C. S. Lewis’s second venture into Narnia, Prince Caspian, is sandwiched between two popular favorites, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Coming between the formidable creative and allegorical achievement of the former and the bracing, poetic odyssey of the latter, Lewis’s second effort is perhaps something of an awkward middle child.
Thematically, the book follows up the Narnian passion and redemption story with a vision of post-Enlightenment skepticism, in which the very existence of the omnipotent Lion Aslan and of High King Peter and his siblings has been largely forgotten, suppressed or dismissed as a fairy tale. Lewis thus leaps forward 1300 years into Narnia’s future — the first of a series of bold forays exploring the Narnian world in all conceivable directions and dimensions. (Subsequent books journey east by sea to the world’s edge and beyond, north by foot and down to the depths of the earth, on horseback across desert sands of the south, backward in time and westward to Narnia’s Edenic origins, and finally forward in time to the Narnian apocalypse.)
Yet Lewis’s tale is slow in starting, with two rather static opening chapters in Narnia before the first Narnian shows up, followed by four chapters of back story told in flashback, followed by a long trek through the Narnian countryside. For filmmakers in post–Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings Hollywood, Caspian is something of a challenge, a hurdle between more cinema-ready adventures.
For better and for worse — and it’s quite a bit of both — the big-screen Prince Caspian takes far more creative license than its predecessor. There is definitely an up side: Not only is Caspian a better-made film, in some ways it manages to improve on Lewis’s plot without violating its spirit.
Returning director Andrew Adamson and cowriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley make choices that, in terms of plot and spectacle, are generally defensible and often even helpful. An early conflation of events gets the action going faster, opening with Caspian (Ben Barnes) fleeing from his murderous uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), and drawing Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy (William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley) into Narnia much earlier in the story.
Additional sequences in Miraz’s court add helpful context to Narnian (or Telmarine) politics and the plight of the Old Narnians. Two of the film’s most successful sequences — one at Miraz’s castle and the other in the depths of Aslan’s How — are also two of its boldest departures, though both have roots in the book. Fans may take umbrage at the sparks that fly between Peter and Caspian over which of them is in charge — as well as the quite different sort of sparks between Caspian and Susan — though the spirit of Lewis’s story could survive either of these revisionistic touches.
Less pardonable is the wrong-headed depiction of two of Lewis’s most delightful characters: Trumpkin the Dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and (though he doesn’t entirely come into his own until the next story) Reepicheep the Mouse (voiced by British comedian Eddie Izzard). At least the earlier film did something like justice to Mr. Tumnus (while dumbing down other characters such as the Beavers). Caspian misses the whole flavor of both characters.
With his knit brow and thoughtful gaze, Dinklage gives Trumpkin an appropriate air of existential quandary. Yet he’s written and played with a phlegmatic rather than a sanguine humor, introverted rather than extroverted. It’s impossible to imagine this Trumpkin roaring with indignation at Nikabrik (Warwick Davis, who played Reepicheep in the 1980s BBC versions) over his defiance of his king, or bursting into laughter after being bested by the children and saying with self-deprecating good humor, “Well, I’ve made as big a fool of myself as ever a Dwarf did. No offence, I hope?” As fine as Dinklage is, the spirit of the character is about as wrong as it would be to have Puddleglum in The Silver Chair fretting and scolding like See-Threepio. (Memo to the filmmakers: Do not do this.) The playfulness and affection of Trumpkin’s ultimate comeuppance is also missing, to the diminution of all involved.
As for Reepicheep, as written by Adamson and company and voiced by Izzard, he’s a mouse with a chip on his shoulder about his size and species, sarcastic rather than courtly in manner, with lines like “How original” and “Was that supposed to be irony?” rather than “I place all the resources of my people unreservedly at your Majesty’s disposal” or “If anyone present wishes to make me the subject of his wit, I am very much at his service — with my sword — whenever he has leisure.” (Many have already noted the obvious comparison to Puss in Boots in Adamson’s other franchise, the Shrek films.) Izzard has cited Errol Flynn as a touchstone for the characterization, which looks good on paper. However, concepts like chivalry and honor tend to get flattened here, like subtleties of real-world texture and color in the Sunday funnies. The kids will laugh at Reep’s antics, but Monty Python would have done a far better job with the spirit of the character.
On the other hand, the portrayal of Peter — a significant drawback in the first film — is considerably improved in Caspian. The film does get off on the wrong foot here, introducing Peter in the middle of a fight with another schoolboy and Edmund coming to his rescue. More galling still is the apparent reason for Peter’s interpersonal issues: He’s living in the shadow of his own former glory and having difficulty adjusting to life as an ordinary schoolboy.
