Do a Google search for “Greta Gerwig Narnia” and you’ll quickly find the corner of the internet that thinks the Barbie director is the worst thing to happen to C.S. Lewis’s beloved fantasy series. “Gerwig directing Narnia is a colossal mistake,” one reviewer says. Scamper over to Reddit, and you’ll find that perspective heightened by eleven.
We don’t know exactly what Netflix has planned for Narnia. It bought the rights to make films and streaming series in 2018 and assigned Matthew Aldrich as creative architect in 2019. A few months ago, The New Yorker buried the lede that Gerwig had been drafted to “write and direct at least two films” in a potential Narnia Cinematic Universe (yes, I’m calling it that already). The persistent criticisms of Gerwig’s role in Netflix’s plan—that she’s a feminist, that she doesn’t (publicly) adhere to Christianity, that she’ll erase what makes Narnia Narnia—overlook that the Narniad is, first and foremost, a fantasy series. When Lewis wrote these tales, in the words of novelist Lev Grossman, he split the atom on the modern fantasy novel.1 Before the stories are adapted as anything else (from Christian allegory to personal improvement parable), they must be adapted as fantasy. And not just any type of fantasy—portal fantasy.
Before Barbie, Gerwig had zero experience making fantasy stories for the screen, and some would argue that’s still the case. But Barbie is the angst-inspired auteur’s transitional film: it has a reality-focused story centered on the female experience that is Gerwig’s hallmark, but it also has a distinct fantastic element, evidenced partly in the plastic, candy-toned, physics-defying, technicolor world of Barbieland. Gerwig’s Barbie story is a portal fantasy, and it has been an artistic and commercial success.
Admittedly, Barbie is a weird place from which to speculate on what Gerwig’s adaptation of Narnia could look like. Still, the similarities between that film and the formula of the portal fantasy genre cannot be ignored. At best, Gerwig is entering her fantasy era, and adapting Narnia is a logical leap for someone who admits that “having another big canvas is exciting and also daunting.”2 At least she understands the essential elements of portal fantasy, and that understanding will serve her well.
Portals “litter the world of the fantastic, marking the transition between this world and another; from our time to another time; from youth to adulthood.”3 According to historian and speculative fiction critic Farah Mendlesohn, the “most familiar and archetypal” of these portal fantasies is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.4 Lewis’s adored classic now shares space with Barbie as part of that subgenre in which the main character travels from a “frame world” into an “other world,” or in Tolkien’s terminology, from “primary” to “secondary” world.
In Barbie, as in most portal fantasies, there is nothing special about the main character in her frame world. Barbie’s realm consists of other barbies who are presidents, Supreme Court justices, doctors, and Nobel laureates. The main character (played by Margot Robbie) is dubbed “stereotypical”: in her world, she’s just as ordinary as Peter, Edmund, Susan, and all the other children from our world who are transported to Narnia.
Like Narnia’s human children, Barbie is plunged into extraordinary circumstances because of a crisis in her frame world. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly accidentally stumble into the attic laboratory of Digory’s mad scientist uncle. Barbie faces “irrepressible thoughts of death,” flat feet, and burnt toast.
Confronted with crises, the characters in the frame world desire a return to normalcy. Digory and Polly must get the witch Jadis out of their world. Barbie is desperate to reverse the development of cellulite. These are trivial comparisons, but the point is that, in a portal fantasy, a sense of normalcy is disrupted before the ordinary characters enter the other world.
Once in the other world, ordinary characters become extraordinary. Barbie is no longer stereotypical; she is a glamorous, life-size doll among human women who don’t have the luxury of a world that caters to their every need. Digory and Polly (and unfortunately Uncle Andrew) are the only humans in a world of talking beasts and nature gods. The Pevensies find themselves the focus of a prophecy to end the Hundred Year’s Winter.
These ordinary-turned-extraordinary characters wrestle with the desire to go back to the life they’re used to before ultimately choosing to embrace the path opened before them. The Pevensies ascend the thrones at Cair Paravel. Digory and Polly go on a mission to ensure security for the fledgling Narnia. And Barbie trades in Barbieland for the Real World.
These are the familiar, structural beats of a portal fantasy, but that’s not all that makes Narnia sing.
In a portal fantasy, characters find in the other world some type of redemption or critical transformation for themselves and their environment. “The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world,” Grossman says. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund’s problems are “exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia.”5 His worries came with him, and Narnia was where he found them resolved.
A similar thing happens to Barbie in the Real World of Greta Gerwig’s film. Her eyes are opened to the plight of women, and she learns that some view her as part of the problem. She cries and experiences harsh emotions for the first time, effecting an irreversible change in disposition.
