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Lost at Sea: Walden Media and Narnia-Adaptation-as-Shipwreck

To understand how Michael Apted’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader strays so badly off-course it is necessary to understand what makes C. S. Lewis’s book a consistent favorite for many Narnia fans. The Pevensies initially discover Narnia, of course, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and their entry into that world is full of the tentative thrill of new discoveries tempered by the immediate and ongoing threat posed by the White Witch and her eternal winter.

A year later, the same four children went back in Prince Caspian (subtitled The Return to Narnia) and find a world so completely altered that it takes them some time to recognize it. Everything beloved and familiar about Narnia seems to be gone, at least at first, and their task for much of the book is to set about helping restore it.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is quite different in this respect. Peter and Susan are gone, too old to return to Narnia, and Eustace has come along against his will, adding a whole new dynamic. This remains the only book in the series in which none of the characters visit the Narnian mainland: a true voyage of discovery for both characters and readers.

Caspian hopes to find out what happened to the seven lost lords (and he does), but nothing significant hinges upon his success. There is no immediate threat or danger, merely the promise of new and surprising adventures, of wind and waves and a journey eastward towards the rising sun (a direction the ship in the film never seems to travel at all). Caspian’s intention is to sail for a year and a day, and see what he finds. Reepicheep believes that they may reach Aslan’s country, and it is this promise that drives the story ever forward.

In the film this impetus is entirely supplanted by the introduction of quest-driven plot that appears, literally, out of nowhere. Readers of the book will be as surprised as the rest of the audience when Edmund and Caspian, taken by slavers on the first island they visit, watch a group of captives in a small rowboat suddenly devoured by a cloud of green mist that materializes and then disappears just as quickly.

Those who are not sold as slaves, they are told, are “sacrificed” to the mist, though no one knows its source. Cue the episode with the Magician and the Dufflepuds so that the former can provide some much-needed exposition: The mist is pure evil, and it is spreading. The heroes must defeat it by reuniting the seven swords given by Aslan to the Telmarines, and placing them on Aslan’s Table on Ramandu’s island, or else the world will be covered in darkness.

The gaping problem with this is that we know (even from the last film) that the Telmarines did not believe in Aslan or talking animals or any of Narnia’s “special” qualities, thus making it difficult to understand how or why Aslan would have given them magical swords. Beyond that, though, the entire focus of the journey suddenly becomes tinged with an urgency that wasn’t there before.

Even as they encounter new surprises around every corner, the characters have no time to stop and wonder at them; they must press on to the final battle. The driving question of the book that kept me hooked as a kid (Can one sail to the end of the world, and what might one find there?), is all but ignored. The entire (brief) build-up and arrival at the end of the world feels rushed, anti-climactic, and drained of significance (which, I suppose, should not surprise anyone who recalls the end of the last film).

Thematically, of course, the film is just as hit-or-miss. One major focus is on faith. “We have nothing if not belief,” Reepicheep declares at one point, though whether your belief is grounded in anything genuine seems to matter very little. There is a conversation between Lucy and a stowaway girl (daughter of one of the sacrifices to the green mist) late in the film, in which Lucy tries to communicate the importance of simply having faith that Aslan will work things out.

Lucy provides no reasons for having this faith (although she, of anyone, ought to have plenty of them), but the little girl raises an interesting question. She points out that Aslan did not stop her mother from being taken, raising the possibility of a foray into theodicy and the problem of evil that is simply left hanging. Lucy has no answer to the girl’s challenge, and neither, it seems, do the screenwriters.

There is also a great deal of emphasis on the idea of overcoming temptation from evil. For Lucy, this plays out through her lack of self-esteem and jealousy of Susan’s good looks, a minor element of the book that becomes the major arc for the character here as Aslan teaches Lucy to love herself as she is (an interesting and not unwelcome addition, overall). For Edmund, this predictably means another power struggle with the current king of Narnia, and more appearances by the White Witch (ho-hum).

Eustace, of course, spends much of the film as a dragon because of his greed and bad temper. However, the film seems a bit confused about whether the transformation reflects something good about Eustace, or something bad. “Extraordinary things,” Reepicheep tells him, “only happen to extraordinary people.” Oops.

Eustace’s restoration, an event of major significance in the novel (if not the whole series), becomes a rushed plot device in the midst of the final battle. As dragon Eustace and the others on the ship fight off an imaginary sea serpent, the unhinged Lord Roop embeds the last magical sword in Eustace’s hide, driving him away.

