The Dawn Treader Movie

Today I saw The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie.

Below, I will be discussing various parts of the movie, including the conclusion.  So there will be what you might call spoilers.  But then, if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that you know how the novel ends. Right?

The movie was all right, I suppose. There were parts of it where I felt the Narnian magic, particularly at the beginning where Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace are all taken into the painting and find themselves in Narnia, on board the Dawn Treader. And then Caspian introduces Edmund and Lucy as their Narnian selves, and all the Narnians bow. That’s a magical moment, a moment of transformation: you are not the ordinary selves you were, you have become extraordinary. That’s the transformation Narnia allows.

(I should say here that the Narnia books were absolutely central to me, both personally when I was around ten to twelve and in terms of my development as a writer. When I was in law school, I started to write my first fantasy novel. It was, I later realized, a sort of response to the Narnia novels, about a girl named Flora who has the power to bring summer again to a land trapped in winter. So it matters to me, whether the movies are good adaptations or not.)

The parts of the movie that worked least for me were the parts where C.S. Lewis’ original plot was replaced by Standard Epic Fantasy Plot. For example, instead of the elaborate plot involving Caspian’s abolition of the slave trade on the Lone Islands, we get a series of sword fights. But that plot shows us what Caspian is actually like as a king, using cleverness and subterfuge when he doesn’t have might on his side. It shows, right at the beginning of the novel, that he is worthy to be king, and what it means to have proper, legitimate rule of law. The Narnia books are really Lewis’ treatise on how the world should function. He goes into all sorts of details: what sorts of clothes people should wear, what education should be like, how the natural world should be treated. The movie leaves all of those ideas out, except to the extent that Reepicheep articulates them. If you took that out, Reepicheep would have no dialog, because he really is, in the novel as well as the movie, a walking exemplar of the sort of courtesy and bravery that Lewis believes makes the perfect gentleman.

The green mist plot, that was rather dull. The man whose wife is stolen by the green mist and then he has to go save her by joining the journey plot, that was also rather dull. The daughter who stows away on the ship to join her father, that was excruciating. It was a plot out of late night television fantasy, not out of Lewis, who never, ever did anything cute. He abhorred the cute, and when he had something cute, like a mouse, he gave it courage so that it was no longer cute but something lovely and profound.

My least favorite part was the conclusion, or rather the part right before the conclusion where everyone is fighting the sea serpent. For one thing, that sea serpent looked an awful lot like Cthulhu, and suddenly I wondered whether I was in a Lewis-Lovecraft mashup. But I think this particular scene in the novel highlights what it is that makes Lewis so effective and what the movie lacks. Lewis is not Tolkien. The Narnia novels do not have epic sweep, which makes them more difficult to film. They are about a series of small, domestic moments. Think about the meal with the Beavers in the first novel. If you’re trying to save the world, Lewis tells us, you still have to eat. The actual scene with the sea serpent in the novel goes something like this: a sea serpent wraps its coils around the Dawn Treader, and everyone has to push together to get the ship out of those coils. In the end, when the ship is saved and sailing on, the sea serpent looks confusedly over itself, trying to figure out what happened to the ship he thought he was crushing. That’s not an epic battle. It’s everyone working together to save the ship, each in her or her own role, and then we get the sea serpent’s perspective. It’s small and individual and charming.

Another example. In the movie, Eustace is transformed back from a dragon to a boy when his skin comes off, in a highly dramatic, CGI sort of way. We can tell that Aslan’s magical power is at work. But in the novel, Aslan claws his skin off. It’s painful, much more powerful, and much more meaningful. Eustace is losing the skin he has built up over the years, all the traits that allowed him to become a dragon in the first place, and what is uncovered is his genuine human self.

Do I hope there will be another movie? I would love to see The Silver Chair filmed. It’s one of my favorite Narnia novels, and Puddleglum is one of my favorite Narnian characters. But what would they do to it? I don’t want to see it transformed in the way The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is transformed in the movie. I don’t want to see my Puddleglum become some sort of action hero.

