A few weeks ago, I reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 from the perspective of someone who hadn’t read the book and found the film confusing. A few days ago I reviewed The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a lover of the book who not only grew up with it but has read it aloud countless times to my children.
Despite my very different experiences of these two films and my very different relationships with their source material, my guiding principle in both cases is the same:
The filmmakers’ job is to make a good film that can be judged on its own. The book may be a useful point of comparison, but is not the standard by which the film is judged. Seeing six Harry Potter movies should be enough preparation for watching the seventh — it shouldn’t be necessary to read over a million words of Harry’s written adventures as well. Likewise, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader stands or falls as a film, not by how closely it adheres to the book, much as I love it.
That said, for fans, the book remains a key point of comparison, and how the film relates to the source material is still an important question. How does The Voyage of the Dawn Treader compare to its source material?
In some respects, the film covers much of the same ground as the book.
C.S. Lewis scholar Devin Brown, whose Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the best book on Narnia I’ve ever read, said in a phone interview, “The movie tells us what the book tells us about temptation, courage, sacrifice. What true beauty is, for example, in Lucy’s case. About pride.”
Thankfully, the portrayal of Aslan is without any of the diminishing or un-divinizing touches that affected the earlier films. The movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gave Aslan a line about how the Deep Magic “governs all our destinies — yours and mine.” In Prince Caspian, a line from the book was subtly altered so that instead of telling Lucy that he had not grown but her perception of him had, Aslan suggested that both he and Lucy were growing.
Those were lines Lewis never would have written.
Nothing of the sort crops up in the Dawn Treader film. In fact, the film retains Aslan’s most explicitly Christological speech word for word: Aslan tells Lucy that he is in our world, but “there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
For Walden Media co-founder and president Micheal Flaherty, to whom I also spoke by phone, that speech was essential. “If we were to change a single word of Aslan’s speech on the beach at the end,” he said, “it would have been a completely different movie.”
Not everything about that climactic scene was equally sacrosanct. In Lewis’ book, drawing on Johannine imagery, Aslan is depicted as a lamb who turns into a lion, and there is a breakfast of roasted fish on the beach. “Sometimes it might have worked on the page and it’s really tough to do on the screen,” Flaherty said. “I think a lamb frying fish is quite a head-scratcher.”
As for Aslan voice actor Liam Neeson’s recent comments about Aslan symbolizing not only Jesus but also Muhammad and Buddha, Flaherty was ready for that question.
“I go to my pastor for words on how to unpack the religious meaning of things,” he said. “I go to a literature professor to explain literature. I’ve never gone to an actor to interpret literature or religious meaning. We hired Liam not because he has a degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but because he’s one of the best actors on the planet, and he would give Aslan the best possible voice. The most important thing is not what comes out of Liam’s mouth at a press conference — it’s what comes out of his mouth when he’s speaking as Aslan up on the screen.”
Treading the Dawn
Still, elements in Lewis’ creative vision have fallen by the wayside. Among the most notable is the role of the sun and the east in Lewis’ tale. The Narnian world is not a globe, but a flat land with an eastern edge that you can sail to. Beyond the eastern edge, beyond the orbit of the rising sun, is Aslan’s country. As the characters approach the utter east, the sun appears larger and larger —two or three times its normal size — and becomes blinding to look at, until drinking from the sweet (non-salt) water of the last ocean strengthens their eyes so they can gaze steadily at the giant sun without blinking.
“The Dawn Treader treads the dawn,” Brown said when I asked him about this motif in the book. “As the ship comes up in the east, the ship sails over its reflection toward the utter east. I don’t know if people know this, but churches are oriented toward the east — old traditional ones. And I think Lewis was trying to suggest our longing for something beyond this world. There’s a famous line in Mere Christianity where Lewis says: If I have a desire in myself which nothing in this world can satisfy, it seems, to me, evidence that I was made for another world. And certainly Reepicheep has that desire to the greatest extent. And it lies there in the utter east, in a world he was actually made for.”
In the movie, the voyage to the world’s edge and Aslan’s country remains — but without the solar and eastern imagery. The Dawn Treader no longer treads the dawn; in the entire film, I believe, there’s not one shot of the ship sailing toward the dawn or with the sun setting at its bow. For much of the film the sun tends to be off the starboard bow, i.e., in what would be the south, if they were sailing east. I’m pretty sure as they approach the Lone Islands at dusk we see them sailing into the sunset, i.e., due west. For part of the film the ship follows a blue star, but never the sun.
Even references to the east are almost entirely lacking; other than a line of dialogue from Reepicheep and possibly a map or two, there’s no indication what direction the Dawn Treader is sailing. I doubt if one viewer in 20 would be able to say in what direction the Dawn Treader was sailing, unless he knew the book.
Asked about this, Flaherty acknowledged, “That’s a really interesting point. Narnia has an interesting geography: The world is flat. And there is something beckoning about the utter east. That would have been a good shot. … That’s an interesting point.”
But when I put the question to Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis’ stepson, who is involved in the Lewis estate and is a producer on the Narnia films, he said bluntly, “I don’t think that’s the least bit important, to be honest. That they sail eastward, in Narnia? A flat world, theoretically? I don’t think it is, no.”
Gresham’s dismissiveness may seem startling, but it’s not the first time I’ve gotten such a response from him. When Prince Caspian was released, I asked Gresham about that line change mentioned above, in which Aslan suggests to Lucy that he too is growing, instead of saying that he is not but her perception of him is growing.
