Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dawn Treader

I got around to watching Dawn Treader last night. Reviews led me to believe that while the film was not a fully successful adaptation of the novel, that it was a great improvement over the second installment, and a reasonably faithful adaptation of the original. However, I pretty thoroughly dislike the film.

But before commenting on the film, I’ll say a couple of things about the novel. A children’s novel is a bit of a paradox. A children’s novel is ostensibly told from a child’s viewpoint. It operates at a child’s level. But, of course, most children’s stories are written for children, not by children. At best, this reflects the attempt of an adult author to project himself into the mindset of a child. The adult may be drawing on memories of his own childhood. And the adult may have kids of his own who enable him to rediscover his own childhood. But there’s still a sense in which a children’s novel is really written from the perspective of an adult.

There’s also a point of tension in the original novel. On the one hand, the primary appeal of the novel lies in the plot device of a journey. The literal motion of the journey creates dramatic momentum and linear continuity. Discovering strange new worlds in the enchanted land of Narnia and beyond. This is augmented by the oceanic cruise. So you have that wide-open feeling, with the sun, sky, wind, and waves. Very bracing and liberating.

On the other hand, Lewis wanted to work into this plot device a redemptive subplot involving Eustace. But while that might be admirable in its own right, it distracts and detracts from the primal appeal of the oceanic voyage.

The only good things about the film are the dragonesque ship and the computer enhanced seascape, with its Turneresque sunsets. Well, there’s also a picturesque scene involving magical snow.

The role of Aslan is pared down from the original. In the film, he’s a Yoda-like figure, spouting Kung-Fu aphorisms. Mind you, I never cared that much for the character of Aslan. A talking lion isn’t the way I relate to Christ.

The restoration of Eustace is glossed over in the film. Here I can’t blame the filmmakers. In a kid flick, I wouldn’t expect them to depict Aslan skinning the dragon alive, then tossing a naked boy into a healing pool. That’s one of those things that works better on paper. The less you see the better.

In the novel, Lucy has a chance, using the Book of Spells, to overhear what a classmate said about her. Lewis uses this to expound on the dangers of gossip.

In the film, this is changed. Lucy now wants to look like her pretty, popular, older sister Susan.

I think that’s a psychologically valid alternative to Lewis, but it’s no improvement over Lewis. And it suffers from two additional liabilities:

Who’s the target audience for the film? Much of the film operates at the level of a Disney kid flick. But if that’s the target audience, then intruding the notion of sex appeal is off-the-mark. Is this a kid flick or a teen drama? It can’t be both.

Moreover, Lucy’s desire to be appealing to boys is treated as a wicked transgression. But surely that’s a natural, normal hankering for a girl her age.

This in turn leads to a jarring scene where Lucy walks straight out of the world of Narnia into the “real world,” where she’s dressed like a movie star from the 40s, with Swing music in the background.

But it’s hard for the viewer to mentally readjust to the world of Narnia after that meticulously fostered cinematic illusion was just exploded. The reentry is too abrupt.

The novel does more with the evocative notion of live, meteoric stars. That’s given short shrift in the film.

The film interpolates the notion that Jadis is still a temptress to Edmund. But that’s both dramatically gratuitous and dramatically implausible.

There’s also a subplot about restoring lost slaves, with the ubiquitous tearful reunion. This clutters the emotional rhythm of the original story, where fulfillment is structured into the physical quest for the “utter East.” The landscape does the work.  

Then there’s the Dark Island. In Lewis, this is a living nightmare. Where dreams come true. That’s something you can’t control. Once you’re sucked into that world, you can’t retrace your steps. You never find the way back to reality. You just go from one scene to another in your episodic nightmare.

In the novel, the ship tries to paddle away, but it’s overtaken by the delusive power the Dark Island. Each sailor is about to be enveloped by his private dreamscape, which isolates him from every other sailor. Unless Aslan intervenes, they will be lost in the labyrinth of their own fervid minds.

But in this film this is eclipsed by a battle with a sea monster. Here the novel was far superior.

Yet the worst is yet to come. Lewis clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the final two chapters of the novel. It’s carefully, steadily paced to build to a sublime conclusion. The rising sun is larger and brighter every day. The seawater becomes liquid sunshine, restoring one’s youth. There’s a mood of stillness and solemnity. Tremulous anticipation. You also have the scented water lilies. Songbirds with human voices.  And the musical breeze. It’s my impression that the final chapter also contains an allusion to the epilogue of John’s Gospel.

Lewis is striving to create a cumulative effect by many brushstrokes. For the film to have the same impact, it has to reproduce, as much as possible, as best as possible, the totality.

As I visualize his geography, the Silver Sea terminates in a standing wave. That’s the last wave.

Normally, there is no last wave. You have a succession of waves breaking on the shore. But Lewis wants to explore the paradox of a last wave.

Over the last wave, as I visualize his geography, is a narrow coastal plain, wedged between the standing wave and the edge of the sky.

Behind the sky, beyond the world of Narnia, is Aslan’s country. A high mountain chain.

Somewhere in-between is where the sun rises. This is one point where the novel’s logistics are fuzzy, or perhaps incoherent. Is the sun in front of the sky? In that case it would rise and set on the coastal plain behind the wave.

But that doesn’t quite work, for in that event the sun wouldn’t rise in the East everyday. Rather, it would alternate from East to West, and vice versa.

