October 18, 2017

Another Look At Voyage Of The Dawn Treader

Editor’s Note: I posted my review of Voyage Of The Dawn Treader Saturday evening. I did not care for the movie in the least. The set was cheap. The effects were boring. Character development, outside of Eustace, was non-existant. But my biggest complaints were how the story was twisted, and the author’s intent was turned upside-down. “Stick with the book” was my suggestion.

iMonk contributor Adam Palmer, who has worked in the film industry on a closer basis than I have, and has a much deeper knowledge base of filmmaking, saw the movie yesterday with his family and has a different take on it. Here are his thoughts, followed by a few more of mine.

Well, Jeff Dunn mentioned my name so many times in his review of the cinematic iteration of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that I am compelled to offer my thoughts both on the film itself and on his thoughts on the film. And let’s hope that’s the most confusing sentence you’ll read today.

Oh, and a quick note: the picture pulled down a middling $24.5 million (estimated) over its opening weekend, putting it in the same territory as flops like Eragon  and  The Golden Compass, so, regardless of how you feel about it, this will be the last Narnia adventure to hit the big screen, at least for a long, long time. Which is a shame, because my favorite book is The Silver Chair, and I was really hoping to meet Puddleglum in person. Too bad. At least I’ll always have the books.

Now. Let’s talk a minute about the differences between books and movies, because, well, they are very… different. On the surface, that sounds like a pretty inane, obvious thing to say, but you’d be surprised how often people forget it. Especially when people are very attached to a particular book or movie that crosses one media plane into the other. Stories are told differently on the page than they are on the screen–paces are different, character establishment is different, audience expectations are different. (Example: information that can take paragraphs to describe in a book can be given in seconds in a movie.)

It is a general rule in movies not to stick too closely to the book you’re adapting. Yes, it is a marvelous blueprint, but sometimes you have to make concessions in order to make a good film. You are not writing your story down–you are trying to tell it visually, and so visuals matter. A classic case in point is The Wizard of Oz, which as a book and a film couldn’t be more different. In the book, Dorothy gets silver shoes, not ruby slippers. The Wicked Witch of the West is a plain Caucasian, not the green-skinned cackler iconically portrayed by Margaret Hamilton. Oh, and (spoiler alert) she’s not even really set up as Dorothy’s nemesis and dies halfway through the story. And these are just a few instances in one story.

Anyway, the point is this: don’t hold it against movies when they are different from books. The filmmakers aren’t actively trying to ruin the story–they’re trying to make the best movie they can.

Another thing. Part of what I love about the Narnia books, aside from the story, is C.S. Lewis’s writing style. It is absolutely unique and an integral and foundational aspect of the magic of Narnia. He just has a way with phrasing, with language, and with description. In fact, one of my favorite lines of all time comes from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and is downright unfilmable: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” That sentence alone tells you just about everything you need to know about Eustace while simultaneously setting the tone for the entire book.

The Narnia books are filled with brilliant touches of genius like that, which is what makes them so darn lovable. When I read one of them, I feel like I’m sitting in front of a fire with Lewis, listening to him tell me a story in between puffs on his pipe. It’s a very singular, jovial way of storytelling, and it is brilliant. But it is entirely impossible to put into a movie.

My good pal Jeff  had a beef with some of the story differences ‘twixt the book and film versions of Dawn Treader. Fair enough. I personally didn’t have a problem with the filmmakers shuffling around the order our intrepid explorers visit certain islands, nor with them combining two islands into one. As a viewer, I don’t really want to see them visiting island after island after island, especially when there are only so many ways you can make islands look different from one another.

In the book, the narrative engine is the search for the seven lost lords, which is a fine and dandy thing. But the filmmakers decided this wasn’t enough for the movie. And rightly so. Times have changed since the books were written, and the filmmakers have made a conscious decision to focus more on the real-world aspects of the stories. To learn who the Pevensie kids really are in the real world, who they are around their parents, around their classmates. We see challenges and subtexts that don’t really exist in the books, like in the first movie, when Peter balks at accepting the role of leader, or in the second one when Susan acknowledges that she might have feelings for Caspian.

So it only makes sense that the filmmakers would try to heighten the Dawn Treader experience for the Pevensie kids. They are, after all, the characters we’ve spent the most time with during these last movies. So, for example, the producers invented this “green mist,” which gives them a way to visualize temptation. Now, instead of trying to show us Lucy’s temptation by using a close-up on, say, her furrowed eyebrows, we see the green mist wandering into frame and, as audience members, know Lucy is in the act of being tempted.

