Chronicles of Narnia franchise in 2008, prompting Walden to shop for a new Narnia studio partner.
Luckily, Walden found that new partner in 20th Century Fox, which was fresh off the success of Avatar at the time and eager to release another blockbuster hit. Fox thus helped produce The Chronicles of Narnia‘s third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Along with the studio swap, the third installment also saw a change in directors, as Michael Apted took the reins from Andrew Adamson, who had helmed both Wardrobe and Caspian. The film opened in December 2010, and earned $415 million at the box office — $4 million less than Caspian. Although Treader reverted to a more modest $145 million budget, it still secured a trend of diminishing returns for The Chronicles of Narnia movies, despite the worldwide box office numbers steadily rising.
Following Treader, Walden’s president told The Christian Post that the fourth The Chronicles of Narnia film would be The Magician’s Nephew, the chronological first story in the series that explores Narnia’s origins. However, in 2011, Walden’s contract with the C.S. Lewis estate expired, and it lost the rights to The Chronicles of Narnia franchise. Given that Walden was the pioneer of the film series, and the only studio involved in all three movies, this severance put the prospect of future The Chronicles of Narnia adaptations in limbo. No word of a different studio acquiring the rights or producing more films came about until 2016, when Sony and The Mark Gordon company considered a rebooted franchise, beginning with Lewis’ fourth novel, The Silver Chair. Despite this plan seemingly moving forward for a while and Sony even naming Joe Johnston as The Silver Chair‘s director, it never came to be, and in 2018, Netflix entered a deal to develop their own The Chronicles of Narnia reboot. Similarly, however, there have not been any updates on Netflix’s Narnia in a long while.
‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ Books Were Not Easy to Adapt
All matters of money and studio conflicts aside, though, there are even more fundamental reasons why The Chronicles of Narnia never made it past the third film. These reasons have their roots in the source material’s narrative structure, and they could have been foreseen from the very beginning.
Essentially, unlike Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia books are not the most conducive to a consistent film franchise. Most notably, C.S. Lewis wrote the books out of chronological order. It makes sense that Walden released Wardrobe, Caspian, and Treader in succession, as those are the first three books that Lewis wrote, and they follow the most consistent protagonists in the form of the Pevensie children. Even Treader, however, only had two of the original four Pevensies, and come his fourth book, Lewis shifted attention to Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), the Pevensies’ cousin who did not even appear in Wardrobe or Caspian.
On top of this stark shift in main characters, Lewis then started bouncing around in the universe’s timeline. The fifth book, The Horse and His Boy, takes place between Wardrobe and Caspian, and only depicts the Pevensies as grown-up kings and queens of Narnia while focusing on yet another new character as the primary protagonist. For the sixth book, Lewis went back an entire generation to share Narnia’s genesis in The Magician’s Nephew before jumping to the very end of the timeline for the seventh and final book, The Last Battle. It’s a time warp that could make even X-Men fans scratch their heads.
With so many different heroes and vaguely connected storylines, The Chronicles of Narnia did not have the same consistent focus or narrative arc that other fantasy adaptations possessed. Lewis’ books are more like an anthology series, highlighting an array of stories taking place in the same fantastical universe. There is no single character that fans follow throughout all seven books, except perhaps the divine lion-king, Aslan (Liam Neeson), but even then, he is never the protagonist, but rather an omnipresent entity. For the most part, every story and character arc is contained to its specific book.
C.S. Lewis’ Religious Allegory Got Heavier In Later Books
This fable-like structure is appropriate for Lewis’ initial vision for The Chronicles of Narnia books. A devout Christian and religious philosopher, Lewis made the Narnia books as direct allegories to Bible stories. Each one is meant to share a specific Christian moral. While this was subdued enough in Wardrobe, Caspian, and Treader to make them into universally appealing movies, some of the later books can become heavy-handed or didactic in their religious overtones. In Magician’s Nephew, the temptation of an apple plays a significant role in Narnia’s creation. The Last Battle is a transparent retelling of Revelations, and literally shows Narnia’s apocalypse before all the characters reunite in a heaven-like parallel version of the country. Least palatable, though, The Horse and His Boy and even Prince Caspian have slight hints of Islamophobia, with the villains coming from an Arab-like, desert country to Narnia’s south.
Of course, almost all Western fiction—and especially Western fantasy—takes some amount of influence from Christianity. Nevertheless, Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia books are not so much influenced by the Bible as they are directly translated from its text. While an audience for Christian content certainly exists, a blockbuster franchise backed by global studios must cater to a wider breadth of moviegoers.
Some ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ Books Are Just Too Strange For The Screen
Even apart from the Christian allegory, though, some fans might forget that a number of The Chronicles of Narnia books outside the first three are rather strange, and not exactly conducive to film adaptation. Wardrobe was an easy starting point, as it contained iconic characters and scenes, and followed a straightforward plot that culminated in a climactic battle. Caspian was similarly cinematic, but even then, the filmmakers had to write in an additional battle for the movie. Come Treader, the story was very episodic, and it already felt like a dubious structure for a movie. Later books get even less conventional, not just in their structures, but in their details as well. In The Horse and His Boy, the second most significant character is a talking horse. The Silver Chair contains a species of subterranean gnomes, and one of the main characters is a fictional scarecrow-like “Marsh-wiggle” named Puddleglum. Even The Last Battle, despite living up to its name with an epic final fight, spends most of the plot focusing on a corrupt monkey and a donkey that disguises himself as Aslan (a.k.a. a false Messiah). All of these stories make for endearing reads, but one can imagine that some of their on-screen incarnations would be hard to take seriously.
Make no mistake, all three of Walden’s The Chronicles of Narnia movies are pleasant, fun, family-friendly adventures that hold up quite nicely in today’s fantasy market. The visuals are spectacular; the action is exciting; and the world is rich. However, when one considers C.S. Lewis’ books as a whole, it becomes easy to see why the series lost its footing after the third film. Beyond Wardrobe, Caspian, and Treader, the stories lose their central focus to explore different, only loosely-tied corners of Narnia’s world. Some of these corners are weird, some are esoteric in their Christian inspiration, and some would simply be difficult to adapt for the screen. Embarking on a seven-film franchise is no small feat, and without a consistent character, plot, or message, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain interest from audiences or creators.