Most viewers assume that The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader",
premiering this Friday, December 10, is the third adaptation of a Narnia book for the
screen, after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince
Caspian (2008). But actually this film is the eighth attempt to present Narnia on screen, if you count
earlier film forays (or rather video voyages) into Narnia.
When Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was first published in 1936, it took only three years
for the novel to be turned into a major motion picture—the classic 1939
movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. By contrast, the first of C. S.
Lewis's children's classics, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, appeared in 1950, and it took 55 years for that story
to reach the big screen in 2005. It might have taken even longer than that if
not for the tireless, nearly lifelong efforts of Lewis's stepson, Douglas
There are several reasons it took so long for the books to
be adapted into films. Lewis himself considered the cinema an ugly art form,
"disagreeable to the eye—crowded, unrestful, inharmonious." He wondered
if the main reason people went to movie theaters was to keep warm on a cold,
damp night. (Collected Letters 3, 105). Lewis was also strongly opposed to the
idea of live-action film versions of the Narnia stories. He thought that
stories about talking animals could be charming in imagination, but that they
turned into "buffoonery or nightmare" when enacted by people in costumes. He felt
that a human actor in a lion suit trying to portray Aslan would amount to
nothing less than "blasphemy." (Shades of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of
Oz!) Lewis was open to the possibility of animated adaptations of his Narnia
books, but he regretted that Walt Disney's films so often mixed "genius" with "vulgarity"
(CL 3, 1111).
Given Lewis's serious reservations about trying to adapt his
stories for movies or television, it is not surprising that no one attempted to
do so during his lifetime. Only four years after his death in 1963, however,
there was a 10-part serialization of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aired on British commercial television (ITV). This
series has not survived, but its use of live actors on a stage set would
probably not have pleased the creator of Narnia. In 1978, an animated version
of the first Narnia story was aired on British television. This adaptation has
a certain charm, particularly in its voices and sound effects, but its crude
animation technique and simple dialog suggest that it was aimed mainly at small
children. For contemporary viewers, this version may make it seem as if Charlie
Brown and his friends from "Peanuts" have somehow gotten into Narnia instead of
the Pevensies. (Come to think of it, one of the main "Peanuts" characters is
The BBC launched a more ambitious three-part series from
1988-90, offering adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian/Voyage of the "Dawn
Treader" (two books combined into one
story), and The Silver Chair. These
episodes are worth watching, as they stick closely to the storyline of the
books, and they showcase surprisingly talented children as Peter, Susan,
Edmund, and Lucy. Just as Lewis had feared, however, the fantasy characters in
the story seriously undermine the verisimilitude of the story. Aslan appears as
a giant stuffed animal, somewhat out of focus. And when the Green Lady in The
Silver Chair turns into a writhing serpent,
she looks less like a terrifying monster than like a garden hose on steroids.
Just as Lewis had predicted, the talking animals and other fantasy characters
in the BBC series may not elicit awe or terror as intended, but may elicit
instead giggles and guffaws.
Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, now 65, spent most of his
adult life trying to find a suitable script and production company to adapt the
Narnia stories for the big screen. This has been no easy task, as the
prevailing wisdom in Hollywood for many years was that 1) American audiences
didn't want to watch the adventures of British children; 2) Fantasy stories
should be animated, not shot with live actors; and 3) Stories with explicit
Christian overtones could not reach a mass audience. In the short space of
three years, all of these Hollywood truisms were refuted—shattered
actually--by the enormous worldwide successes of the Harry Potter films,
beginning in 2001, then Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy
(2001-2003), and finally by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004).
During those years, Mr. Gresham began to see doors opening
for his dream of making the Narnia Chronicles into films that would do his
stepfather proud. In a radio interview with me, Gresham confided that he had to
wade through mountains of scripts and talk to just about every studio in
Hollywood before the present Narnia series began to take shape. He was actually
sent a film treatment in which the Pevensie children were portrayed as American
siblings who had to leave Los Angeles because of an earthquake. In this
proposed adaptation, the White Witch was to be played by none other than Janet
Jackson! (If that version had ever been made, it might have been dubbed "The
Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Malfunction.")
The current series of Narnia films was finally inaugurated
in 2005, when The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the
Wardrobe was released by Walden Media and
Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame), the film opened to generally positive reviews,
and, including DVD sales, it has grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. The
sequel, Prince Caspian (2008),
also directed by Adamson, was a darker, more action-oriented film. Though it
also received generally positive reviews, the film grossed less than a third of
its predecessor and was not deemed a commercial success in U.S. markets. This
may not be entirely surprising, as C. S. Lewis's book, Prince
Caspian, is the least popular of the seven
tales in terms of individual sales. It has an unusual plot structure, with the
whole middle of the book being told as a flashback, and its ending, the long
celebration after the victory of Aslan and his followers, is considered by many
readers to be anticlimactic.
By contrast, many Narnia fans rate The Voyage of the
"Dawn Treader" as one of their favorites of
the seven tales, if not the favorite.
The advance reviews of the film version have generally been enthusiastic, so
Mr. Gresham and his associates have reason to be optimistic. Of course, only
after the reviews and the audiences come out this weekend (and keep coming out)
will the film's producers know whether the Narnia stories will continue to find
the big screen embodiments that Mr. Gresham has been dreaming about almost
since he was a child himself.
Watch the Official Trailer for The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":
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.
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