Okay, now, on to the theology stuff. Again, this is something that works so much better on the page than on the screen. Lewis accomplished something incredibly difficult by writing in some very overt Christian lessons without seeming (too) preachy, and he did it through his writing style. I’m not sure it’s possible to film them, actually.

Take the dragoning and un-dragoning of Eustace, for example. In the book, we are able to read all of Eustace’s thoughts, and everyone else’s thoughts, and Lewis’s thoughts about their thoughts. Can’t do that in a movie. The only way we can know what’s going on in a character’s head is through our own intuition based on their actions, or through some sort of voiceover (the film actually does use Eustace’s journal as a device for this early on, same as Lewis did). But voiceover gets really old if used too much, so the filmmakers elected not to use it for Dragon-Eustace. Instead, we have to intuit his thoughts/feelings based on his body language, his actions, and those heartbreaking dragon tears.

Part of what makes the un-dragoning of Eustace so powerful in the book is the time we spend inside Eustace’s head leading up to his dragoning and during his imprisonment in his dragon form. We begin to learn what makes him tick, and we experience his genuine regret at his behavior on the voyage up to that point. We see ourselves in him, because he thinks the same types of thoughts we think. And so when he meets Aslan, and when Aslan takes him through the painful process of turning him back into a human, we are able to place ourselves in his shoes, and we get a glimpse of the magnitude of grace and our own feeble need for it.

But you can’t do any of that in a movie. Yes, the film short-sells the scene, and shifts it to a different place so it cannot have the same weight as in the book, but the specifics are there: Eustace can’t do it on his own and Aslan alone is the one who can.

Or let’s look at the magic book scene, where Lucy reads the delightful story that she wishes she can remember. On the page? Oh, my. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I’m in wholehearted agreement with Jeff: I long for Jesus to be telling me that story for the rest of my life as well.

But how exactly should the filmmakers tackle that one? They can’t actually tell the story–if Lewis couldn’t think of something to put there, no screenwriter ever could. And the only thing more boring in a movie than watching someone read is watching someone read on a computer screen. Why do you think people always talk to themselves when they read in movies? It’s because it’s boring. This scene, as it is in the book, is unfilmable.

So instead they have Lucy read a spell that causes snow, and not so they could charge extra money for 3-D (the 3-D was a retrofit done by the studio, not by the filmmakers–they had no intention of exhibiting the movie in 3-D). They did it as a visual way to let the audience know that the book is a real magic book that really has the power to do what it says, and maybe also as a way to connect Lucy back to her first Narnia experience, when she discovered the snow-covered country.

Now for the underlying theology of the film. I don’t see it the same way Jeff does, as a “self-help, if-you-try-hard-enough-you-can-destroy-evil crap.” I see normal kids learning that they do have to do their part to stand against temptation, that there is an enemy who wants to enslave us, that the only way to defeat that enemy is stand your ground and let Aslan (Jesus) do the rest, and that they have God-given talents and uniqueness that can be used for His service.

Is the movie as theologically deep as the book? No way. It can’t be. But it does stand on its own two feet theologically, and the filmmakers haven’t compromised the tenets of Christianity. Maybe of filmmaking (boy, is it ever rushed, and some of the effects are pretty chintzy), but not of the faith.

And we’ll always have the books.

Adam makes some very good points, and I am in agreement with much of what he says. But now let me rebut his rebuttal, and we will then lay the Dawn Treader to rest.

Yes, I realize that the making of a movie is different, in some ways, than the making of a book. But in one major way they are—or should be—the same: The story must drive the movie or book. If you try to preach a message, you lose the story, and thus you lose the audience. The message must be the foundation, but not the structure. Lewis was masterful at this, as was Tolkien (and many others). The message that supported Lewis’s book was that on our voyage to Aslan’s country we will encounter many adventures, many difficulties, many temptations. But through them all we must trust Aslan, keep our focus on Aslan, keep our focus on reaching Aslan’s country. We must show courage. We must show faith. But ultimately, our lives rest in the paws of the Lion.

In the movie, any hints at this foundation are glimpses at best. Lucy says something about having faith—but not in whom we must place our faith. She cries to Aslan for help when they are in the dark mist, and for a fleeting second we see a bird circling in the sky. Why? Who is the bird? What is it there for? If you have read the book, you know who it is, but if not … well, it’s just a bird. The travelers are told to “avoid temptation.” And yes, the smoky green mist is a nice way to visualize temptation. But in the book it is Aslan’s face the children see, or his voice they hear, when faced with temptation. In the movie, well, the kids are on their own. Good luck.

