The Defanging of Aslan
Prince Caspian: Vague Faith and Eye Candy in Narnia
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
May 18-24, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/13/08 at 12:28 PM
In the film’s trailer, a dwarf sums up what to expect from the new Narnia movie, which was scheduled to open May 16.
“You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember,” warns the dwarf Trumpkin in a trailer-ready line from this weekend’s new family adventure, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (see review, page B3).
Adapted by Walden/Disney from the second volume of C.S. Lewis’s beloved Narnia stories, Prince Caspian is the sequel to the 2005 blockbuster The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Ostensibly addressed to the returning protagonists from the first film, Trumpkin’s warning is also intended to alert viewers to expect a darker, more action-oriented movie than the original. (Both films are rated PG.) Meanwhile, Lewis fans — many of whom had mixed feelings about the first film — wonder how the new big-screen Narnia squares with what they remember from the book.
Speaking with the Register by phone from New York, Producer Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson and heir, discussed and defended the differences between the first film and the sequel — and between the book and the film.
Lewis “would understand and appreciate the changes we made and understand why we made them,” said Gresham, who calls Lewis “Jack.” “If I thought there was something there that Jack would disapprove of, I would try to stop it altogether.”
Changes? Unlike presidential candidates, the films’ producer, Mark Johnson, doesn’t even want to talk about change — at least when it comes to Narnia.
“I’ve produced a lot of movies based on books,” he said, speaking at a New York press event with other Narnia filmmakers. Citing titles from The Natural to The Notebook, Johnson said, “We made big changes in all of those in order to adapt them to film. It’s clear with The Chronicles of Narnia that you just can’t tamper with them that way. They’re too important to too many people. They are in many ways written almost filmicly. I think the themes and just the world of Narnia — you tamper with it, you make changes at your own risk.”
Is this spin? Well, yes. The fact is both films “tamper” with the books — Prince Caspian even more than the first film, in part because Caspian the book isn’t as “filmic” as its predecessor.
“The story is much more difficult to put in a film,” Gresham acknowledged. “But I do think we’ve made a better movie.”
As in the past, the filmmakers seem uncomfortable discussing one important dimension of the Narnia stories: their religious themes and underpinnings. “Obviously, you know, these stories have a lot of stuff about having faith in something bigger than yourself,” Barnes conceded.
Actor William Moseley, who portrays Peter in the films, likewise acknowledged that “there’s this thing about faith. I’m not trying to use the Christian allegory. But it’s really a big part of the story.”
Most open about his reservations in discussing Narnia’s religious significance was Peter Dinklage, who plays the skeptical Trumpkin. A self-described “lapsed Catholic,” Dinklage suggested that doubt rather than belief is in greater need today.
“I think it’s healthy to be skeptical,” Dinklage said. “I was raised going to Catholic church every Sunday, and I haven’t been in a long time. … I think at least in this country it’s been really stretched to limits that I disagree with, and that’s why my wall goes up a little bit in talking of this movie in terms of faith and Christianity, because I think that sort of labels it and I think it goes beyond that. Even atheists have a certain spiritual side.”
What about Aslan, the omnipotent lion who represents Christ in Lewis’s fantasy world?
Gresham insisted that the movie gets Aslan right.
Lewis would “probably be most pleased with our portrayal of Aslan,” Gresham said. “I think one of the things he always feared about Aslan in film or Aslan on television was that he would be some sort of cartoon, comic figure. And we’ve avoided that like the plague. We’ve produced an Aslan that has huge majesty and dignity and a great warmth of character. Yet at the same time he’s ‘not a tame lion.’ I think Jack would have appreciated that enormously.”
Yet the film makes slight edits in Aslan’s dialogue that subtly un-divinize him. For instance, Lewis has a seemingly larger Aslan tell Lucy, “I have not [grown]. … Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” In the film, the line is simply, “Every year you grow, so shall I.” (See my review for more.)
Asked about this, Gresham seemed caught off guard.
“I can’t really answer that — you’ve hit me with something that’s never crossed my mind before,” he said. “I didn’t make that distinction.”
Noting that Aslan assumes various shapes and sizes throughout the series, Gresham mused, “I never really considered his size as really of very much importance. … I think you’re probably digging a little too deep and discovering gems that probably aren’t there.”
A far more serious revision, the omission of Trumpkin’s disbelief in Aslan’s existence, was also downplayed by Gresham. “Whether [Trumpkin] believes that [Aslan] ever existed at all or not I don’t think is important one way or the other. It’s just that he doesn’t really have any credence that this is going to help.”
Gresham’s readings seem unlikely to be persuasive to many careful readers of Lewis. Trumpkin’s disbelief in Aslan’s existence evokes post-Enlightenment skepticism; Aslan’s exchange with Lucy profoundly evokes the mystery of God, changeless in itself, looming larger with our growing capacity to appreciate it. Of course these edits matter.
What does the future hold for big-screen Narnia adventures?
According to Johnson, “Right now we have no plans to go beyond The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” currently set for a 2010 release. “There are seven books, and luckily, with your support, if these films continue to do well artistically and commercially, we will keep making them. … I’d like to definitely do The Silver Chair after that.”
That may require Dawn Treader to be considerably more artistically successful than Caspian. In the Narnia canon, Caspian is a relatively minor work, but Dawn Treader is one of the major favorites. A disappointing Caspian might not ruin the franchise, but a disappointing Dawn Treader probably would. If Dawn Treader shows no more sensitivity than Caspian to Lewis’s themes and ideas, many Lewis fans may give up on the series for good.
The good news is that two-time director Andrew Adamson and his screenwriting team are moving on, leaving Dawn Treader in the hands of director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight, who previously collaborated on Walden’s Amazing Grace.
Apted and Knight might take the series in a bold new direction — or they might continue the course charted by Adamson and company.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
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