Originally published on Cultured Vultures
I know, I know. Any film adaptation of a book is sure to disappoint someone. It’s an entirely different medium of storytelling after all. This does not mean I won’t be overly critical, especially if it’s a book I truly love, but I do at least try and watch with an open mind.
Take, for example, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Actually committing to a list of favourite books is far too much pressure, but if I ever did, this book would be on there. No visual method will ever be able to replicate Johnathan Safran Foer’s unique and entangling storytelling methods. But, the film was still pretty damn good. It understood the tone, the relationship between Oskar and his father was beautifully done and it reached high to meet the important moments of emotional resonance.
I would also like to mention The Book Thief. I was so nervous when the movie version was released. This book tethered itself to me with tendrils so tight it seemed impossible for the film not to disappoint. But I loved it. Sure, not everything was right; Death as the narrator was not present enough and the delivery of Rudy’s final line was hilariously awful. These are small things – I can watch and watch this movie, despite knowing it will turn me into a waterfall. The music is spectacular, the characterisations are all on point and everyone has a proper German accent (looking at you, Valkyrie).
And whatever your opinion of John Green’s writing, The Fault in Our Stars was one of the closest cinematic adaptations of a novel I have ever seen. Possibly because the author was heavily involved in the production.
So with films such as these proving it is possible to make beautiful adaptations that are true to the source material, it makes the absolutely dire, half-hearted failures that much more disappointing.
Like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
There is a lot of personal bias involved in this opinion, by the way. Dawn Treader was not only the first Narnia book my seven-year-old self devoured, it was also my first ever fantasy novel. It hooked me on the series, the genre and on reading in general. I would not be the nerd I am today without it.
The Chronicles of Narnia does lean heavily on Christian themes, which might not resonate with every reader. But religion aside, the series has many universal messages about love and sacrifice, bravery and redemption. The purpose of fantasy after all is to take us into such an unfamiliar setting that we can consider difficult questions and struggles more closely. Each of the Narnia books is its own unique adventure. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a battle against darkness and evil, a battle for truth and justice. Prince Caspian is a battle against oppression and ignorance.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about healing past hurt; it’s a quest, a journey. It’s about redemption, retribution, understanding your own limitations and weaknesses, picking up broken pieces and slotting them back together. Out of all the stories, this is the one that has the most time to highlight the individual humanity of the characters within it. They are not ordinary children-turned-heroes here – they are flawed, tempted, troubled people with pasts and insecurities.
This is the only one of the seven books to not include a major antagonist or climatic battle scene. None of its trials and quests, in both the outer world of the Eastern islands and the inner world of the characters themselves, are solved with swords.
But the film executives clearly didn’t take the time to understand this. They made it a battle anyway. Against green mist.
I can fully appreciate that perhaps inner turmoil is not quite as cinematic as the full-scale war scenes from the first two films. But Narnia is peaceful in this story for a reason because the book is about the aftermath of conflict, when you can step back and examine what is broken in you and how you might begin healing it. It says what has been does not have to continue and who we were does not have to be who we will be.
Edmund comments at the start of the film, ‘If there are no wars to fight and if no-one’s in trouble, why are we here?’. And this, very plainly, is the point of the story – this is what they learn through the course of their journey. But this message is all-too-quickly diluted with the addition of a pathetic antagonist, a trouble they’ve been sent to deal with after all, just as in the first two films.
The film-makers simply did not trust their audience to engage with a conflict that wasn’t thrown in their faces. We would be able to see that their adventures are tempting and testing each of the questers without the magician’s pointless plot exposition. And the reason for their temptations being the green mist playing with their emotions and fears wipes away the point of the story. Again.
We as people do not make bad choices or hurt other people because we are under the influence of evil external forces (usually). We make bad choices because of our weaknesses and flaws. Evil in Narnia is never a mysterious, unnamed and faceless force. It is present in people; in their motives and their desires. The antagonists are visible because, as Edmund proved in the first film, we are often perilously close to becoming them ourselves.
Caspian is so consumed with completing his quest – as the films suggests, perhaps through a desire to make his father proud – that he nearly breaks his oaths as king. Lucy is almost undone by jealousy, anger and mistrust in the house of the magician. Eustace is filled with self-importance, cowardice and just generally being an annoying idiot. Edmund, when faced with the opportunity to become easily rich, nearly gives in to his greed.
There are many other aspects of this film that anger me – Eustace’s characterisation, Tilda Swinton appearing again, Caspian’s vanishing accent, awful dialogue, actors that proved their ability in previous films suddenly acting as wooden as the ship they’re sailing on, the lack of diversity that had been somewhat present in the previous film, minor sexist moments, etc. When I forced him to watch it with me, my husband commented, “The CGI is so good. I can almost see the pixels.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a good adaptation – it’s even considered Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The second instalment made some big deviations from the book, but did so with good reason, a steady vision and kept true to the heart of the story. The third film, meanwhile, has a really beautiful scene towards the end of the movie, and very little else.
Perhaps it’s because the director changed and the story was hastily rewritten (which shows). That does not excuse it. I think Dawn Treader deserved a better chance to be the powerful, empowering story it’s supposed to be.
At one point, Aslan says to Lucy ‘Courage, dear heart.’ And we don’t just need courage in the wars life throws at us, but also in the peaceful times when the water is still enough that we can see the reflection of exactly what kind of people we are. It’s one thing to run into a battle with your sword drawn and beat the enemy running towards you. It’s quite another to face the enemy inside yourself.