Which cat do you like better," I asked my friend, "Aslan or Hobbes?" He hemmed and hawed for a bit, then replied, "Probably Hobbes." He explained that Aslan inspires his faith, but Hobbes—he paused, finding it hard to articulate his appreciation—"I mean, I love who he is to Calvin. He's just, you know; he's just awesome."
If you're a fan of Narnia, comparing Aslan to Hobbes may seem incongruous, if not sacrilegious. After all, Aslan is the Creator and ruler of Narnia, an obvious Christ-figure who sacrifices his life to save the undeserving Edmund. Hobbes is a stuffed tiger with a weakness for tummy rubs. As feline characters go, Aslan is far more serious than Hobbes.
Or so you would think.
With the film release of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Chronicles of Narnia has become a blockbuster franchise with numerous products and corporate tie-ins (McDonald's, General Mills, Virgin Atlantic, Oral-B, and Kodak, to name a few). On NarniaResources.com, a PR site intended to mobilize the church to consume and market the movie (à la The Passion of the Christ), you will encounter on the Frequently Asked Questions page the comforting logic of commercialism:
Q: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a beloved property with millions of fans around the world. How will Disney marketing bring it to life without over commoditizing it?
A: The Walt Disney Company has many treasures within their vaults and is excited to add The Chronicles of Narnia to their legacy. Because of the devoted fan base and the popularity of the property, it makes sense to develop products and merchandise that allow fans to connect with the film on different levels for an immersive experience.
Of course, this is not really an answer. It is a refutation. Don't be irrational, says the pr site. It only "makes sense" to commodify the property for the good of the fans. Indeed, not to develop products and merchandise would be foolish and selfish. God forbid.
The new release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Andrews McMeel Publishing), a three-volume set collecting the comic strip's ten-year run, is a reminder that it is possible to resist the logic of commercialism. Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of the strip, was dismayed by the ongoing pressure from his syndicate to license his characters. Such a license would place Calvin and Hobbes on calendars, greeting cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, TV specials, movies, and so on. But Watterson adamantly and steadfastly refused, forfeiting millions of dollars. (Jim Davis's Garfield generates around $750 million in annual sales of Garfield-related products. Existing Calvin items, like car decals, are unauthorized.)
For Watterson's syndicate, it just made sense to capitalize on the enormous popularity of the comic strip. Licensing Calvin and Hobbes would expand the audience by offering more ways to mediate and consume the characters. For Watterson, however, this logic was both shortsighted and offensive, because it failed to take into consideration what would be lost in the process. In the introduction to The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (1995), he wrote, "I don't want some animation studio giving Hobbes an actor's voice, and I don't want some greeting card company using Calvin to wish people a happy anniversary, and I don't want the issue of Hobbes's reality settled by a doll manufacturer. When everything fun and magical is turned into something for sale, the strip's world is diminished."
Watterson, who retired his still-popular strip on January 1, 1996, believes that forms matter. He argued that the content of Calvin and Hobbes would be cheapened if it took on a commercial form beyond the multi-dimensional strip. The daily form of comic strips offers a distinct view of the boy and tiger that would be undermined if their images suddenly appeared on key chains and bumper stickers. Watterson explained, "My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs? Who would trust the honesty of the strip's observations when the characters are hired out as advertising hucksters?"
In an age in which any notable spiritual movement immediately begets a plethora of associated products (calendars, Bible covers, journals, T-shirts), the logic and form of commercialism demand our critical attention, not merely our easy acceptance. When does the logic of commercialism not make sense? When is it a problem to turn certain ideas or realities into merchandise? When is defying popularity and consumer demand an act of integrity? When should form outweigh marketability? When should a lion remain bookish, and a tiger remain cartoonish?
The Message in the Media
The typical responses to these questions focus on the explicit messages of the products. As long as the content is deemed acceptable, merchandising is viewed as a win-win situation. For the Narnia movie and its associated merchandise, what matters is staying true to the content of the original work. Of course, transforming a book into a Hollywood movie, a video game, a stuffed animal, and any other knickknack makes the idea of "staying true" a bit more problematic.
What does it mean to stay true to a work in another medium? How does a movie capture the spirit of a book when there is so much disparity between the two forms? The fact is, the spirit of a work always differs between forms, because every form has its own characteristics and limitations. The spirit of a work consists of all the elements that make a work experiential and meaningful. The story and characters might be similar in two works, but they are distinctly shaped by each work's form. Reading a book is never the same experience as watching a movie, which is never the same experience as playing a video game, which is never the same experience as wearing a T-shirt.
What, then, is the spirit of The Chronicles of Narnia? At the moment, it is undeniably a bookish experience, which allows and disallows a certain perception of Narnia and the characters that inhabit this magical world. To encounter Aslan through the prose of C. S. Lewis is to glimpse a lion that you will never fully grasp or see, a lion that will always change in your mind as you read and re-read the book, yet a lion that will never really change. To read the books is to share the experience of Lucy.
"Aslan," said Lucy, "you're bigger."
"That is because you are older, little one," answered he.
"Not because you are?"
"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."
Will our sense of Aslan change if Narnia is offered as a Happy Meal at McDonald's? Will a White Witch vanilla milkshake appropriately capture the spirit of the original work? Has hearing Aslan speak through the voice of Liam Neeson stripped the lion of his mystery?
Unsurprisingly, the primary concern for Christians has been keeping intact the notion of Aslan as a Christ-figure. Any regard for the consequences of transforming Narnia into forms of merchandise is deflected by the assurance that the message of Aslan will not be compromised—as if the message has nothing to do with the medium (cue Marshall McLuhan rolling in his grave).
"Is Aslan safe?"
"No, child, Aslan is a lion. He is not safe, but he is good."
A stuffed-animal version of Aslan would trivialize the very essence of his character. It would transform the lion of C. S. Lewis into something altogether different. He would become a harmless doll among other dolls. Simba meet Aslan. Aslan meet Garfield.
"Why, he's only a great cat after all!" cried one.
"Is that what we were afraid of?" said another.
Commercialized forms make a mockery of serious things without even intending to do so, because they exist to serve the logic of commercialism. Watterson writes, "A wordy, multiple-panel strip with extended conversation and developed personalities does not condense to a coffee mug illustration without great violation to the strip's spirit." A coffee mug illustration exists to distinguish one cup from another. It offers decontextualized sayings or verses or images that function as decals and are eventually ignored.
But does it really matter? Aren't Aslan and Hobbes simply figments of someone's imagination?
Criticizing commercial forms is only important if we imagine that the medium is also the message, and if we take the message seriously. If so, then the logic of commercialism must take a backseat to the logic of revelation. We must ask, "How should serious ideas and realities be revealed? What is the most suitable form for a work? What is gained or lost if a work is mediated in a different form? How does commercialism alter our sensibilities? How does it trivialize the significant?"
Of course, this article is not really about Aslan at all. It is about the Lion behind the lion. For it is one thing to commercialize fictitious kitties; it is quite another to commercialize the way of God.
E. J. Park is an assistant professor of new media at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
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