Yet while the comeuppance angle is never entirely eliminated, Peter comes off much better here than in LW&W. Even in an early moment in which Edmund again has the upper hand, Peter’s good-natured response evinces real affection for his brother. The High King makes good leadership decisions as well as questionable ones this time around, and the decision that turns out to have the gravest consequences seems at least defensible as a risk worth taking. In interviews Moseley has made much — too much, I think — of Peter’s ego and failures; the character in the film seems more complex than that.
The filmmakers may have learned something since LW&W about competent heroes. In the earlier film, Peter’s climactic battle with the White Witch was completely one-sided, with her kicking him all over the battlefield. Not only is that not how Lewis wrote it, it’s poor drama; the audience wants a hero to root for, not just a victim to fear for. This time around, Peter’s climactic action scene does him much better justice, with well-staged derring-do and a balance of power comparable to what Lewis wrote. (This is one of the few scenes, possibly the only scene, in which the big-screen adaptations are more faithful than the BBC versions, which generally take every line straight from the books but in this one scene inexplicably make Peter completely outclassed.)
None of this, though, mitigates the fact that while the essence of Lewis’s plot is preserved, the themes and ideas behind the story are largely lost. If the first Narnia film got perhaps two-thirds of Lewis’s intended meaning, Caspian is lucky if it gets a quarter. That may not directly detract from its merits as escapist fantasy, but Lewis fans with regrets about the first film will feel betrayed by the second — and not just because events have been changed.
Thematically, Prince Caspian the book may be said to be about the triumph of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism. The movie almost entirely omits the skepticism, and greatly diminishes the triumph of mythic imagination.
On the one hand, the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, and spirits of wood and water. No longer do we see Caspian’s nurse dismissed for telling the young prince stories of Old Narnia, or his tutor Dr. Cornelius daring to instruct Caspian in these matters only in private. This might not matter so much if the film had other ways of making the point — but it doesn’t. The whole notion that stories of Old Narnia are anathema in modern Narnia is simply omitted.
Worse, Trumpkin — in Lewis an archetypal lovable skeptic (compare to MacPhee in That Hideous Strength) whose heart knows better than his head — no longer shows any sign of disbelieving the old stories. This Trumpkin appears to believe that Aslan and the Pevensies were real in their day, but abandoned Narnia long ago, leaving the Narnians to fend for themselves. This fatally undercuts the theme of Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism which is basic to the whole point of the book.
On the other hand, the total absence of Bacchus, Silenus, the Maenads and the whole mythological riot of the final act is a much more serious omission here than in LW&W, which similarly excised Tumnus’s stories of the revelry in the old days when Bacchus came to Narnia. While Lewis’s inclusion of these pagan and roisterous elements may be discomfiting to some of his pious Evangelical admirers, and while the filmmakers may be sincere in finding rivers flowing with wine inappropriate for a family film, the romping and rioting represents the climax of the book’s theme of the vindication of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism, and its omission severely undermines the spirit of the book.
Almost as seriously diminished is the theme of faith and sight, with faith opening one’s eyes to the extent that one believes. We do get the scene in which Lucy sees Aslan when no one else does — but not the rest of the plotline, in which Aslan is at first invisible to the children until one by one they begin to see him in proportion to their openness and willingness to see him. The whole drama of the scene in which Lucy disputes with the others about which way to go is passed over almost incidentally, with none of the momentousness that it has in Lewis.
Here at least there is some effort to get at the point by an alternate route, with brief moments of soul-searching by Peter and Susan pondering Aslan’s hiddenness. Still, in a tale of this sort, to replace a visual fairy-tale metaphor with introspective dialogue seems an odd choice to say the least. Film is a visual medium, fantasy a visual genre. A choice like this makes the story less cinematic, not more.
Hidden as Aslan might be in the book, he’s hardly in the film at all. Visually, when he’s on the screen at all, Aslan is more impressive than ever; even in closeup, with Lucy embracing him in the woods, he looks utterly real and warm and solid. Yet the filmmakers turn this crucial meeting into a dream sequence, deferring the dialogue and Aslan’s active presence until the very end. In the book, he’s invisibly present, leading the children; here he doesn’t seem to be around at all.
As in the first film, whether deliberately or cluelessly, Aslan’s dialogue has been altered in ways that subtly un-divinize him. Consider the following exchange from the book:
Lucy: “You’re bigger, Aslan.”
Aslan: “That’s because you are older, little one.”
Lucy: “Not because you are?”
Aslan: “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
In the film, when Lucy comments on Aslan’s size, he merely replies, “Every year you grow, so shall I.” This revision subverts the idea behind the exchange in Lewis, that the infinite mystery of God does not itself change, but is always revealed to be greater than we previously supposed as we grow and our capacity to appreciate it increases.