As for a movie not following a book, I can site many that follow it very well. The original True Grit with John Wayne and Glen Campbell followed the novel almost word-for-word, and it turned out just fine. (I’m looking forward to the Coen Brothers’ remake of this opening in another week.) Can you imagine if Robert Mulligan, director of To Kill A Mockingbird, had decided it would have been better if Atticus got Tom Robinson off the charge of rape? Or if he had given Boo Radley a speaking part just to add excitement to the film? When you are dealing with a classic—and the Narnia series certainly is a classic—you must be faithful to the story.

I realize Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, was on hand as the “Narnia police,” trying to protect the story. I know the director, Michael Apted, at first wanted Eustace to earn his way back to being a boy by helping to defeat the sea serpent, and Gresham fought to have it done by the grace of Aslan instead. I know that we hear Eustace say, “I tried to do it on my own, but I couldn’t.” But this is so rushed that many most likely missed the impact of this. Slow down, for goodness sake. Yes, I realize that the average moviegoer these days has the attention span of a goldfish, but give us a bit of time to digest one of the most important scenes in the flick.

And the magic book with the story that cheers Lucy’s heart so much in the book? I disagree with Adam here. I think it could have been translated to film very well—as a matter of fact, here is where the movie could have added to the book. Create a great story that Lucy enters into by magic. When she “comes out” of the story, we see a glow on her face that slowly fades as the specifics of the story fade from her mind, but the effects of the story stay in her heart. But no—all we get is 3D snow.

Ok. You have heard from me, and you have heard from Adam. You decide how you want to spend your entertainment dollars. I just ask this one thing of you: If you have never read Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, please do. If you haven’t read it in a long time, please read it again. It is a treasure chest filled with riches that are all yours.

You’re welcome.

Comments

  1. hewhocutsdown says:

    Well, it was all done better in the BBC version, on a *far* smaller budget.

    Their Puddleglum was pretty fantastic too. That sort of adaptation, with a better budget, would be fantastic.

  2. Saw the ad on TV. At least half of it was a “behind the scenes” look at Carrie Underwood recording the theme song, which would normally be DVD filler. That tells you how much they thought of the film itself.

  3. What I want to know is, why does something good immediately have to be lots of other things? If there’a a good book, why does it have to be a movie? Why can’t it just be a good book and movie makers make a good movie? Why does there have to be underwear of television shows? Food is good; why do we have toys with our food? Why, for that matter, does food have to sing and dance and be sexy ( like the Chiquita Banana)? I have never seen the Lord of the Rings movies, nor will I watch the Narnia movies, because those are NOT movies, they’re books. Their authors wrote them for what they are, and I respect the integrity of their original intent. I won’t read spin-off books from movies, either, even if I enjoy the movie — nor will I buy video games, tee-shirts, board games, or breakfast cereals of movies I like. Let good things be what they are. As a culture, I think we’re all at Freud’s polymorphous perverse stage.

    And please don’t tell me that these Narnia movies are good BECAUSE they make people read the books. Babies are the ones who can’t eat their food unless it’s an airplane or little fishies and they’re the shark. Grown up people — even mature children — can read a book because it’s a book without it having to have action figures that go along with it.

    (By the way — to temper my rant a little — there have been some movies based on books I really liked: Master and Commander, The Man Who Would Be King, To Kill a Mockingbird. These were good as movies, whether they changed the orginal story drastically, as with the Kipling, or were faithful to it, as with Harper Lee’s tale. So I accept Adam’s point in the abstract in many cases; I just wish Hollywood would be less parasitic and would come up with more original scripts, especially for “family movies.”)

    • Great rant, Damaris, and excellent points! I watched the movie Eat, Pray, Love” recently and thought it was OK, but nothing to write home about. A woman who works at the store where I rented it says she read the book and it was wonderful and she is considering not watching the movie because she knows it cannot be as good as the book. Her comment makes me want to read the book sometime.

  4. I went to Amazon to order all the Narnia books and there is a book that compiles all 7 books into one volume. BUT, a reviewer says “In this edition, the books are presented in the order that author C.S. Lewis preferred, which sucks. The correct order that I recommend is: 1.) “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” 2.) “Prince Caspian”, 3.) “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” 4.) “The Silver Chair,” 5.) “The Horse and His Boy,” 6.) “The Magician’s Nephew,” and 7.) “The Last Battle.” If you are new to Narnia, I highly suggest that you read the books in the order I listed here. If you read the books in the sequence they are arranged in the book, you will be very disappointed because everything will happen out of order.”

    Do you know if this reviewer is correct? It seems odd that Lewis would recommend reading them in an order which is out of sequence! I don’t know how many people are still reading this post, but Jeff and Mike, perhaps you could answer me off-line if you notice no one replies. Thanks!

