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British Tackle ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ for TV

C. S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian propagandists of the century, never more effective than when he wrote for children. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is Lewis’ most persistently popular children’s book, a gospel allegory in which the Christ figure who dies and then rises again from the dead is a kindly but fierce lion.

The British Broadcasting Corp., in one of TV’s most ambitious children’s drama undertakings, is engaged in a three-year, $13.5-million effort to adapt Lewis’ book and its six sequels under Lewis’ collective title, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

The production will begin airing in America on PBS’ “Wonderworks” in three one-hour segments, on Jan. 14 and the two following Saturdays. Barbara Kellerman will play the evil witch whom a group of English children encounter when they enter the Spare Oom and walk through the War Drobe and find themselves in the dangerous kingdom of Narnia.

In January, 1990, and January, 1991, the other “Narnia” books, starting with “Prince Caspian,” will be dramatized in a similar miniseries format: three one-hour segments per year. In Britain, the programs will be shown each year in a slightly different form: six half-hour segments in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

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The production was scheduled over three years to spread costs, according to Anna Hume, the head of children’s programs at the BBC.

The TV and film rights to Lewis’ “Narnia” books have been held since 1975 by an American religious group, the Episcopal Radio-Television Foundation. This Atlanta-based group is headed by a clergyman, Father Louis Schueddig, but is independent of the Episcopal Church. It also co-produced (with Children’s Television Workshop) an animated version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for CBS in 1979. The group was involved with the BBC in its production of “Shadowlands,” a televised biography of Lewis (who died in 1963).

Other “Narnia” incarnations include a stage version often produced by amateur and church groups and an earlier television adaptation in the early 1960s by a commercial British company, Rediffusion. But Rediffusion’s “Narnia” was shot in black and white, and “every time a special effect was called for, they had to cut away and narrate it,” says Alan Seymour, writer of the BBC’s version.

This time, a variety of effects are being used to make Lewis’ self-sacrificing lion, Aslan, seem lifelike.

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“We’re using the Jim Henson approach,” Seymour says. “We’re mixing our methods--some live, some animatronics.

“In the sequence where the lion is laid out for the witch to kill him, there are two operators inside a lion suit. The one in the rear has a TV monitor so she can get her instructions. One of our difficulties was determining how expressive the lion’s face should be. Aslan has solid emotions he has to convey. And he speaks.”

Humor and stirring adventure are the qualities that have kept Lewis’ books popular--the books’ publisher, Macmillan, says total sales since they were written in the early ‘50s exceed 20 million.

Beyond that, “Narnia” also “sets out a model of behavior,” Seymour says, and thus includes some serious, even disturbing moments.

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According to Jay Rayvid, senior executive producer of “Wonderworks” and senior vice president of Pittsburgh’s PBS affiliate WQED, the scene near the end of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in which the lion willingly dies, “is very emotional but tolerable.”

As for the religious element in the material, Rayvid isn’t concerned about a possible outcry from fundamentalists over the idea of a lion standing in for Christ.

“I run into a lot of people who aren’t aware that ‘Narnia’ has a deeper meaning in Christianity,” Rayvid says. “An average adult would probably read the books for the fantasy. A child would certainly not see the Christian tradition deeply intertwined in the story. How it’s taken rests in the hands of parents.”

Writer Seymour is familiar with adapting children’s literature to TV, from his work on “Wonderworks’ ” 1984 production of John Masefield’s “The Box of Delights” (also produced by “Narnia” producer Paul Stone).

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“We felt we shouldn’t stress the allegorical element,” Seymour says. “It’s up to parents to alert their kids if they feel they should. Older kids might pick up on it themselves. Our job is to balance the seriousness with the fantasy. The younger you are, the more appealing the fantasy. The older you are, the more likely you are to see it in a serious light too.”


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