I have something of a strange relationship with books and film. I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, but I’m simultaneously a product of our visual culture. This means that whenever I read a good novel, I find myself wishing I could see it on screen, yet whenever I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m almost always disappointed at what it leaves out. The first PG-13 movie I ever saw was Jurassic Park; I was 11 but my dad took me to see it as a reward for just having finished reading the book (I did say I was an avid reader, right?). I hated it. All I could think about was how they had butchered the characters and left so much out. It wasn’t until I saw the movie again years later, when the book had become a distant memory, that I could really enjoy it as a movie, rather than see it as a poor representation of the book.
So when my wife and I had the opportunity to see The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last night, I chose not to reread the book first. In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve done so, and I’m glad of that, because it allowed me to enjoy the film on its own merits before worrying about how it compared to its source. By most measures, this second Narnia far surpasses the first. I’d even go so far as to say that it was nearly as entertaining, though not quite as grand, as any of the Lord of the Rings films. But as I’ve thought about it further, it’s hard to ignore all the changes it made to Lewis’ book. That being the case, if you're anything like me, you may want to see the movie itself before reading on, especially if you hate spoilers (I should also note that I have no idea how this movie got a PG rating. It is quite violent, including an improbable degree of bloodless death and even a decapitation; it should definitely have been rated PG-13).
Prince Caspian follows the four Pevensie children’s return to Narnia, called back when Prince Caspian (the rightful heir to the throne, but currently hiding from his murderous uncle Miraz) blows the magical horn that was given to Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As they attempt to win back Caspian’s throne and free Narnia from Miraz’ oppression, we are treated to a film which is at once better acted, more humorous, and much more exciting than its predecessor. This is because, while the first Narnia was careful to keep the themes and plot of C.S. Lewis’ book intact, this film almost completely abandons the attempt.
On the positive side, this meant the addition or modification of several scenes which, I thought, greatly enhanced the plot. For instance, I appreciated the way they modified the first act of the story: The intentionally ambiguous significance of the birth with which the film begins was clever and revealed the threat to Caspian’s life in a concise and interesting manner. Then, when they parallel the Pevensies trying to adjust to life as children again (a nice addition, in my opinion), with Caspian’s flight from Miraz, I found it a much more engaging introduction than the way Lewis described this sequence of events. More substantially, they add an entire battle in which the Narnians attempt to capture Miraz’s castle, which not only adds interest, excitement and some important emotional depth, but also makes better sense of the events which follow than the original book did. I also liked the expanded scene involving the White Witch, which I was shocked to see in the previews, but think worked very well.
If most of the additions are good, however, there are also a number of unfortunate omissions. Much has been made of the fact that Lewis’ book centered on the triumph of faith over skepticism, while the film totally obliterates this theme. The story takes place 1300 years after the events of the first film (though only one year later for the four children); the great castle they once ruled lies in ruins and Aslan seems long absent. The film almost completely leaves out the fact that few Narnians still believe in Aslan or the old stories. In the book, this is seen especially in the dwarf Trumpkin, who is a convinced skeptic who only slowly comes to recognize Aslan’s reality and authority. In the film, this arc is substantially diminished, as Trumpkin (who is played with a lot of humor) never really disbelieves that the old stories are true; he only doubts their present value.
But, personally, I’m not as troubled by this as others have been, as I think real faith has a lot more to do with trust than with belief anyway. Thus Trumpkin’s (and others, including Peter’s and Caspian’s) lack of trust in Aslan is actually a more realistic, and troubling, form of doubt than his simple disbelief in the book. If the movie gives less ground than Lewis’ original for letting us cheer the comeuppance of the disbelieving materialists, it provides a more nuanced exploration of the danger of lack of trust - in each other and in Aslan - among the “faithful.” To me, this seems of greater value in our postmodern context than the attack on modernism that Lewis intended.
A much less fortanate change was the diminished portrait of genuine faith. The strange thing is that this actually made for a worse movie, not only thematically, but also narratively. In the book, we have an extended sequence in which Lucy alone is able to see Aslan while the others only slowly and painfully come to trust that she knows what she’s doing in following his lead. Though this element is not completely omitted, it is passed over very quickly in the film, which then leaves out entirely the fact that Aslan also appeared to the rest of them - one by one, as they come to trust him - during the course of the story.
In place of this, we get a nice exchange between Susan and Peter where it is asked why Aslan hasn’t proven himself to them, and suggested that perhaps they are the ones who need to prove themselves to him. This does add emphasis to the need to trust even when Aslan seems absent (that is, when God seems absent, though the film subtly diminishes Aslan’s divinity). But in doing so it modifies Lewis’ point that faith precedes sight, and leaves a substantial plot hole which is never adequately filled. Despite what the review I quoted in my last post claimed, the fact that Aslan doesn’t really appear until the end (except in a dream to Lucy) does make him more like a dues ex machina than he should have been.
In the book, Aslan’s appearance in the last battle is but the culmination of a series of previous ones, so it not only brings closure to all conflict but also enables the realization that he had actually been with them all along. In the movie, however, his sudden arrival feels forced and out of place. Though Lucy facing an army with naught but a dagger and a lion is cute, the audience hasn’t been adequately prepared for the significance of this event. And if this is true of Aslan, it is even more so of the tree spirits and (especially) the water god which he brings with him to fight for the Narnians. To suddenly see a great river god attack Miraz’ army, when (unlike in the book) we’ve never even been given a hint that such a being exists, is as clear a case of dues ex machina as you’re likely to find. The result is an otherwise entertaining film which suddenly falls flat at its climax.