Not only are characters in portal fantasies transformed, but so are history and society. Changes in character in the frame world are borne out in the real world and vice versa. Starting out, Barbie sees the Real World as dependent on Barbieland, assuming her existence has positively affected women there. However, when she and Ken land in the Real World, they are confronted with the truth. Their experiences change them in tangible ways, and when they return to their frame world, they transform their society. Eventually, Barbie returns to the Real World to effect further transformation in herself.
We don’t see much of Narnia’s human children on this side of the wardrobe, but we do receive vignettes of their frame world concerns which set them up for transformation of some kind originating in the other world. For example, Lucy worries about the sincerity of her friends. Eustace is fiercely interested in social progress. And, of course, there’s the infamous knife-twist when Susan is revealed to no longer be a friend of Narnia after becoming vain and consumed by the things of her frame world.
Narnia fans, including myself, will balk at any adventurous liberties Gerwig might take with these stories. (I’m already anticipating Susan’s Big Speech.) But no portal fantasy is complete without exploring how events on one side of the portal impact the character and the character’s context on the other side.
There’s a scene in Barbie where Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) presents Stereotypical Barbie with a choice between fancy high heels (representing a decision to ignore her crises in Barbieland) and practical Birkenstocks (representing a decision to go through the portal and confront her problems). When Stereotypical Barbie chooses the high heels, Weird Barbie throws them away telling her the only real option is the Birkenstocks.
“Send me through the portal,” Robbie’s character says resignedly.
“Well…there’s actually no portal,” says Weird Barbie. “It’s a figure of speech.”
This exchange reveals a based understanding of portal fantasy. While the portal is a critical element, it isn’t so much about the portal as it is about how the adventure beyond the portal reshapes the one who goes through it. The portal is merely a helpful demarcation, a before and after, a B.C. and A.D.
This tension of choice between the portal and one’s ignorance is felt viscerally in the Narniad as well. Lewis casts Narnia as a desirable alternative for the children beset by trials in their frame world—trials like World War II, wet summers, school bullies, and mad uncles. Grossman speaks of Lewis’s desire to “discard” the world they know and “set it aside in favor of something better.”
You can feel [Lewis] telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option.6
Peter and Susan grapple with the idea “that there could be other worlds—all over the place, just round the corner—like that.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace rails against the Narnian world as it unfolds before his eyes, clinging to the constructs of his frame world until they’re shattered by the reality of the other world. Like Barbie’s life when she chooses the Birkenstocks, Eustace’s life and the Pevensies’ lives are changed forever when they pass through the wardrobe (or the painting), and again when they first encounter Aslan. They cannot be the same people when they return to their frame worlds.
Of all the fantasy subgenres, portal fantasy has been called the “literature of desire”7 because such stories convey the sense that there’s a certain way things should be. They capitalize on the universal longing for the world to be better and other than it is. Mendlesohn suggests “the notion of a portal” comes from “the New Testament and later Christian writings”8 which express paradise as the world perfected and the journey of the faithful as a desire for that perfection.
The continuing popularity of portal fantasies indicates our culture’s “predisposition for a set of tropes which fulfil a set of desires.”9 As much as Barbie follows the structure of such stories, it’s missing the element of desire and an atmosphere which tilts toward the fulfillment of that desire. Neither Barbieland nor Barbie’s Real World are places I want to live. But Narnia is. C.S. Lewis made sure of that.
This will be Gerwig’s greatest challenge in adapting Narnia for the screen. She already shares some significant creative tendencies with Lewis. For example, like Narnia, the worlds of Barbie aren’t scrupulously shaped. What’s present in the worldbuilding is crucial for the story to do its work; everything else is incidental, almost thrown in for fun.
Some have also noted Gerwig’s propensity to shift focus to the supporting casts in her stories, giving them room to breathe. For example, despite being advertised as “just Ken,” Ryan Gosling’s character is as vital to the plot of Barbie as Barbie herself, and his story is told with comparable depth. Likewise, in Narnia, sidekicks like Corin, Lasaraleen, and Reepicheep have significant roles to play, and Lewis lets the light linger long on their interior lives.
Barbie isn’t a perfect portal fantasy; it wasn’t intended to be. But it follows the framework pioneered by Lewis. If Greta Gerwig submits to the story and allows its unwieldiness to flourish, it will tell itself. And as unwieldy as The Chronicles of Narnia are, they are still portal fantasies and must be adapted as such. Gerwig just might be the one to do it.
- Joe Fassler, “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy,” The Atlantic (2014). ↩︎
- Inside Total Film, “Greta Gerwig, Cillian Murphy, Christopher Nolan + Barbie and Oppenheimer” (2023). ↩︎
- Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Joe Fassler, “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy.” ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (Routledge, 1988). ↩︎
- Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy. ↩︎
- Daniel Baker, “Within the Door: Portal-Quest Fantasy in Gaiman and Miéville,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 2016, Vol. 27, No. 3. ↩︎