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Lack of technology held back earlier 'Narnia' adaptations

Why has it taken author C.S. Lewis' land of Narnia, first introduced in 1950, until now to reach the big screen?

"We have never before had the technology to do these books justice," said Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson. "As little as about three years ago, we probably could not have shot this movie the way we have shot it."

Gresham co-produced Walden Media/Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which he describes as the "first really wonderful" Narnia production.

"This may be the first point it could have all come together," said Ted Baehr, co-author of "Narnia Beckons: C.S. Lewis's 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' -- and Beyond" (Broadman & Holman).

The lack of modern technology of the likes used for the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" movies isn't the only factor that has limited Narnia's previous screen appearances to lower-budget and lower-tech television versions.

Paul Ford, author of "Companion to Narnia: A Complete Guide to the Magical World of C.S. Lewis's 'The Chronicles of Narnia'" (HarperSanFrancisco), said Lewis and friend J.R.R. Tolkien were shocked at how Disney's 1937 adaptation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" soft-pedaled the Grimm Brothers tale. Ford said society has had to wait for both men to die, and for their estates to look more kindly on movies.

Baehr said Lewis thought the movie and television rights to "The Chronicles of Narnia" were worth so little that he bestowed them upon the Episcopal Radio and TV Foundation in the mid-'50s after recording a series of radio talks for its "The Protestant Hour" program.

Baehr, founder and publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, was president of the Episcopal foundation when it produced an animated version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" that aired on CBS in 1979, was watched by 37 million viewers and won an Emmy Award.

From 1988 to 1990, the BBC and the American company Wonderworks produced live-action versions of four of "The Chronicles": "The Lion, the Witch ...," a combination of "Prince Caspian" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," and "The Silver Chair."

Both television productions were "very, very charming. And they were faithful to the books," said James Como, whose books on Lewis include "Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him" (Ignatius Press). "They've been small, and they've been for a niche market, but by no means did they embarrass the story -- not in my judgment."

In addition to technical skill and budget, Como said, the current market has made a film adaptation of the fantasy-set and religion-tinged Narnia a profitable possibility. He said it took "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the "Harry Potter" series and, "very tellingly," Mel Gibson's blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ" to let producers know Narnia "wasn't a money sinkhole."

And what about "Shadowlands"? The 1993 movie version starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and recounted the author's 1957 marriage to American writer Joy Davidman (played by Debra Winger), who died in 1960 of cancer. It also combined the divorced Davidman's two sons, Douglas and David Gresham, into one child.

Richard Wagner, author of "C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies" (For Dummies), said that movie failed to convey Lewis' sense of humor and joy, largely ignored his Christianity, and gave the impression that he lost his faith when he lost his wife.

"'Shadowlands' can offer a glimpse into who Lewis was, but it was not intended to be factual, and it's not totally accurate," Wagner said.

Still, the film has artistic power. Douglas Gresham described it as "brilliant, not accurate in detail but very accurate in emotion."