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

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!

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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