Likewise, when the film’s Aslan tells Lucy that “We can never know” what would have happened, Lewis aficionados will wince at the slur to Aslan’s omniscience. In the book, the line is “No one is ever told” what would have happened, with no implication that Aslan himself doesn’t know — only that he’s not telling. (A similar line from LW&W had Aslan explaining how the Deep Magic “governs all our destinies — yours and mine.” Lewis never would have written that.)
Beyond all this, the whole texture of the book has been eroded by the omission of characteristic literary touches reflective of Lewis’s interests. There is no discussion, for example, of the apparent paradox of centuries passing in Narnia while only a year passed on Earth, or of the differences between terrestrial time and Narnia time, a theme which occupied pages of Lewis’s text. (There is a poignant moment as the children realize that everyone they knew in Narnia is long gone, as well as a cute exchange about the kids being younger now hundreds of years after reigning as kings and queens.)
Nor is there any mention of the curious effect, much noted in the book, of Narnian air on the children, recalling to them the strength and dignity of their previous adult lives in Narnia. (A canny move might have been to retroject the salutary effects of Narnian air into LW&W to help explain how four schoolchildren could fight in the Battle of Beruna.)
The upshot is that Caspian is a good-looking fantasy film with some appealing eye candy and comparatively little to do with the book, beyond basic themes of good versus evil, oppression and resistance, and rather generic faith. On that level, if you can put Lewis out of your mind, it’s a pretty good ride. There’s quite a bit to like here, including the strong opening scene and the well-choreographed nocturnal assault on Miraz’s castle, which is like no siege sequence I’ve ever seen before. (The strategic and logistical tactics are both clever and visually engaging, and I particularly liked a moment of heroic sacrifice on the part of a minotaur — even if for Lewis minotaurs are on the same side of the equation as hags and ogres.)
As for the title character, while the 26-year-old Barnes is obviously too old for the boy Lewis envisioned, Caspian is ingenuous, noble and heroic. Castellitto makes a suitably villainous Miraz; I was reminded a little of Ciáran Hinds’s Herod in The Nativity Story, in part because the nondescript Mediterranean accent used by the Telmarines (in Lewis, the Telmarines seem to be of South Pacific origin).
The screenplay, fidelity aside, includes a few nice lines. I like the Hollywood piety of Lucy’s response to Peter when he wonders why Aslan didn’t give them “proof” of what he wanted: “Maybe we’re the ones who have to prove ourselves to him.” And at least I don’t remember any clunkers comparable to the first film’s “Nice of you to drop by” or “Put that sword down; someone could get hurt.” (On the other hand, the writers are still too enamored of tidy call-back lines. In LW&W it was “Impossible!” and “Some children don’t know when to stop pretending”; here it’s “I had it sorted” and something else I can’t remember at the moment.)
More inspired by the book than adapting it, Caspian is most likely to appeal to those not especially attached to the book, which is after all a lesser work flanked by two more popular tales. The next hurdle, though, matters a lot more: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader demands better than this series at its best has been able to deliver. If the same team were going on to the third film, I would be about ready to write it off now.
Happily, Adamson and company are passing the torch to director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight, who previously collaborated on Walden’s Amazing Grace — not an amazing film, but more promising on several levels than Adamson’s prior work with the Shrek franchise.
Given an adaptation rather than a biography to structure, Apted and Knight might well rise to the occasion. Certainly I don’t even want to think about how Adamson and company would dumb down Eustace Scrubb or the Dufflepuds. The Narnia franchise desperately needs an immediate infusion of new blood. We can only hope it is the right type.
Link to this item
Your recent review of the film Prince Caspian suggests that only a literal adaptation of the book can suffice, or that unless an audience is steeped in Christian allusion when watching Lewis’ “fairy stories” (as he called them) onscreen, the film versions are suspect.
Lois Lowry (author of The Giver) has said that a faithful film adaptation is “one that is true to the spirit of the book.” A faithful adaptation and a literal adaptation are not the same thing, and your review implies that unless literal, an adaptation cannot be faithful or true to the spirit of the book.
When in 1950, Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published, Lewis could assume that his (then primarily British) audience knew full well what these sparse lines meant: “This is the story of something that happened when they (the Pevensie children) were sent away from London during the War because of the air raids.” Lewis also said that unless “fairy stories” were grounded in the reality of the time, they wouldn’t work.
So in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the 2005 film opens with the bombing of London. Two lines in the book become the first nine minutes of the Walden/Disney film. A modern audience can’t be expected to know the horror and peril behind those lines and so, in moving from the word to the image, it is depicted rather than implied. And although Lewis sometimes turned up his nose at psychiatry, he was a darned good shrink himself: he knew that, even worse than the bombings of London, the real horror for the children of that book was being separated from their parents.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.