Hillsdale College alumna and writer Lauren Fink, ’07, spoke with Dr. Beltz by phone at his home in Colorado on November 30, 2010. A longer version of this interview can be viewed at hillsdale.edu/imprimis.
Lauren Fink: As a theologian and pastor, how did you get into making movies?
Bob Beltz: It was something I would have never planned on doing, and it really had to do with my friendship with Mr. Anschutz going back almost 25 years. So when he decided to attempt to get into this area of film and make a positive difference, he invited me to be a part of it as an advisor. I got plucked out of pastoral ministry and dropped into a very strange world.
LF: Why were you and Walden Media interested in a film adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia?
BB: The mission of the company is to do family-friendly films that [reflect moral and Christian] values. A number of us were lifelong C.S. Lewis fans, and pretty early in the history of the company, some people at Walden brought up the suggestion that we should try and see what’s happening with the Chronicles, because no one had made the movies. The rights had been controlled for about seven years by Paramount, which was unable to create a concept that the Lewis estate was willing to sign off on, and the rights were about to expire. Walden made contact with those who control [Lewis’s] estate and began discussions of the possibility of Walden stepping in and taking the project on and making films in a way that [Walden and the Lewis estate could agree on] . . . . We share common values, and a commitment to them to do the best job we could to stay faithful to the source material was really what they were looking for . . . .
LF: Why are movies effective in conveying ideas of faith? How do they differ from books as an educational tool?
BB: Film is such a different medium, and it communicates at quite a different level. The way I perceive it is that books connect with us at the level of mind, and the story—especially the visual story—is a way to connect at the heart level, a visceral level. The medium of film is [quite] powerful in impacting people’s lives. Take something like these Narnia books—which have had such an influence already—and transfer that to film, and it exposes the books to a whole new audience . . . . It’s said that the movie theater is the church of the post-modern world—and I don’t totally agree with that, of course, or else I would be running a theater instead of pastoring a church. But our culture, particularly our younger culture, has grown up in such a visual world. My son is 24 years old, and he watches a movie virtually every day. When you look at the amount of visual media that the culture consumes these days, it just makes sense that we should be trying to step in and convert some of these great stories [to film].
LF: How friendly is the mainstream movie industry to Walden Media’s mission? Has that changed since the first film?
BB: The way Walden has approached and executed its mission has actually been very well received within the industry. Some of the early successes that Walden had with family-friendly films really got other industry people looking at the genre again . . . . Generally speaking, what Hollywood notices is what is successful. When The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had success, it earned respect for Walden within the industry . . . .
LF: What are some of the main spiritual and moral issues addressed in the film?
BB: In 1961, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter responding to a question from a reader about the themes of The Dawn Treader book. [He] said that his intention was to write a book about the spiritual life, or the spiritual journey. What’s unique about Dawn Treader is that, structurally, you have this series of adventures as the ship sails from island to island . . . . What you will see in the film…is the epic struggle between good and evil, involving faith, temptation and trials. Dawn Treader has a huge theme of transformation. Eustace [begins as a] little twit of a kid—he’s such a great character. The opening line [of the book is], “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The film has captured that, and his journey—particularly [of his] becoming a dragon and going through the process of Aslan [the Christlike figure who appears as a lion in Narnia] de-dragoning him—is a powerful story of transformation . . . . The other message that permeates this story . . . is how the [courageous mouse] character Reepicheep longs for Aslan’s country. As a child, he hears the lines,
Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet, Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East.
He has longed to be one who ultimately stays in Aslan’s country.
LF: Lewis was a Christian writer, and many consider the Chronicles of Narnia to be a Christian allegory. Do you agree?
BB: Lewis said it wasn’t an allegory, [and this] has been quoted a lot. But oftentimes no one goes on to quote what else he said. He called [the Chronicles] a “supposal.” To him, as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, allegory had a very specific meaning. And when you read the Chronicles, it’s really not an allegory. [So] he called it a ‘supposal’—as in “suppose there’s another world, and that world needs redemption.” At the end of Dawn Treader, when Lucy is so sad that she’s never going to see Aslan again, Aslan says to her, “I’m in your world too, and I have a different name, and you have to learn that name, and that’s the whole reason you’ve come to Narnia is to know me there.” That’s probably the strongest statement [of the Chronicles’ purpose] that Lewis gives us.
LF: Where do we see an example of a character exhibiting faith in the Dawn Treader film?
BB: There are moments in the story when everyone else is very discouraged, saying, “we’re not going to get out of this.” Lucy steps in and says, “Aslan will save us.” [She has a] consistent belief in Aslan to meet their needs in moments of crisis . . . . And the fact that the whole crew gets behind Caspian and is willing to encounter and fight the danger . . . is all an illustration of faith. [The story is] also about personal temptation and trial. When some of the characters meet Coriakin the Magician, he says to them, “You’re going to be tempted, and you’ve got to defeat the darkness within before you are able to defeat the darkness without.”
LF: Did the theory of Lewis’s planetary scheme in Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia—in particular The Voyage of the Dawn Treader representing . . . the sun—influence the film’s adaptation of the book, in particular its use of light?
BB: I know that many of those involved in this project read Ward’s book, because it came out right as we were in early development on this project. If you watch the film, one thing you’ll see, particularly at the end of the film, is that the characters have a tremendous encounter with darkness. And the climax of the struggle between good and evil is followed by a journey toward the end of the world, the Sea of Lillies—which the film does a phenomenal job capturing—and the vision of Aslan’s country itself, and there’s a brightness to it. I’m not sure how much Ward’s book influenced the creators, but the concept of light and brightness is important to the film. My son was just commenting on how dark the last Harry Potter film was—not just in theme, but the whole palette. And in particular, in contrast, at the end of Dawn Treader there is a brightness that emerges . . . .
LF: What is the most prominent moral lesson in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?
BB: I think the most prominent message in all the books—and so far in the three films—is that Aslan wins. [What Lewis is] trying to say is that God exists and evil exists, and that there’s this great conflict between the forces of good and evil, and ultimately God wins.
LF: Are there other works by C.S. Lewis, besides the Chronicles, that should be put into movie form?
BB: I’m dying to see [Lewis’s] space trilogy done in film. They are some of my favorite books and there’s tremendous potential in them, and I’m hoping that Walden gets the rights to them . . . . I think That Hideous Strength, the third book [in the space trilogy]—which is my favorite of all of Lewis’s books—out-does Harry Potter. I’m sure that J.K. Rowling borrowed a lot of ideas from that book when she created some of her characters. And I think a film of that would be a home run.
LF: Do you have any insight into what Lewis would think of his children’s books being made into films?
BB: I would tread on that subject lightly. Doug Gresham, Lewis’s son-in-law, thinks that when Lewis talked about not wanting his books made into films, part of the reason is that the technology of his day wouldn’t have done the books justice. And certainly, these are not films that could have been made properly even ten years ago. Still, my perception of Lewis is that he might not have been a great fan of film. I will bow out on any definite answer to that question, and I only hope Lewis is not rolling over in his grave.