You have to be careful when you try to improve a work of art. Sometimes when you gild the lily, you lose the lily.
I’m afraid this is what has happened with Prince Caspian, the second installment in the Disneyfication of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. They’ve lost the lily, and only the gilt is left. It’s pretty, but it’s not enough.
Caspian has gotten off to a good start at the box office. But then it’s only competing with movies based on comic books and video games. Even with its flaws, it can’t help being better than these.
As Lewis wrote them, the Narnia tales are centered on the figure of Aslan, the Lion—and Aslan represents Jesus Christ the Lord. It is Aslan who gives life to Narnia and all its creatures, who draws children from our world into Narnia to carry out important missions: who, by sacrificing himself on the Stone Table and then rising from the dead, is Narnia’s redeemer. Without Aslan there is no Narnia, and no Chronicles of Narnia.
But you would never get that from this retelling of Prince Caspian.
If you didn’t see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first, or read the books, you’d have no idea, from this film, who Aslan is or why he matters. You’d think he was just another fantasy creature in a fantasy world inhabited by fauns, centaurs, dwarfs, talking animals, river gods, and whatnot.
Aslan’s in this film, of course, but the filmmakers have played him down. This is where they’ve lost the lily they were at such pains to gild.
They should not have assumed that the audience, especially the children in it, already knows all about Aslan. Some will surely never have seen or heard of him before.
But even if that assumption were correct, Aslan is still the most important person in the story, and should have been treated as such. No direct mention is made here of his atoning sacrifice. If you didn’t know about it from another source, you won’t learn about it in Prince Caspian.
Too Much Fighting!
Maybe the reason Aslan is played down is that the filmmakers were so busy adding other things to the story, they had little time left for the reason for the story.
This is a long movie, 140 minutes, and one of the reasons it’s so long is because it’s chock-full of battles and sword-fights. Some reviewers have decried the level of violence in the film, although it seems no worse than what you’d see in any football game. The real problem with all the fighting is that it simply uses up too much time—time that would have been better spent on Aslan.
Not content with the battles that are actually in the story, the screenwriters have added a major military action that isn’t. Were they looking to a future in the video game market? I don’t buy the argument that this added operation, an attempt to storm the villain’s castle, is an attempt to make a theological point: King Peter trusting more in his own strength than in Aslan’s, and coming to grief because of it. If I hadn’t read it on one of the movie’s publicity websites, the thought never would have crossed my mind. It would probably not occur to the vast majority of the audience.
I yield to none in my appreciation of a sword-fight, but enough is enough, already! It’s as if the writers kept asking themselves, “What’ll we do now?” and the answer always was, “Let’s have another fight scene.”
Then there’s the matter of annoying, smart-aleck dialogue, of which this screenplay offers plenty. The biggest offender is Reepicheep the talking mouse (computer-generated, of course), whose language suggests he can’t decide whether he’s Bart Simpson or Cyrano de Bergerac. The real Reepicheep—if we may use the word “real” in this context—always talks like Cyrano. But all the characters have their share of smarmy quips.
Another improvement the filmmakers tried to make was to deepen the characters, especially the four protagonists, the Pevensie children from our world. They wound up doing an excellent job with Peter, the eldest, but put so much effort into him that Edmund, his brother, got short shrift. Lucy, the youngest, who has the strongest faith in Aslan, they’ve left alone.
The eldest sister, Susan, they’ve turned into a kind of warrior queen. When it comes to killing off the bad guys, she’s up there with Dirty Harry or Conan the Barbarian: impressive to watch, all very politically correct, but also rather silly. She’s also been given a hint of budding sexuality. Do we really need to know that?
At least in Peter they came up with a complex young man, beautifully performed by William Moseley: a boy on the brink of manhood who has been profoundly affected by his first visit to Narnia but is yet too young to understand it. I didn’t like what they were doing, at first, but in the end the effort is well worth it. We would love to know how Peter lives the rest of his life.
Lewis never specified the age of Prince Caspian himself, but in this outing Caspian is already a young man. Ben Barnes plays him as an idealistic, passionate, warmhearted hero in his late teens or very early twenties.
Call it a prejudice, but I think this Caspian is already too old. We’ll meet him again in the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, if it gets made. Barnes would have been perfect for that Caspian.
By far the best performance in the film is by Sergio Castellitto as Caspian’s wicked uncle, Miraz, regicide and usurper of his brother’s throne. This Miraz is an evil man who loves his work, and Castellitto dominates every scene he’s in.
Somehow I doubt C. S. Lewis would have wanted it that way.
Some of It Works
Prince Caspian is not without its virtues.
It triumphs, here and there, in creating the illusion that there really is a Narnia and that you, the viewer, are actually there. This is no small artistic achievement. Unfortunately, they rupture the spell every time they break in with a line of goofy dialogue or an inappropriate piece of music.
The quiet bits are by far the best. It’s in those quiet zones that the sense of actually being in Narnia is most strongly felt. This is achieved by gorgeous cinematography, visual feasts that linger long after one has left the theater.
It may seem that we have spent too much time bashing this movie to urge anyone to go and see it; but I am glad I saw it.
Probably this is because I believe in the concept of these movies, and want them to succeed. There should be film treatments of The Chronicles of Narnia, if only to motivate the audience to read the books. These are profoundly Christian books, steeped deeply in C. S. Lewis’ love for Jesus Christ and the application of his scholar’s intellect to a better understanding of the Christian faith.
These recent Disney films, by the way, are not the first attempts to bring Narnia to the screen. From 1988 through 1990 the BBC filmed four of the stories, and they are still available as video. As much as they’ve been criticized for their low-budget special effects, these films are right on target when it comes to capturing the spirit of the books—and delivering the message. Warwick Davis, the fine actor who plays Nikabrik the Black Dwarf in this Prince Caspian, also appears in the BBC films as Reepicheep the mouse and Glimfeather the talking owl. It’s always a pleasure to see him.
Fifty years after their initial publication, Lewis’ Narnia books are still abundantly in print, still delighting readers, still honoring the lordship of Christ. Their commitment to Christ has made them enduring works of art—maybe even timeless.
But trying to make a spectacular movie of them leaves the moviemakers in a bind. We must believe that Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, as a coproducer of these films, is committed to rendering the stories as faithfully as possible. Hopefully he is aware that Prince Caspian comes perilously close to drifting off-message.
Do you shoot for “timeless,” or do you just go for the big box office? Here it seems artistic compromises have been made in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. If this trend is not corrected in the next film, Disney may lose a big chunk of the natural audience for Narnia.
Anyone can make a movie full of special effects, screaming, and lots of bodies flying all around. Lewis’ books are something special, and they deserve special treatment. Let’s hope the producers behind the current Narnia project, and director Andrew Adamson, heed their critics and do a better job next time.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.