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Hear the roar

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling has said she was influenced by "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- where, in an imaginary world, battles of good vs. evil play out, and mythical creatures make appearances. And she has said the reason for seven "Potter" books is that there are seven "Chronicles."

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first of C.S. "Jack" Lewis' Narnia series. Today, a $150-million-dollar film version by Walden Media/Disney hits theaters, the first in what the studio hopes will be a successful franchise à la "The Lord of the Rings."

If the book's fans like it, the studio should get its wish. The series is so beloved, its seven books have sold a combined 95 million copies.

Bruce Edwards, an English professor at Ohio's Bowling Green State University who specializes in Lewis, saw a rough cut of the movie. His opinion -- Narnia lovers won't be disappointed.

"I thought it was spectacularly done," said Edwards, who wrote two of numerous new books out on Narnia and Lewis: "Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual World of Narnia" (Tyndale) and "Further Up and Further In: Understanding C.S. Lewis's 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'" (Broadman and Holman).

Edwards is among scholar-authors participating in "Narnia on Tour" bookstore appearances leading up to the movie. In seven stops attended by Edwards, including one in Tampa, attendance averaged 75 -- huge for a bookstore event. "And they're not coming to see me. They're coming to talk about Narnia."

While the movie brings Lewis (1898-1963) to a new audience, he was a celebrity before he wrote "The Chronicles." The Irish-born Oxford don, a former atheist who described himself as a lay theologian, had been on the cover of Time magazine's Sept. 8, 1947, issue for his nonfiction defenses of Christianity, including the wildly popular "The Screwtape Letters" -- a satirical set of missives between demons. (He had also written a science-fiction trilogy.)

The Narnia books contain Christian themes, such as the death and resurrection of the Christ-like lion Aslan, that Edwards said remain in the new movie but may be missed by people unfamiliar with the Bible and Christian teachings.

Some object -- as did Lewis' friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings" series -- to the presence in Narnia of gods, goddesses, witches and giants, with, of all people, Father Christmas.

"All of this is sort of a mishmash of myth, and it drove Tolkien crazy because he was a purist ... Lewis just throws in the kitchen sink," Edwards said. "He loved the pagan world. When he became a Christian, he didn't think he had to renounce all the great stories and images he had grown up loving."

Lewis wrote "The Chronicles" to liberate readers' emotions as well as his own, said Paul Ford, author of "Companion to Narnia: A Complete Guide to the Magical World of C.S. Lewis's 'The Chronicles of Narnia'" (HarperSanFrancisco). Ford says Lewis put himself into many of the Narnia characters and wrote his autobiography while working on the series.

"I think he gradually experienced the complete thawing of his feelings," Ford said.

Adults who grew up on Narnia may be surprised to find they have been renumbered. "The Lion, the Witch ...," the first to be published, is now marked as the second book, behind "The Magician's Nephew," which chronologically precedes it but was published five years after.

Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, a co-producer of the new movie, explained, "This was my decision, because when I asked Jack what order they should be read in, that was the order he told me. It happened when the publisher changed some years ago and I was consulted about in what order they should number them. Personally, I think it is a silly idea to even put numbers on the books, but there it is.

"There are some folks who like to make an issue out of it, but it would never have come about at all if the publisher had not numbered them in the first place."

Gresham works for the C.S. Lewis Co., runs Rathvinden Ministries outside of Dublin with his wife, and wrote "Jack's Life: The Life Story of C.S. Lewis" (Broadman & Holman).

As for the Narnia books' effect on wider culture, Gresham said they "have taught people of the importance of such vital concepts as honor, chivalry, courage, duty, commitment, responsibility, honesty and so forth, and thus have and will influence society for the better."

The movie's director, Andrew Adamson, has said the next Narnia film likely will be "Prince Caspian," which has the same four children characters as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

A Narnia franchise also raises the possibility of film versions of C.S. Lewis' space trilogy: "Out of the Silent Planet" (1938), "Perelandra" (1943) and "That Hideous Strength" (1945).