Commentary

Netflix’s Narnia: Boon for Families or Trojan Horse?

Melissa Henson
By Melissa Henson | October 19, 2018 | 3:31 PM EDT

Netflix logo (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Streaming video giant Netflix seems eager to court families with the announcement that it would bring C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” to its platform. Under different circumstances, that might be extremely welcome news.

Fans of “Anne of Green Gables” – and I count myself among them – were understandably excited when Netflix announced plans to adapt the perennially popular children’s book for its streaming platform. That excitement quickly turned to disillusionment and ultimately to disappointment when stories about the director’s “gritty” approach to the material started to surface. And our fears were realized when this new Anne became more realistic and less wholesome.

It should not come as a surprise then, that when Netflix revealed that it has acquired the rights to “Narnia,” reception of this announcement among “Narnia” fans was, well, lukewarm at best.

Comments from those who should be counted as a built-in audience for the series included, “Normally I’d be excited about this, but at this point I’m more nervous they’ll ruin it…” “Normally, I would be incredibly excited. Given the latest Anne of Green Gables debacle, I’m apprehensive and a bit terrified.” “Netflix makes me nervous.” “I saw this, and my first thought was, ‘I hope they don’t ruin it.’” “Please don’t ruin it like you did to Anne with an E…” “Part of me wants this really bad. Then there is the part that knows what Netflix did to Anne of Green Gables… I won’t sit around holding my breath for something true and good here.” “I’m very apprehensive about this. Netflix’s reinterpretation of Anne of Green Gables was quite awful…” “Please honor C.S. Lewis’ beloved stories and do not put your own spin on it…”

Fool me once, Netflix, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That Netflix chose to develop “Narnia” into a series for its streaming platform is also not that surprising considering the company’s announcement at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that the company was going to focus on bringing faith and family-based shows to its subscribers. From a financial point of view, it absolutely makes sense. Although millennials were early adopters of streaming technology, family audiences are Netflix’s bread-and-butter, and they’re eager for family-friendly programming. However, many of those families have no doubt been driven away in recent months by some of Netflix’s controversial programming.

“Narnia” already boasts a large and loyal fan base, appeals to secular and faith-based audiences alike, is familiar to a global audience, and is recognizably family-friendly: It’s an ideal franchise to stop the hemorrhaging of family subscribers.

But will the “Narnia” series be a boon to family audiences, or merely a Trojan horse designed to appease family audiences while diverting attention away from the myriad ways Netflix has betrayed family audiences over the years?

Skepticism about Netflix’s commitment to honoring the worldview of Narnia’s creator are well-founded given Netflix’s recent track record:

  • In “Anne with an E,” instead of the naïve, innocent, wide-eyed and optimistic orphan generations of readers have come to know and love, Netflix handed fans a jaded and worldly waif who gets her period and shares her rudimentary knowledge of the facts-of-life with her friends.
  • Concerns about “suicide contagion” because of “13 Reasons Why” were dismissed at the company’s annual shareholder meeting by the CEO who said, “[N]obody has to watch it.”
  • The animated series “Big Mouth” (which recently returned for a second season) sexualizes adolescents in some disturbing ways, including an up-close picture of a thirteen-year-old boy’s genitalia, a scene showing an adult’s penis, an adult monster who shouts, “hold him [the boy] down and jam it [penis] in his mouth!” and a boy ejaculating while dancing with a young girl at a school dance.

And this is just scratching the surface.

Even supposing Netflix stays true to Narnia’s source material, should parents take a chance on it and bring it into their homes?

A 2017 analysis by the Parents Television Council revealed that nearly 60 percent of Netflix’s original offerings were rated for Mature audiences only; only 1 percent were rated for general audiences, and only 8 percent were rated PG.

And although Netflix does offer parental controls, we found that although a child might not be able to stream adult-rated content when those controls are turned-on, there was nothing to prohibit a child from browsing through an adult user’s profile, where they might see highly-suggestive titles and cover-art, like “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” or “Nymphomaniac.” We found adult titles grouped with child-targeted content so that titles like “Sausage Party” – with its suggestive cartoonish cover art – appeared next to family titles like “The B.F.G.;” “Family Guy” appeared next to “Finding Dory;” and the image of a sex toy on the cover art for “Grace and Frankie” was displayed just above the “Children and Family” menu options. We also found that it was difficult for parents to eliminate entirely categories of content they didn’t want displayed at all.

Stock in Netflix – which is deeply in debt because of heavy investment in development deals – is arguably overvalued because it is based on projected subscriber growth. Netflix is desperate to appease family audiences to keep those subscriber numbers trending in the right direction. The question that must be answered is whether Netflix is desperate enough to make the kind of meaningful reforms that would make it a truly valuable and trusted resource for families. What they choose to do with “Narnia” will tell us.

Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.ParentsTV.org)

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