When I asked Brown about that line change, he acknowledged that the language in Lewis is significant, but suggested that the movie version was open to interpretation. “I think there’s a possible meaningful difference,” he conceded. “I understand people’s point there. If they’d asked you or me, we would have kept the original line, wouldn’t we?”
Gresham, though, professed not to see the significance in Lewis’ original choice of words. “I never really considered his size as really of very much importance, except with the fun we could have with it on the screen,” he told me at the time. “I think you’re probably digging a little too deep and discovering gems that probably aren’t there.”
Are the gems there or not? If they are, Gresham might be a bit like the landowner in Jesus’ parable who sells a field unaware of the hidden treasure buried in it — but not, in this case, to a buyer more interested in the treasure.
To my way of thinking, leaving the sun out of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader isn’t entirely unlike leaving Beatrice out of The Divine Comedy. The ultimate destination may be the same, but without that guiding light, it’s not the same journey.
More pointedly, it’s a little like scant attention in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to winter yielding to spring — a major motif in the book. These images are the mythic hooks on which Lewis hung his deeper meanings: Winter yielding to spring symbolizes redemption and resurrection, and journeying toward the sun symbolizes journeying toward heaven, toward God. The movies go through the motions of Lewis’ plots, but overlook the mythic imagery that embodies his meaning.
Dragoning and Undragoning
Another crucial motif has to do with Eustace’s transformation into a dragon and his subsequent undragoning, a double transformation that reveals both Eustace’s selfish, fallen nature and the transforming power of grace.
Some of the movie’s adjustments are for dramatic reasons: The movie omits the old dragon as well as Eustace’s first-person experience of waking up as a dragon, which would be hard to convey without voice-over narration. More significantly, it defers Eustace’s undragoning until late in the third act, giving it more climactic force.
The undragoning of Eustace, an image of redemption, was another make-or-break scene for Flaherty. “Fail with that scene,” he said wryly, “and here come the pitchforks.”
It’s not hard to see how the scene could have gone wrong. Once the idea of leaving Eustace as a dragon was proposed, Flaherty said, “The next thing is, well, if he’s a dragon, then he’s got to fight the sea serpent, because that would look really cool. But if he fights the sea serpent and then gets undragoned, that defeats the entire message of grace being given to him. It’s going to seem as if he earned it.”
The movie avoids this trap, making it clear that Eustace’s transformation into a boy is clearly Aslan’s gift to Eustace, and something he couldn’t accomplish on his own.
Still, the scene presented challenges to the filmmakers. In Lewis, the dragon tries to scratch off its dragon skin, but there are always new scales beneath. Then Aslan tears away at the dragon flesh with his claws and plunges Eustace into a well from which he emerges, boyhood restored.
The image of Aslan tearing away at Eustace’s dragon flesh posed obvious difficulties for filmmakers aiming at a PG rating, and I understand why they went a different route — though I’m less than satisfied with the film’s solution, which I don’t think is as powerful as it ought to be. Part of the problem is that not only does Eustace never speak (since he’s not a talking dragon), neither does Aslan, which makes the encounter a bit impersonal.
Less clear is why the filmmakers chose to omit Eustace’s immersion in water, with its sacramental symbolism. “You’re right to say it’s baptismal imagery,” Brown confirmed. “Baptism captures a death, dying to old self, as St. Paul says, and rising to walk in newness of life. So that imagery’s there in the book, and we don’t have that in the movie.”
Flaherty also acknowledged that it was a missed opportunity. “Yeah, and you know, the water was right there,” he mused. “There was an idea that when Aslan roars, that knocks him back into the water, and there was a good case to make for that artistically. … You’re hitting on a key discussion point that went on for many a day.”
Even Gresham acknowledged, “We can’t do everything; we can’t get everything right.” But he also added, “I don’t think in today’s world baptism imagery would be understood by many people.”
That’s exactly the opposite of how Lewis thought. Lewis used imagery not primarily for readers who already understood its theological underpinnings, but precisely for those who didn’t. He wanted to “baptize the imagination,” to provide readers with an imaginative vocabulary that might someday help them make sense of the Christian worldview. Gresham’s suggestion that Lewis’ images might be dispensed with on the grounds that they wouldn’t be “understood” suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of Lewis’ whole program.
Reepicheep and Eustace
Not all of the changes diminish the story. In some cases, they enhance it, or at least make it more cinematic. I very much like the way the movie alters Reepicheep’s challenge to Eustace, which unlike the book, leads to an actual duel — with Reepicheep shouting instructions and encouraging Eustace, in essence, to man up. Though the scene ends with comeuppance, there is also a grace note and even a shy smile from Eustace.
“No one has ever taken this kind of interest in Eustace,” Flaherty commented. “Reepicheep holds him accountable. This is a kid who probably, for all his years in Cambridge, did whatever he wanted. Reepicheep is probably the first person to ever call him on it: ‘Look, we have rules! You can’t do that. There are consequences for that kind of behavior.’ At the same time, it’s a kind of tough love: ‘Okay, that’s done; we’ll put that behind us. I see potential in you.’ And that little smile — that’s the first smile we get from Eustace.”
Reepicheep’s final moments are also worth noting. His final speech to Aslan exemplifies the longing for a world beyond this world that Brown talked about, and his final act with his sword is striking — particularly, yes, if you know the character from the book. And the chastened, redeemed Eustace of the film’s final moments credibly completes the character’s arc. Would I like to see this Eustace go on to The Silver Chair? Yes, I would.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at Decent Films.
He also blogs at NCRegister.com.