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?