Once clear of the darkness, he lands on a convenient strip of sand, where Aslan quickly slashes away his dragon skin and teleports him directly back to the table so he can wave the sword at the mist a bit and then place it on the table, saving the day. Aslan then teleports Eustace back into the water next to the Dawn Treader (he couldn’t at least drop him in the boat?).

The entire climax begs the question of why, if he could simply collect all of his magical swords by magic and magically place them where they needed to be anyway, Aslan insisted they do everything the hard way up to that point. This sort of obvious cheating drains the climax of tension and the victory of any real sense of accomplishment. I cannot stress enough the complete and utter arbitrariness of this quest, lacking even internal logic or expositional support.

Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring in Tolkien, a task driven by the villain’s evil and his growing power, the successful completion of which would lead to victory for the heroes for clearly explained reasons. Consider even Aslan’s sacrifice in the first book/film, necessitated by the clearly-explained Deep Magic and made successful by the clearly-explained Deeper Magic. Obviously, in the latter example, as in all of the Chronicles, such events are invested with a great deal of symbolic meaning. What, then, is the symbolic significance of collecting seven magic swords and laying them on a table in order to defeat evil water vapor?

Furthermore, what previously-explained portion of the rules that govern this made-up world make sense of a scenario in which Aslan plans for the eventuality of an evil green mist by giving out seven magical weapons to seven random men who do not believe in him with the idea that they sail them (without being prompted) across the world and place them in a completely random location? Even when this is explained, it isn’t discussed as a prophecy or as information from Aslan himself or really much of anything. The magician Coriakin simply explains that this is what they must do, and they proceed without question.

The filmmakers’ tin ear for logic and internal consistency (what do they teach them at these film schools?) is evident in small details as well as large. In what was no doubt intended as a sly nod to fans at the end of the film, Eustace’s mother calls up to her newly-returned (and totally transformed son) that Jill Pole has dropped by for a visit. What on earth for? As we can surmise from earlier in the book/film, and from the beginning of The Silver Chair, Eustace is as obnoxious at school as at home, and Jill would have no reason to want to visit him unless she either somehow intuited his transformation, or she is as obnoxious as he is.

Finally, Aslan’s underwhelming screen presence in the films seems to have infected even the characters, who (like us) grow steadily less impressed at each of his appearances. As Reepicheep, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace and Caspian walk along the final beach towards the large wave separating them from Aslan’s Country, the lion himself appears behind them. Eustace notices him first, and says something, whereupon they all turn and cock their heads to the side as though expressing mild interest.

Even Lucy can’t muster up enough enthusiasm to wave to him, let alone run up and give him the hug that no physical force would have been able to prevent the book character from delivering. The haphazard intrusions by Aslan in this film are lackluster enough, but the utterly lifeless reaction his physical presence inspires renders it impossible to care about him at all.

There may be very little really wrong with this film that total ignorance of its source wouldn’t fix, and for some people, that makes it a success. However, one need only consider the oft-repeated goal of the filmmakers to understand how dismally it falls short of their intentions. It would be one thing if they were forthcoming about their intention to go their own way with the material, but the dreary insistence, in interview after interview, that, really, they are staying faithful to Lewis’s books as much as they reasonably can is downright iniquitous.

I’m sure a great deal of the problem has to do with the fact that they simply do not understand the stories that they are translating, but that is supposed to be Douglas Gresham’s role as executive producer and literary executor; both jobs at which he appears to be failing. Whether he is deluding himself, or allowing himself to be deceived by a smokescreen that insists that the Chronicles of Narnia would not play well on-screen as they were written matters very little at this point. If these films are still to be considered the progeny of C. S. Lewis, they can only be illegitimate at best. The time has come to stop hoping that anyone with any level of control over these films is going to get a clue.

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~ by Jared on December 15, 2010.

4 Responses to “Lost at Sea: Walden Media and Narnia-Adaptation-as-Shipwreck”

  1. Well said.

  2. It is sad to see the success of sticking to the Myth in the “Lord of the Rings” movies (though I will always be sad of no Bombadil or cleansing of the Shire elements)yet there is evident fear that sticking to the Myth with the CS Lewis tales would not be marketable. The result is, aside from a lack of clear Christian theme, inferior storytellers telling an inferior tale.

  3. Focus on the Family put out a Dramatized series of all seven books that blow the movies out of the water

  4. Yes! Absolutely. I have listened to those several times, and they are spectacular. I would even say that they are equivalent to reading the books. In particular, David Suchet is unmatched, even by Liam Neeson, in the voicing of Aslan.

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