Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (film)

“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 entire, joyful purpose of a Christian writer’s existence, summed up in one, profound sentence. O! C.S. Lewis, how I love you!

And that's where the similarities between the film and novel versions of Voyage of the Dawn Treader end.

I must say, I did not go into this film with any particular expectation of having a C.S. Lewis story performed upon the screen. After all, I did see what was done to Prince Caspian. Did anybody manage to dig up some similarity between Lewis's novel and that film? I didn't think so. Nevertheless, I managed to enjoy Prince Caspian as a disassociated, adventure/fantasy, summer flick, and that was fine. I expected about the same from Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Problem is, Dawn Treader was never written to be performed on screen. The pacing is episodic, the climax is not the stuff of movie magic. Dawn Treader is about a long voyage full of many, many discoveries, but the ultimate goal (beyond looking for the seven lords) was to sail to the “utter East,” to find Aslan's Country. These mariners are sailing for heaven in a gorgeous allegory fraught with peril and temptations!

The film turned it all into a Harry Potter wannabe, with seven swords substituting for seven horcruxes that must be gathered together to vanquish Voldemort/Scary-Green-CGI-Mist.

Oh, and Aslan’s Country? That turned into a, “Well, I suppose while we’re in the neighborhood, we might as well stop by” jaunt. Something to do as a breather after the real mission—stopping the Scary-Green-CGI-Mist—was accomplished by a bunch of glowing horcruxes stacked on top of each other.

I miss C.S. Lewis.

But, for the sake of cinema, I can understand why they tossed in this Overarching Villain for the characters do defeat. Movie-going audiences are obviously unable to grasp the drama and power of a “Voyage to Heaven,” so it’s best to make it simple for them. Give them a specific baddy to latch onto (because personal temptations and weakness aren’t all that bad, eh?), and everything will come out right. Especially if it’s Scary-Green-CGI-Mist.

Sarcasm aside, I really can see why they felt the need to do this, especially if their goal is to make money rather than to see Lewis’s genius performed on screen.

What I don’t understand is . . . what happened to their editors? I mean, did anyone in the universe see the point of sticking that (cute-as-a-button) little girl, Gael, into the story? Did she serve any purpose whatsoever? The reinventing of Rhince was bad enough, but if you must stick in Scary-Green-CGI-Mist baddies, sure, you’ve got to make it a more specific peril for someone. So give Rhince a wife and have her sacrificed to CGI terrors . . . but what’s with the almost dialog-less daughter? There were too many underdeveloped characters as it is!

I think the part that made me saddest, however, was the story of Eustace as the dragon.

Those of you who have read Heartless will recognize the strong parallels between Princess Una’s story and that of Eustace Scrubb. A similar transformation for similar (though not identical) reasons. By their own sin and selfishness, they both become the physical manifestation of what lies in their hearts. And, though both make the attempt, neither one is able to rescue themselves from this terrible form. Their only hope is grace . . . and even that grace is so painful that both shy away from it at first. But oh, how great and how beautiful is that grace when it tears through their foul form and releases them from the burden of themselves!

Love that story. Always loved C.S. Lewis’s short version of it in Dawn Treader . . . Thoroughly enjoyed writing a novel-length variation myself!

But the film, of course, modernized it.

The story of grace is almost there . . . Aslan does rescue Eustace in the end. But only after Eustace has proven himself a hero. Only after Eustace has suffered for the sake of his friends, fought the monster, risked his life . . . proven himself worthy!

Do you see the problem here? The modernized philosophy of grace? Oh, it makes me so sad! You see it everywhere in our modern literature/movies. For a character to be redeemed, that character must first earn his/her redemption. He must prove himself worthy in some profound way and then can be released/transformed/rewarded in return. It’s a give-and-get philosophy.

The true power of grace is lost.

When Lewis wrote it in his novel, Eustace did not have a heroic moment. Yes, he came to a point of realization . . . Through his awful transformation, he began to realize what he truly was and how he had behaved. We get to see him helping the others, desperate to make amends. He gives them fire, finds them a new mast for the ship, etc. But there’s no heroic moment for him. There’s no moment where he proves himself worthy of Aslan’s help. He is a dragon, and he cannot change himself, cannot atone for his own sin.

Yet Aslan comes to him anyway. And in one of the most beautiful scenes ever written, we hear Eustace tell the story of his rescue . . . of how he tried to tear off his own hide, but couldn’t. Of how Aslan had to do it for him. And it hurt! It hurt so badly! Grace, in the beginning, is such a painful gift. For true grace reveals to us how little we deserve it. The pain of our own worthlessness makes it almost unbearable . . . but unbearably beautiful at the same time!

