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The Missing Storyteller and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader | Dr. David C. Downing | Ignatius Insight | December 14, 2010

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When I had finished seeing each of the three Lord of the Rings movies, I had a strong temptation to keep sitting in the theater and watch the film all over again. But when I have finished each of the three Narnia movies so far, I have had a strong temptation to go home and re-read the books.

This is not a criticism of the Narnia films. I was entertained by all three and am hoping to see four more. But the magic of the Narnia books lies not only in the stories, but also in the storyteller. Tolkien and Lewis are both masters of the literary art. But Tolkien's stories are more dramatic, more cinematic. The narrator dissolves into the story, the way Shakespeare enthralls you with his plays without making you think about Shakespeare. But in the Narnia Chronicles, the storyteller seems almost as much a character as the people we meet in Narnia. He is a wise old uncle, but also a wise-cracker, telling a story to children but treating them as if they were adults.

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it." Now that's an opening that ranks right up there with Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." And the rest of the page is just as engaging. It is a satiric portrait of the brat Eustace and his progressive parents that makes you chuckle three or four times in the first paragraph alone. Scrubb's parents don't want to be called "Father" and "Mother," but rather Harold and Alberta. They are vegetarians, tee-totallers, and they wear "a special kind of underclothes." As for Eustace himself, we are told he "liked animals," and for one microsecond, we think we may like him after all. But then we read the whole sentence: "Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card." That innocent little sentence has a set-up and punch line worthy of a master stand-up comedian.

I do not envy those who try to adapt this kind of story for the big screen. Even if they are faithful to Lewis's plots, characters, and themes, they are not going to be able to capture his narrative voice. The problem is compounded in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" because it is an episodic tale, "a very green and pearly story," Lewis called it, structured like the Odyssey and the medieval tale of St. Brendan's voyage (an overlooked source for many details in the book). Lewis seemed to have in mind a chapter a night, to be read at the bedside or by the fireside. Movie-makers have no such luxury; they have about two hours in which to compress visits to a half a dozen islands, each with its own adventures and its own themes. (Actually, the film runs to less than 2 hours; if I could sit through 160 minutes of Avatar, I wouldn't have minded lingering longer in Narnia.)

The screenwriters of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have been creative in combining related episodes to condense Lewis's loosely-ordered storyline. They have also added a more compelling quest motif than we find in the book, with all of Narnia in danger. In Lewis's version, Caspian really has no great reason to going sailing off towards the Utter East except to discover the fate of seven lost lords. (Reepicheep has his own reasons to find the Utter East, to reach Aslan's Country, for he is as much a mystic as he is a chivalric mouse.)

Yet the screenwriters have certainly not been able to capture the voice of Lewis the storyteller. The most poignant scene in the whole film comes at the very end, when Aslan speaks to Lucy and Edmund about looking for him in our own world. This scene comes to us almost verbatim from the book. But in too many earlier scenes Lewis's shrewd, supple prose is replaced by prosaic contemporary Americanisms: "Level the playing field"; "I'm tired of playing second fiddle"; and "Was it something I said?" Even more unfortunate are the crude attempts at humor—someone saying Eustace smells like the rear end of a minotaur and Eustace dismissing a sacred place as "Ramandoodoo's Island."

In general, the plot is well-paced, the acting good, and the special effects, well, special. But too often the cinematic scenes remind us less of Lewis than of Hollywood. There is an evil green mist that looks like the angel of death in The Ten Commandments. There is a scene of freed slaves being reunited with their families that reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The animated dragons and monsters certainly kept my attention. But I have seen so many similar critters in the last ten years that I wanted to shout at the heroes on the screen, "Forget about your weapons. Unplug the CGI machine!"

Will Poulter stands out for his annoyingly persuasive portrayal of Eustace Scrubb. And the screenwriters have given Eustace the Dragon more important ways to help the voyagers than he did in the book. But both Eustace's "dragoning" and his "undragoning" are told more compellingly from his own point of view in the book than they can ever be portrayed in a film.

Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed the film overall: its heart, and soul, are in the right place. And I would certainly like to see more of Will Poulter as Eustace. So only one day after seeing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I am already counting the days until I can see a film version of The Silver Chair.

I will not try to rate this movie in terms of stars, for stars in Narnia are magnificent living beings, not mere balls of hot gas or marks on a page!

Watch the Official Trailer for The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":

Looking For The King: An Inklings Novel

By Dr. David C. Downing

Looking For The King (Downloadable Audio) -- Downloadable Audio File
Looking For The King (E-Book) -- Electronic Book Download

It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest. Aided by the Inklings-that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien-Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.

Tom discovers that Laura has been having mysterious dreams, which seem to be related to the subject of his research, and, though doubtful of her visions, he hires her as an assistant. Heeding the insights and advice of the Inklings, while becoming aware of being shadowed by powerful and secretive foes who would claim the spear as their own, Tom and Laura end up on a thrilling treasure hunt that crisscrosses the English countryside and leads beyond a search for the elusive relics of Camelot into the depths of the human heart and soul.

Weaving his fast-paced narrative with actual quotes from the works of the Inklings, author David Downing offers a vivid portrait of Oxford and draws a welcome glimpse into the personalities and ideas of Lewis and Tolkien, while never losing sight of his action-packed adventure story and its two very appealing main characters.

"This superbly gripping novel about dreams coming true is itself a dream come true. Lewis and Tolkien come alive as real-life characters, playing their sagacious parts to realistic perfection as the protagonists follow their Arthurian quest pursued by deadly enemies. For lovers of Arthurian romance and for admirers of Tolkien and Lewis, this is indeed a dream come true!" -- Joseph Pearce, Author, Tolkien: Man and Myth

"The subtitle of this book is 'An Inklings Novel. That claim might seem presumptuous at first. But lo--it is an Inklings novel. My own guess is that Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams would all be mightily pleased with it. All three of them, as it happens, figure as characters in the story, which is Arthurian, but set in the contemporary world--very much in the vein of That Hideous Strength and War in Heaven. The Inklings themselves are flawlessly depicted, as are the two protagonists, a very appealing young man and woman. All Inklings lovers will be highly delighted." -- Thomas Howard, Author, Narnia and Beyond

"A highly engaging historical mystery adventure that brings C. S. Lewis and his friends and ideas to life. Fans of Lewis and Tolkien will love it. I couldn't put it down!" -- Peter J. Schakel, Author, The Way into Narnia and Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis

"Steeped in Arthurian lore, the mystery of the grail legends, and World War II intrigue, this engaging tale of a young man's search for a hidden relic ultimately uncovers treasure of a far different kind. David Downing's homage to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully in bringing these historical figures to life in the midst of an unfolding spiritual thriller. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read--laced throughout with romance, wry humor and questions of eternal consequence." -- Marjorie Lamp Mead, Associate Director, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College

David C. Downing, PhD, is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis: Planets in Peril, The Most Reluctant Convert, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis and Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. Downing has also written short fiction for Christianity Today and other periodicals.

Watch the trailer for Looking For The King:

• Visit www.LookingForTheKing.com for more information about the novel!

Related Ignatius Insight Articles:

Films That Tread Into Narnia | David C. Downing
Looking For An Inklings Adventure | An Interview with David C. Downing
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings Peter J. Kreeft
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Thomas Howard
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings | Various Articles and Columns
The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers
Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel
Fairy Tales Retold | An Interview with Regina Doman

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