With the Dec. 9 release of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” still more than six weeks away, the companies behind this highly anticipated film adaptation are already making sure it doesn’t escape the attention of a targeted audience: Christians.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of seven installments in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, was released in England in 1950. It has undergone various adaptations through the decades, including versions for the BBC and radio. Now comes a behemoth vision on the scale of the recent “Lord of the Rings” adaptations by Peter Jackson.

New Zealander Andrew Adamson, who helmed “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” is directing the film, which is being produced by Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures.

“We have full creative control,” Walden’s co-founder, Micheal Flaherty, told EthicsDaily.com in March. Disney, he said, has “been doing a great job on the marketing and distributing side.”

When Walden, known for adapting respected works primarily of children’s literature, first scored the film rights from the C.S. Lewis Company, much of Christendom was elated. Then came news that Disney ”target of Southern Baptist boycotts ”would be involved as well.

Concern emerged in some Christian quarters, but it was then assuaged when it became known that Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ step-son, was a co-producer. His involvement quieted some of the naysayers, even though Walden was already known, through word and act, for remarkable faithfulness to original works.

By then, the filmmakers were knee-deep in production details, and audiences began salivating for first looks at the sets and characters. And now, as the release date begins to be counted in weeks instead of months, one of the bases for the Narnia series is beginning to get an ear- and eyeful.

That’s right: Hollywood is “pulling a Passion” ”or, to put it another way, it’s trying to replicate the financial success of “The Passion of the Christ,” which shocked and awed an industry by grossing about $125 million on its 2004 Ash Wednesday opening “weekend.”

Various factors, including Mel Gibson’s directorial turn and the controversy over the movie’s portrayal of Jews, probably accounted for some of its success. But by and large, the targeted marketing to Christians was and still is seen as the key.

Gibson screened the film for church leaders, pastors played preview clips in sanctuaries, door-to-door campaigns were launched. What some insiders initially viewed as a shot in the dark became a sure thing: market to Christians, and use their existing organizational frameworks (i.e. church communities) to do it.

Motive Entertainment, based in California and headed by Paul Lauer, oversaw the marketing strategy for “The Passion.” The company has been tapped again, this time for “Wardrobe.”

Their work is already evident at NarniaResources.com, a firm Webprint for all sorts of materials related to the upcoming film. Groups can order free promotional materials (mini-posters, door hangers, etc.) to distribute, and one can visit a special section for churches that includes free downloadable PDF guides for youth and children leaders, as well as a link to Outreach.

Outreach is the “official church resource provider” for the film, as it was for “The Passion.”

“Use the season’s biggest film to start a spiritual dialogue with your community,” reads the Outreach Web site, which also offers testimonials from National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard and others.

“The Passion” was heralded as the greatest outreach opportunity in the last 2,000 years, and “Wardrobe” is being set up as the best one since Ash Wednesday of last year.

Disney even greenlit the release of a Christian-oriented “soundtrack” for the film more than two months before the film’s release. The “Music Inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia” soundtrack from Sparrow Records features such well-known Christian acts as Jars of Clay, Steven Curtis Chapman and Tobymac.

A story for the New York Times actually used that release to examine how Disney is working to embrace both the Christian and secular audiences for the C.S. Lewis adaptation.

In that vein, David Van Biema also wrote a recent Time article entitled, “How to Tell if The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a Christian Film.”

Van Biema pulls several sentences from Lewis’ work and argues their inclusion ”or not ”in the finished film will indicate the degree to which the product has remained Christian. He fingers a couple of lines from the White Witch and Aslan about the nature of the latter’s atoning death.

“What the Lion’s filmmakers do with the charming storytelling that surrounds them [the sentences] is ”theologically ”optional,” wrote Van Biema. “But if these key ideas are muddled, the film may be a classic, but never a Christian classic. And its revenues, large as they may be, will reflect that.”

Filmmakers have reportedly not made the final cut, and no one is saying if the lines Van Biema has referenced made it to celluloid.

When Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings, written by Lewis friend and devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, those films were marketed to Christian audiences as well ”though not on the level of “The Passion” and “Wardrobe.”

Jackson himself told religion reporters he took no special care to highlight any Christian themes in the films, and yet all sorts of moments in the films (e.g. the return of Gandalf) continued to be referenced in Christian circles for their applicability to the faith.

Whether Van Biema’s analysis hits the mark is anyone’s guess. But if “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” isn’t already a “Christian film,” don’t tell the marketing department ¦

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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