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December 1, 2005
5th Narnia book may not see big screen
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Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON -- Ah, the glorious "Chronicles of Narnia." They are a post-boomer parent's dream, a readable -- even lyrical -- series of engaging, Christian-friendly fantasy novels for children by C.S. Lewis, a certified literary lion. And now, even better, there's a big-budget holiday movie of the first and most famous book in the series, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Bookstores are chockablock with the seven-volume chronicles of the imaginary kingdom populated with humanlike animals and Britishlike humans. Look for those sets on children's nightstands this holiday season and for weeks afterward. It's like Harry Potter, only -- some would argue -- better.
But as is often the case with great children's literature, if things were really that simple, life and letters would be just a little too pat.
Consider the problem of the fifth book in the "Narnia" series, "The Horse and His Boy." Now here's a book that isn't soon to be a major motion picture. In fact, the BBC produced versions of four "Narnia" books in the late '80s (now available on DVD, in highly respectable renderings, but with cheesy '80s-era special effects). "The Horse and His Boy" wasn't among those four.
Small wonder. The book, first published in 1954, may never get to the screen, at least not in anything resembling its literary form. It's just too dreadful. While the book's storytelling virtues are enormous, you don't have to be a bluestocking of political correctness to find some of this fantasy anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern, or anti-Ottoman. With all its stereotypes, mostly played for belly laughs, there are moments you'd like to stuff this story back into its closet.
In its simplest form, the plot seems mild enough. A boy named Shasta, raised in the southern land of Calormen and sold into slavery by a simple fisherman who claims to be his father, runs off with a talking horse from the free northern kingdom of "Narnia."
But the land of Calormen is not simply a bad place to be from. Worse, the people are bad -- or most of them, anyway -- and they're bad in pretty predictable ways. Calormen is ruled by a despotic Tisroc and a band of swarthy lords with pointy beards, turbaned heads, long robes and nasty dispositions. Calormen is dirty, hot, dull, superstitious. In truth, it's pretty unsettling.
Here's Lewis' description of ordinary Calormenes: "men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards, and talking to one another very slowly about things that sounded dull."
And here's the city: "What you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there were the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere."
The North, on the other hand, is where the "fair and white" people live. Shasta (no surprise) resembles those jaunty freedom-loving, Aslan-fearing Narnians. This is his first impression of some Narnians walking through the marketplace. "(T)hey were all as fair-skinned as himself, and most of them had fair hair. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colors. Instead of turbans they wore steel or silver caps, some of them set with jewels, and the swords at their sides were long and straight. . . . (T)hey walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling."
It must be said that C.S. Lewis, born in 1898, was a product of his somewhat stuffy, academic and Anglocentric environment. And he was writing at a time when educated Brits were hardly horrified by stereotypical depictions of viziers and Saracens and dark-faced slavers.
But it also must be said that times have changed: Both parents and filmmakers would have to do some fast dancing to get around the nastier aspects of "The Horse and His Boy."
Hollywood has managed to pull off culturally neutral fare such as "Aladdin," and if "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" makes enough money to please a Tisroc, culture-scrubbers may well be employed to clean up "The Horse and His Boy" for general consumption.
Such scrubbing has worked for the highly problematic Oompa Loompas in two film versions of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," though the Disney movie "Song of the South" has so far not been remade in a racially acceptable form. Generations have struggled to wrap their heads around the racial complexities of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," with ongoing mixed sentiment.
So what can you do, given that your kids will want to read "The Horse and His Boy" in its unfiltered book form long before Hollywood gets around to dealing with it?
Here is an idea for what to tell your children:
The man who wrote this book wrote a lot of great stories. But they were great when they were complicated and magical, when his imagination took him into places and stories that were close to his heart.
In his time, people thought it was amusing to make fun of other cultures. We don't. Read the stories, ask questions, and remember that the person who wrote this story was altogether too human.

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