In a paper I delivered at Belmont’s Past Watchful Dragons conference in 2005, I offered the following conclusion:
The astonishing success of the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” film franchises has demonstrated that today’s audiences have a nearly limitless appetite for the mythic; we are still insanely interested in other worlds. And as Lewis observed, the only thing that could possibly inspire “plausible and moving ‘other worlds'” is “the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” In short, fantasy has once again tapped into the never-ending human need for moral and spiritual clarity.
Long-term, though, if we look forward to the 20 or so years that remain before this current genre runs its course, we must ask: Will the ongoing moral clarity of “The Chronicles of Narnia” retain its relevance for movie audiences, particularly as the “Harry Potter” series grows darker, more mature and possibly even more ambiguous? Will the fantasy-film genre go the way of the Western or science fiction, gradually dissipating into moral uncertainty? Or will another 10 years or more of faithful Narnia films have the power to convince us, at least for a time, that the white hats should stay white and the black hats black?
This was prior to the release of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” of course – so I was begging the question to a degree. It wasn’t at all a given that the Narnia films would don a mantle of “moral clarity” simply because the books had.
On this score, I did not think the first film fared very well – particularly when it came to the reason Aslan gave up his life on the Stone Table. “What motivates sacrifice is love,” I wrote in my review of the film. “If one already understands how loving sacrifice works, one can find it here. If one doesn’t, though, there’s a good chance one might only find guilt on the screen… With Lewis’ narration gone, it’s pretty hard to figure out why Aslan does what he does.” Cliffhanger chases and extended battle sequences overwhelmed the spiritual significance of the first film.
With “Prince Caspian,” character motivations all ran aground in murk. While the film is technically superior in many ways to its predecessor, critics have noted how, for instance, Caspian and Peter, rather than being allies in a common cause, are often at odds with each other. Lewis’ archetypes get lost in the aim for more complex, adult-oriented entertainment.
The press materials for “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” seem to make a tacit admission of the prior two films’ failure to be up to snuff in this regard. If the aim of the series is to “bring the film series back to its illustrious roots – with everything that delighted the books’ and films’ legions of fans,” as noted by the film’s producers, then the film series must have gotten off track, right?
The press notes elaborate, in a quote attributed to series director/producer Andrew Adamson: “‘The Voyage of The Dawn Treader’ returns to the wonder, magic, awe and adventure of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.'” So at the very least, it seems the production team felt that “Prince Caspian” jumped the rails.
When I asked Douglas Gresham about this in roundtable discussions in London, he said I had not read the press notes wrongly. “It’s very largely my fault, in a sense,” he confessed. “When we did ‘Prince Caspian,’ it almost turned into merely a political war story, in some ways.”
In seeing a parallel to the story of Hamlet, he says, the producers let the weightiness of the drama “go to our head too much, perhaps.” The result? The film “didn’t look specifically Narnian,” in Gresham’s opinion, and lost “the spiritual beauty of Narnia.”
As I told Gresham, I was glad to discover in the trailers for “Dawn Treader” that, at the very least, light and color had returned to the Narnia franchise, and was hopeful that the spirit of the film would be correspondingly bolder.
I was not disappointed.
Granted that the film is based on a children’s book – rather than on adult fantasy, as the first two films often felt with their Tolkien-esque epic battle scenes – Michael Apted’s “Dawn Treader” feels to me precisely the way the books feel: light, direct and often perfunctory, from an adult perspective, rightly avoiding the overly complex plotting, conflicted characterizations and dark-hued CGI that are the hallmarks of the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises.
In “Dawn Treader,” with the exception of one poorly-conceived scene between Caspian and Edmund, hope is restored that the Narnia franchise may indeed assume a mantle of moral clarity. Except in the face of temptation, the white hats stay white and the black hats stay black – until Aslan strips the black away to reveal the white underneath.
To my reading, Lewis’ “Dawn Treader” was about dealing with fear, but in drawing up the moral landscape of the film, the producers could have done far worse than restructuring Lewis’ narrative around a central theme of temptation. And tweaking the plot to visually and narratively suit the theme actually helps keep the film surprising.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that the book’s penultimate scene makes it to the big screen almost intact. At the conclusion of the story’s central quest, Aslan, Lucy, Edmund, Eustace and Reepicheep stand on the shores of Aslan’s Country, and Aslan delivers the bad news that Lucy and Edmund will not be returning to Narnia. Naturally, the Pevensies want to know if they will find Aslan in their own world.
They will, says Aslan. “But there I have another name,” he intones. “You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
The line is often cited as the most explicit ever written by Lewis about the spiritual connection between the world of Narnia and our own. Its verbatim inclusion in the film provides both a poignant conclusion to “Dawn Treader” a few moments later – and a hopeful beginning for the rest of the series.
Should, of course, this third film find an audience. Nothing is ever a sure bet. And by the way, see the film in 2-D. It’s brighter and more colorful, as Narnia should be.