I will say that the movie was visually beautiful: the Dawn Treader was the ship I imagined as a child, the costumes were exactly what I would want to wear in Narnia, the characters looked just right, even the computer-generated ones.  And I was still, despite the passage of many years, completely in love with Reepicheep.  One final quibble. Those flowers in the ocean at the end. They looked like Casablanca lilies. Since when do Casablanca lilies grow in the ocean? Couldn’t they have made the lilies look more – aquatic?

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8 Responses to The Dawn Treader Movie

  1. Holly says:

    I haven’t seen it–is the green mist a substitute for the dark island? I couldn’t forgive that…

  2. There is still a dark island, but yes, it is where the green mist lives. I’m afraid they’ve rather ruined the dark island . . .

  3. Keanan Brand says:

    Good review — and I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the movie.

    I thought that disappointment might have been a result of a nasty cold and an over-warm theatre. (I actually fell asleep a couple of times, anathema while at the movies!)

    Gotta say it: I like the low-tech 1980s version better. It feels truer, if that makes any sense, and it proves that, yes, “Dawn Treader” CAN be adapted for the screen and not be boring.

  4. I’ve been avoiding your review since I ::mumblehaven’tmumblereadmumble:: the books yet. I think I read, or tried to read them when I was younger but I don’t remember them well. We just saw the movie today though. We pretty much feel the same in that “the movie was all right, I suppose.” My honeybear even got a little bored in parts, but we both loved Reepicheep. I hate to admit I even have the urge to buy a big brown rat just so that I can name it Reepicheep. The worst part of the movie for me though was at the very end when Aslan tells Lucy he is in her world just known as another there. I sat there silently begging that nobody was going to take out the Giant Clue Hammer and spell it out for the audience any further. What bothered me more than that was that my daughter didn’t get it. I was flabbergasted that she couldn’t figure it out — but then, she wasn’t raised in “The Church” the way that I was, and even though we gave her the books last Christmas, she hasn’t so much as cracked the spine. I’m going to have to invade her bedroom and find them so that I can read them myself.

  5. Well, Aslan telling Lucy that he’s in her world as well, by another name, is in the book as well, I’m afraid. It does get rather heavy-handed at the end when they’re close to Aslan’s country. But the rest of the book is magical. It’s basically a Narnian Odyssey, with all sorts of wonderful adventures. I really do recommend it highly, and as I said, the Narnia books were very important to me as a child. Although I have to admit that I don’t particularly like the last one. But that’s the only one I have real problems with.

    And yes, I agree that the BBC versions capture the magic of Narnia very well, and show that you don’t need to mess with the plot to make a good movie. In fact, to all those people who say that you need to change books to make good movies, I would say that part of the pleasure of the movie, for anyone who’s read the book, is in how closely it follows and interprets the original.

  6. Alistair says:

    An interesting Review – I think that those parts, as you identified, where the Big Set Pieces have overshadowed the original have a lot to do with decision-making in the Film Industry. Executives seem to fund Films if they are similar to earlier successes, and so they look for Big Monsters, Big Special Effects, and a Big Climactic Battle – like Lord of the Rings (or Star Wars?) the more low-level and intimate Fantasy setting you describe may not have attracted their commercial instincts in the same way. And as Hollywood seems keen on Sequels at the minute, so I imagine there will be more of this.

    Having said that, I am still glad that there is a series of Films where there are resources to picture the World of Narnia without having to cut costs all the time, which is always the problem with a BBC production. In England, we have become too conditioned and cynical from all those years of unimpressive special effects on Dr Who and the like (and would wonder why Star Trek looked so much better – even the 1st Series). And so sometimes the quality of the acting or the Script is overlooked due to the ‘Special-Effects nit-picking’ that we are sometimes guilty of falling into over here.

  7. Sanyika says:

    I enjoyed the movie as well, but was also disappointed in the changes. I’m a huge Narnia fan and a True Narnian at heart, so much so that I wish it was possible to be transported to Narnia. The green mist was something that should have been kept out of the movie and I was hoping to see more of Aslan and Eustace’s interaction. I’m hoping that if and when The Silver Chair is filmed, the director and screen writer (s) stay true to the book.

  8. I do think that the world itself was beautifully created, except for the green mist island, which was just weird. But it is nice to see Narnia looking gorgeous on the screen! Sanyika, I feel exactly the same way about The Silver Chair!

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