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A Chat With Douglas Gresham

Could you talk about how C.S. Lewis met and married your mother, a story some people may know from the film Shadowlands?
I was born in America and lived in upstate New York. When I was about 7 years old, my mother began to read the Narnia stories to us. At one stage, she was ill and decided to visit England. She also wanted to meet C.S. Lewis [aka Jack], whose work she’d admired for so long, and while she was there they met and became friends. … She eventually took my brother and myself to England, where it was easier to live at that time, and she very much admired the educational system.

When did your mother learn that her illness was life-threatening?
We lived there for about 18 months when she began to suffer from fairly extreme pains in her legs. It was discovered that she, in fact, had a metastasized cancer spreading through her body. She was dying. We were threatened with deportation, because her visa for staying in England had run out. Jack married her in a civil ceremony, which meant very little to either of them, but it did extend his British citizenship to us. It was a tremendous gesture on Jack’s part. A few months later, when Jack saw her in her hospital bed, he discovered that he loved her dearly and didn’t want to be without her. So he got a former pupil of his to perform a real marriage ceremony at her bedside in 1956. Miraculously, she went into remission and actually lived for almost four years. Jack and my mother had the finest, happiest time of their whole lives during those four years.

As an American boy and fan of the Narnia books, what were you expecting when you met C.S. Lewis?
Having read things like Narnia and The Knights of King Arthur, I expected people in England to sort of ride around on chargers wearing armor. I fully expected Jack to be a tall, stalwart figure, carrying a sword, wearing silver armor and so forth. Of course, he was absolutely nothing like that. My first meeting of him was something of a disappointment, because he was a stooped, balding, professional-looking gentleman in very, very scruffy clothes. (Laughs) [He had] nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, and he didn’t look anything like my image of someone who was on speaking terms with High King Peter and Aslan of Narnia. I lost an illusion but very soon gained a good friend, and later of course, a fine stepfather.

Are you happy with how Disney’s film version of Prince Caspian turned out?
Our team has done a fabulous job producing what I think, cinematically, is a better movie than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was a fantastically good movie. We’ve made quite a few changes from the book,* but it was absolutely necessary, because the book is a story about four children who arrive in Narnia, rescue Trumpkin and then sit around a campfire as he tells them the story of Caspian. Then they go for a long walk in the woods, there’s a battle at the end of it, and that’s about it. Of course, the meaning behind Prince Caspian is the same: the great return of true faith, justice and honor after centuries—a millennium, in fact—of corruption. No matter how far away we stray, there’s always just one way back, and it’s up to us to find it. That is portrayed powerfully in this movie.

A lot of Christian parents wonder if the magic in the series is appropriate for kids.
The best definition of magic I’ve heard is that it is what we freely confess we don’t understand. Science is what we pretend we do understand. If you were to turn up in Medieval England with a box of matches, for example, you would instantly be labeled as a powerful magician. The real "magic" of evil is the working of Satan and his demons. On the other side of the coin is the great, powerful, enormously wonderful force of good, which is the magic of the Holy Spirit of God. And that is the real magic of Narnia. Do you see what I’m getting at?

So it’s good to teach children about the "magic of God," maybe not using that term, but that we live in a mysteriously spiritual world …
I think we can even use the term magic, as long as we explain very clearly what we mean by it. The hocus-pocus, waving the wand and people turning into lizards is nonsensical, foolish and dangerous.

Do you anticipate that each of the Narnia books will be made into a movie?
It all depends on the public support for the films. … I believe we have to make the next movie better each time we make one. We have pushed the technology of CGI and other special effects even further with Prince Caspian than we ever did with Wardrobe.

It’s great to see these films succeed when most of what Hollywood is producing is garbage.
In today’s world, we look at our presidents, our prime ministers, our princes and our potentates and we describe them as our leaders. But they’re not. They’re merely our rulers. The leaders are the people who change the minds and stimulate the imaginations of the public, whether children or adults. That means moviemakers, people who make TV shows [and other] people in the business. And that means that if you’re going to lead the world as the movie people and TV people do, you’d better choose very carefully in what direction you’re going to lead.

* Violent battles in this sequel are intense and frequent enough that many viewers felt it should have received a PG-13 rating.

Published November 2008