There are many different ways to analyze a film based on a book. It can be assessed simply as a movie without reference to the book; or on its success in translating all the details of plot, character, dialogue, and description from the page to the screen; or as an expression of the original author’s worldview. Unfortunately, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader fails on all of these grounds.
On a purely technical level, Dawn Treader does dazzle. It is a very expensive and beautiful film, packed with lovely visuals. There are many breathtaking sunrises, sunsets, and seascapes. There is a sparkling ocean atmosphere, lit with clear outdoor colors, in many scenes. David Arnold’s musical score is lush and lovely. The ship herself is gorgeous; the people on board are gorgeous. Most of the characters are well cast. Will Poulter is an especially skillful young actor who plays Eustace, before and after his transformation, as a funny, subtle, three-dimensional personality. Ben Barnes as Caspian, however, continues to disappoint; he is too old, too casual, and too dark-haired to represent the youthful Apollonian king of Narnia.
One advantage to making these movies over again now on an enormous budget is the increasing quality of the special effects, especially the CGI. Animals, monsters, and magical effects just get better and better. Eustace-the-dragon is stupendous. It’s no wonder he ends up staying a dragon far longer than he did in the book; who, having designed such a gorgeous, golden, flying, agile, fire-breathing beauty could bear to have him change back to a boy moments later?
Beyond the technical lights-and-magic, however, this movie fails to add anything to the genre. It is derivative and just plain silly. Although it was easy to guess that there would be a new plot line developed to hold the story together—C. S. Lewis’s story is quite episodic—the new storyline is pretty poor. Lewis provided two reasons for this quest: Caspian’s reason for journeying is to recover or avenge the seven Narnian lords his usurping uncle Miraz sent out on wild goose chases. Reepicheep’s motivation is to reach the end of the world and, beyond it, Aslan’s country. The filmmakers, predictably, devise additional motives for the journey: cheap, facile, end-of-the-world scenarios lifted out of half-a-dozen other adventure movies of this decade. Our beautiful Hollywood heroes, in addition to locating lost lords and sailing to the end of the world, have to dispel a creepy green mist that comes up out of the ocean to swallow human sacrifices. In order to do this, they have to follow the Blue Star, find the seven swords that glow a magical blue, and lay the swords on Aslan’s table. Picture to yourself the conference table around which the production team is brainstorming new story ideas:
“OK, guys, we have to come up with a more compelling reason for this journey. Traveling towards Heaven and ultimate bliss just isn’t enough. Any bright ideas?”
“How about dispelling a green mist that makes hissing sounds and transmogrifies into a giant eviscerated cockroach?”
“Sounds good. Let’s do it.”
Joking aside, however, the alterations of Lewis’s original plot are more than just annoying to literary purists. They are certainly that; but they are much more. While artists who make adaptations from one medium to another are perfectly justified in making changes, even enormous changes, to suit their artistic mode, the resulting creation must be a work of art in its own right and must adhere to its medium’s standards of excellence. This film is derivative and unoriginal. Furthermore, when the original work of art was created to communicate a particular worldview, philosophy, or theology, adaptors face an even larger challenge. In the interests of not offending fans, they should not tamper with the subcreator’s theology; in the interests of Truth, they must not. But they did.
C. S. Lewis was an Anglican Christian who spent much of his adult life writing nonfiction books and giving radio talks defending the Christian faith. He also wrote many works of fiction in which he embodied his beliefs in characters, events, and images. The Narnia chronicles are no exception. Indeed, in three of them (The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and The Last Battle) he retells biblical stories in thin disguises (the creation of the world, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the end of the world, respectively). Although the Chronicles are not didactic, they are carefully designed to communicate biblical truths—not to the mind directly, but to the imagination. Since Lewis believed that these truths were absolute, essential, exclusive, and even worth dying for, he would have abhorred any plot alterations that obscured their transmission. Thus, his loyal readers are right to take umbrage at any such impious modifications.
Several such shifts of emphasis twist the message in this movie. If any contemporary readers find Christian proselytizing offensive, they should be even more offended by the pushy preaching of what might be called the Disney gospel (although this film was made by Walden Media). Instead of communicating grace, for instance, the movie repeats mantras about believing in oneself, becoming a hero, and earning the right to enter Aslan’s country. Even Lucy, the quintessential emblem of a believer with the pure faith of a child, laughs mockingly at the mention of Aslan’s country and asks with scorn, “Do you really believe there’s such a place?” Eustace’s transformation into a dragon serves, not as the first step of his long, slow process of sanctification, but as the quick fix that turns him into a fighting hero. This is unrealistic at best and terribly misleading at worst if it leads children into thinking that all they need to do is make a slight mental re-adjustment and then they will be powerful, beautiful, influential people who save the world from disaster. In reality, they would do better to learn the harder lesson of gradual character improvement due to long prayer and study in the school of life, then live out their commitments as quiet saints in their spheres of family, vocation, and ministry.
Furthermore, several changes to the person and work of Aslan are misleading. C. S. Lewis made clear that if ever films were made of his Narnia books, they would have to be very careful how they depicted Aslan, because Aslan represents Jesus. He wrote in a letter to a woman who wanted to make Narnia into a radio and television series: “I am sure you understand that Aslan is a divine figure, and anything remotely approaching the comic (above all anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy” (Letters vol. 3, p. 491, 19 June 1954; emphasis mine). In this film, Aslan appears only in dreams and at the end of the world, but never intervenes in the real world of Narnia. This renders religion—and God—far more elusive and intangible than Lewis believed it, or He, is.
In addition, several alterations in the last scene of the film were quite disturbing. First, Lewis describes a sacramental scene in which a white Lamb offers the children a meal of fish roasted over a fire. This is intentionally reminiscent of the Gospel of John, chapter 21, in which the apostles are fishing and see the resurrected Jesus on the shore. “When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it…. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’” (John 21:9a, 12a). In this passage, Jesus charges His disciples to carry on His work now that He is about to ascend into Heaven. Similarly, Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that this is their last time in Narnia. The implication is that they must live out their faith back in England. However, the movie leaves out the Lamb and the meal of fish, suggesting that they have engineered their own holiness through military means.
Second, in the book Reepicheep the Mouse, an embodiment of spiritual longing, leaves in his little coracle before the children step out on the beach at the end of the world. He throws away his worldly belongings (his sword) and disappears over the rim of the world—into Aslan’s country, or heaven. In the film, however, he meets Aslan on the beach, talks to Him, and then leaves—paddling away from his beloved and longed-for Aslan! This is completely contrary to the intended message. Reepicheep did not yearn for Aslan’s country for the personal bliss he would find there; he longed to meet Aslan Himself. He would never sail away from Him, for heaven is in His presence, in any country.
In closing the film (and this review), however, one very important moment was kept intact. Aslan’s parting words to Edmund and Lucy, in both the book and the film, are in answer to Lucy’s anguished question: Will she meet Him in England, too? He replies that she will, and that “there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” This is a crucial passage. Lewis expanded its concept in a letter to eleven-year-old Hila Newman, who wrote and asked him what Aslan’s other name was:
As to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer! (Letters vol. 3, p. 334, 3 June 1953).
It is clear, then, that the presentation of Aslan’s person and work are central to any production of the Narnia chronicles on stage or screen. And at least this adaptation preserved the essential lines about His name. Perhaps many viewers of the films will be curious, as Hila was, to know more about the person whom Aslan represents. If so, that would be a better Christmastime gift than any mere movie and might make this blockbuster worth more than box office returns.