Thursday, February 19, 2009

Memo to Fox and Walden Media

Last night, with our daughter visiting from Florida, we decided to watch a 2008 film that she hadn't yet seen: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. I love the Narnia novels and loved the Walden-Disney film based on the first in the series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote an enthusiastic review of the first film. But, on the theory that "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," I wrote nothing about the second one.

But in light of the fact that the Disney people, collaborators on the first two films, have dropped out of a film based on the third Narnia novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Fox has signed on, I thought that I'd mention what bothered me so about Caspian and what I think may have bothered others, especially those who are as devoted to the C.S. Lewis books as I am.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film, the Walden-Disney team departed here and there from Lewis's novel, but as I pointed out in my review then, it didn't do so in ways that did violence to the story or the characters. The same can't be said of Caspian. A few specifics...

(1) Much of Lewis' Prince Caspian is about a journey, a physical trek that mirrors an inner struggle within the four Pevensie children--Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. The question is whether they will lessen their physical struggle and heighten their usefulness in Narnia's time of need by heeding both Aslan* sightings and the counsel of the first Narnian they encounter, a dwarf named Trumpkin, or whether, flush with the excitement of returning to a world in which they'd once reigned as kings and queens, they'll rely on their own good sense.**

The producers of Caspian seem to have made the decision that their audiences would never sit still through a plot involving so much interiority and so many character issues. They turned their Caspian into an action flick with extended--and sometimes, boring--battle scenes, far more battling than appears in the novel.

(2) Too much violence and too much romance. Violence does appear in the Narnia novels, handled deftly by a writer who understood that his reading audience would largely be composed of children. Lewis never shielded his readers from the reality of violence. Nor did he dwell on it unnecessarily.

The Caspian producers seemed intent on making a kind of Lord of the Rings film, filled with epic battles and fairly graphic violence. While it's a mistake to dismiss the Narnia novels as "children's literature"--they are great literature which I never encountered until I was an adult and yet came to love then as my favorite fiction of all time, their fantasy has a different feel from that in the Tolkien novels. Where the Ring stories are dense and clearly pitched to more mature readers, the Narnia books are more readily digested by younger minds and imaginations. I didn't feel that the makers of the Caspian film respected that when it came to violence.

And as to romance, while it's true that in Lewis' novels, Susan would ultimately betray Narnia because of her obsession with things like fashion, boys, and popularity, there is no hint that she and Caspian were attracted to one another. Here, as in the decision to turn this into an action flick, the producers seem not to have trusted the audience to accept a story that didn't include the cliche conventions of Hollywood.

(3) The film is way too long. If I lost interest in it at times, I can only imagine what families with little or no knowledge of the Narnia stories must have thought.

(4) In spite of the length though, the film spends precious little time helping us to understand the characters or why they do the things they do.

If I were to grade the Caspian film, I would give it a C+, as opposed to the Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe movie, which would garner a stirring A+.

As Fox and Walden undertake a $140-million production of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I hope that they'll think a little less like Hollywood and a little more like Lewis. Otherwise, a series that began with the promise of bringing to life wonderful novels which had previously only been done badly on screen, will come to grief, artistically and, I think, commercially.

*If you've never read the Narnia novels, I hope that you will. I won't give away too much by speaking about Aslan here.

**You needn't be a literary genius or a believer in the God of the Bible to see how this struggle mimics that faced by Moses and the ancient Israelites in the wilderness. It took them forty years to take an eleven day trip, largely because they opted for their own good sense rather than God's leading. This same motif, in different forms, can be seen in other ancient literature as well as in myths, with all of which Lewis would have been fully conversant.

1 comment:

Spencer Troxell said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I was extremely disappointed by Caspian, and my kids were bored by it.

Many filmmakers these days vastly underestimate children's ability to handle deep subjects. They often bog down their movies with action and hollow romantic intrigue rather than explore richer terrain. It's hard to imagine a movie like 'The Dark Crystal' or 'The Never ending story' getting bankrolled today without some substantial editing.

But I think there's hope: 'The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe' was more faithful to the book, and there are other movies that have come out recently that trust kids' ability to get a little more nuance. 'Stardust', 'The Spiderwick Chronicles', and 'The Water Horse' were movies that allowed a little bit of intellectual exploration. I haven't seen 'Coraline' yet, but my kids have the book. If the movie is faithful to the story, then there will be tons of interesting concepts for older kids to bandy about.

Good post.