    • Well, I went and read some more about the order to read the books at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Narnia and I am more confused. I will have to read this more slowly later.

    • Joanie–

      I always recommend reading them in publication order, which is the order the Amazon commenter recommended. I think your overall experience would be enriched by “meeting” Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” even though, chronologically (in Narnian chronology, that is), “The Magician’s Nephew” comes earlier.

      But in the end, it doesn’t matter what order you read them. They’re fantastic books and the reason I became a writer.

    • I’ve got the one-volume version. It’s fine, but I agree with the amazon commentator and Adam, that the publication order is best. Unfortunately, there is no one-volume version that does that. Chronological order is OK, but it suffers from the problem that The Magician’s Nephew refers back to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a couple of places. It’s not a big deal, but it has the potential to make first-time readers a little confused. Also, as far as introducing characters, it seems that the publication order makes the most sense.

      • Thanks, Adam and Isaac. I will read them in the publication order. I will now decide if I want the one-volume issue and then I will just skip around to read them the way you say or if I want the boxed set with the individual books. I read one review that said the one-volume issue didn’t have all the illustrations and that she was disappointed about that. So that may swing me to go with the multi-volume boxed set.

    • I REALLLLLLLY like the series in Lewis’ order. That said, I originally read it in publication order. And I agree with others that I think it’s easiest to get into the Narnia world that way. I’d probably suggest reading the series in publication series first, then going back and reading it in Lewis’ order the 2nd time you go through.

  5. I saw the move on opening night. My thoughts are much in line with Adam’s in his review. I am saddened that he doesn’t think *The Silver Chair* will soon follow, since it is also my favorite. I disagree with the comments following the article about the BBC version and their Puddleglum. I was hoping for a better Puddleglum image for us to remember.

    I was somewhat disappointed in the undragoning of Eustace because that is probably one of the most memorable parts of the entire Narnia series. I would have loved to see him get a few layers of skin off himself, only to find more dragon skin underneath that Aslan must remove. This is so true to life–our own efforts work to a degree, but not ultimately. OTOH, I loved the snow scene with Lucy and the book and thought it was a very good way to show that the story in the book engulfed her and that the book was magical. I also loved the extended sea monster scene which was only mentioned briefly in the book. Of course a voyage on the sea needs a dramatic sea monster scene!

    I noticed the picture of Aslan above with the ship reflected in his eye. This is something we can do with art that cannot be done with words. In the same way, the book can do what the movie cannot do–capture Lewis’ writing style, and explain theology.

    Rachel

  6. I’m sorry Jeff, but I agree with Adam’s review. I saw the movie on opening day & plan to see it a couple more times. I disagree with your assertion about the lesson Lucy learns being just more Osteen-type self esteem; she is wrestling with covetousness, wanting her sister’s beauty instead of what she was given by her creator. That is her particular temptation, and one that I have wrestled with myself. Edmund’s is fear and the desire for his “big chance” to prove himself; Caspian is still trying to figure out what being a king means and power is his temptation; Eustace is overcome by his own greed. Maybe the movie is too subtle about it, but it was made by predominantly nonbelievers and they could hardly be expected to grasp a theology they don’t ascribe to. My main disappointment with the film is that we don’t have more Christians in the film-making business; if we had, maybe this whole thing would have turned out differently.

  7. Quixotequest says:

    There are some good Christian folks working at Walden for the Dawn Treader film. Getting a film to market requires many compromises, the avoidance of the most creatively debilitating usually requires a very singular creative vision, usually from executive producers who will hire the right director and then see that they and the Money let that person accomplish the goal.

    Accomplishing such a visionary goal often behind the camera wreaks a lot of negative emotional havoc. It’s especially hard to avoid for holiday-streetdate CG heavy films as the production teams are significantly larger and pressures amped up. Walden’s “corporate” culture has more consensus driven flavor; their inability to achieve much that critics and fans hoped for in this film is not reflective of the strength or quantity of their (and Lewis’) faith and their desire to have the film reflect it. It’s a reflection of the reality that very, very few filmmaking groups can (or are willing to try hard enough) accomplish what Pixar does: singular creative directorial vision yet with a much more emotionally healthy (as far as excruciatingly long hour’ed filmmaking goes) collaborative production process.

  8. I liked the movie. I agree that it didn’t follow the book exactly. However, it was wholesome and clean and I could sit back and enjoy it without being confronted by the “blood & gore, bang, bang shoot ’em up, profanity, and sex” that so many other movies seem to “need” to make them a big sell. As well, I know of several people who have gone on to read the books because of the movies and that is a good thing.