So perhaps the sun is behind the sky, and passes under the flat earth during the night. Yet the sky seems to form the barrier between the Narnian world and Aslan’s country, which lies outside the world of Narnia. But the sun is part of the Narnian world. So the sun ought to be inside the glass dome, not outside the glass dome. Within Narnia, not between Narnia and Aslan’s country.

I also assume that, in the novel, it’s not possible to walk straight into Aslan’s country from Narnia. For the glassy sky forms a wall. There would have to be a door, maybe with a sentinel or porter, to guard the entrance and allow qualified wayfarers to pass through.

From what I can tell, Lewis is having to fudge the details of his flat-earth cosmography. And I can understand if that created a problem for the director.

Still, the final chapters were quite important to Lewis. I think it represents his effort to depict sehnsucht.

In the novel, you can see the sun through the wave at dawn. And due to the lighting conditions at dawn, you can see past the sun into Aslan’s land. After the sun has risen, the world behind the world fades from view.

It’s certainly possible for CGI to capture this effect. And it represents a serious artistic failure on the part of the director not to honor the vision of Lewis at this climatic juncture. It weakens the dramatic impact of the film. An epic adventure with an anticlimactic ending. 

In the film, we don’t have a final wave that comes to a halt at the shoreline. Instead, you have a narrow beach, with the sea on one side, and the standing wave on the other. This makes no sense, even in terms of Narnian cosmography. And in the film, they never get a glimpse of Aslan’s country.

Then, in the novel, after Reepicheep goes over the wave, Lucy and Edmund walk along the shallows until they reach a strip of beach, with a narrow coastal plane between the beach and the end of the world, where the sky comes down to ground level.

Once again, I think the directions are vague and probably incoherent at this point. I don’t visualize how Lewis can simultaneously make Lucy and Edmund walk away from the wave, walk to the beach, then walk to the edge of the world–above the beach. Seems to be it would all be connected. The standing wave would be conterminous with the coastline. And you’d have the same coastal plain behind the wave. So I suspect this is another point at which Lewis is fudging on the logistics of his world.

Nevertheless, he wants to have fun with the notion of what it might be like if the world were flat, so that you could walk to the edge of the world. The optics of a flat-earth cosmography.

And it’s a pity that the director can’t bring himself to play along with the imaginative experiment. For the moviegoer would also enjoy that illusion.

What the movie gives us, instead, is a rushed, butchered version of the novel’s culminating scenes. That’s a lost opportunity. A botched opportunity. They had the chance to do something truly great, but settled for so much less.

What in Lewis is unforgettable is scarcely even memorable in the film. However, you can always read the novel.


  1. So: you didn't much like the book, and you don't much like the film.


  2. DJP said:

    So: you didn't much like the book...

    Oh, I don't know that Steve said or implied that, did he? I mean I didn't get that, although I could be wrong.

    Anyway, I think one can quite like a book, yet also be critical of it at the same time.

  3. DJP wrote: So: you didn't much like the book,

    Steve wrote :What the movie gives us, instead, is a rushed, butchered version of the novel’s culminating scenes. That’s a lost opportunity. A botched opportunity. They had the chance to do something truly great, but settled for so much less.

    What in Lewis is unforgettable is scarcely even memorable in the film. However, you can always read the novel.

  4. I do like the book. It's my favorite book in the series. I dislike the movie because it departs from the book (to the detriment of the movie).

  5. Such a quibble. Should I have said "books"?

    Quote: "Mind you, I never cared that much for the character of Aslan."

    So, someone says, "I never cared that much for the character of Robin Hood," and it's too great a leap to say he "didn't much like the book" by the same name?

    And also to complain that you don't care for Aslan, and dislike that he doesn't turn up more, properly portrayed, in the movie?

    Yeah, well, if you're still going to say this is all off the mark of your review, then I clearly don't get your review. Which happens.

  6. Oh come on DJP, there are plenty of books and movies that I like, even if I don't care for a particular part of them. It's very rare that you will agree with an author about every literary decision or character. I love the Harry Potter books but loath the house-elves. What's inconsistent about that?

  7. Aslan is a largely off-stage character in most of the novels. As you know, he generally makes cameo appearances at strategic points.

    So, yes, I can enjoy many things about the novel even though I don’t care much for Aslan. And I can find the cinematic version even less satisfactory.

    More generally, I don’t take an all-or-nothing approach to novels or movies. What Lewis does well, he does very well.

    I can point out technical flaws and social deficiencies in Lewis without panning him in toto, or anything close.

    A flawed masterpiece is greater than a flawless mediocrity. Even an artistic failure may be far superior to something well-crafted, but banal if it reflects the failure of a brilliant, original artist.

    The novel has many unique gems which the director never translated into film. That's a pity.

  8. I noticed many of the same flaws as you did when I saw the film myself in upconverted 3-D form. The visuals are pretty good, and that sea monster is the bomb. The problems you mention still remain, however, and the whole changing of the nightmare realm into this cloud of mist was just dumb. The sea monster didn't even appear in the nightmare realm, and Eustace wasn't a dragon then either.

    However, I do think Edmund seeing the White Witch in his nightmare was appropriate. It makes sense that the witch would be the thing he feared most, and I think Lewis himself wanted to make her character appear at least once more at some point and just never found a way to do it.

    I'm still waiting for them to make an adaptation of The Magician's Nephew.

  9. Steve: okey doke.

    Um, JD? HP isn't about house-elves. See? Is difference. < /Zathras>