Sigh. I miss C.S. Lewis. I miss his way with words. I miss his profound understanding and his wisdom in realizing that the most profound mysteries are often best expressed in stories for children.

And seriously, people. When your source material is a genius . . . why not use that genius’s words? Where was C.S. Lewis’s dialogue? Where were his clever phrases? I recognized one line. And yes, it was a beautiful line. The most beautiful line in the movie. But doesn’t that say something? Doesn’t that imply that Lewis should have been brought in just a tiny bit more?

All that to say, there are simply some novels that should not be turned into movies. I have many more thoughts on that subject, but will save them for a later post . . . .

P.S. I have no complaints about the casting, cinematography, gorgeous backdrops, props, and music. Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes are so well cast, Ben Barnes is adorable in a not-too-perfect way for Caspian, and Will Poulter was a thoroughly obnoxious Eustace (though I have difficulty picturing him in a heroic role for The Silver Chair). There were plenty of lovely things to enjoy on the screen!


Unknown said...

The Dawn Treader movie frustrated me SO MUCH. The mist was ridiculous. The last 20 minutes of the film are what "saved" it for me. I heard they are looking at making The Magician's Nephew next - I hope that they learn from Dawn Treader and do a better job translating that story to the screen, if it happens!


The only thing that bothered me personally was the mist. I thought the movie was great!

Julie Bihn said...

I actually liked the Dawn Treader movie better than Prince Caspian. I felt Prince Caspian was needlessly dark and sad, and came out of the movie feeling almost kind of down.

There WERE numerous failings in Dawn Treader, absolutely. While the mist was weird, maybe the worst was the "undragoning"--would someone who didn't read the books even understand what was supposed to be going on? Because I was confused. Even so, I still felt like Dawn Treader as a whole was truer to the "spirit" of the book. Which is weird because spiritually, I'd call it "harmless" rather than "beneficial" (whereas IMO the book was definitely beneficial spiritually). It's a shame they watered it down.

I wrote a review when it came out, which helped jog my memory; I haven't seen the DVD yet. Review is at if you wanted "December 2010 Julie"'s thoughts in more detail.

karina said...

I agree so very wholeheartedly with your review. I enjoyed the movie as a summer flick in line with a Harry Potter films (though the Harry Potter films have something in common with the books). The backdrop was beautiful. Random girl was cute. Eustace was all I hoped he would be. But the entire point of the book was ripped out and destroyed, by the green mist perhaps. To take out the analogy of grace . . . the greatest tragedy so far in the Narnia remakings.

Paris said...

I agree. The movie is a disapointment, if you've read the book. My sibs loved it, but they had never read the book. It was nice to see a family-friendly movie with a good lesson about resisting temptation, but I left saying, "I don't know what that was, but it wasn't Narnia." I don't comprehend how they thought they could pass it off for Narnia. But yes, there were some very good parts and great actors.

Elf said...

Sorry to disagree with everyone, but I loved The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think it is the best one yet. I read the book a while ago and didn't like it at all. (Maybe if I read it again, I would like it, though.) I also heard The Magician's Nephew would be next, but I think The Silver Chair should be first. If they wait to long, the actors will grow up and not fit the characters.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

I am glad that you liked it, need2read. Even though I didn't care for it, that's the beauty of movies and books . . . they aren't for everyone, but someone is bound to be blessed by every story out there! :)

I agree, Silver Chair would make a lot of sense . . . it would be a shame if all the actors got too old!

Elf said...

I just recently re-watched Prince Caspian and, despite my dislike for it before, I really like it now. The Narnia movies are probably my favourite, in addition to Soul Surfer. If you would like, you can vote on the best Narnia movie on my blog:

Anonymous said...

I So agree with you Anne, the movie had NOTHING to do with the book other than the name. So sad how great books get turned into okay movies that have absolutly nothing to do with the book. (sigh) It was an okay movie though.

English Lady said...

Although I sort of liked the movie, and my mother enjoyed some of the soundbites- I am inclined to agree. I think the main problem with the Movies was that they tried to make them too much like Hary Potter/LOTR and Lewis- never intended them to be like that.

LOTR was mythologia based on Ancient and Medieval European myth and history. It wasn't strictly supposed to be an allegory. Narnia was allegory coloured and informed by legend. There weren't epic night battle scenes a' la the Siege of the Hornberg in Narnia (except in the last book perhaps).

Perhaps one of the few redeeming features was Reepicheep. I always loved Reep.
I hear Douglas Gresham, Lewis' Stepson was involved in the movies, but one is inclined to wonder how much influence he actually had.