by Devin Brown
“It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.”
These words—written by J. R. R. Tolkien in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings—remind us that when it comes to individual preferences, there is no pleasing (or displeasing) everyone. What one person really likes, another will insist was a flaw. As evidence of this fact, we might look at the fourth essay in the recent critical anthology Through the Wardrobe, where the author finds fault with the names Lewis gave to Reepicheep and Peepicheek, names which the rest of the world finds irresistible.
Certainly most Lewis fans have a list of things they would have done differently if they had been brought on as a consultant for the first two Narnia films, and I am no exception. And I am firm believer that a film adaptation cannot be (or at least should not be) just anything the filmmakers want it to be. But is it possible to get beyond mere statements of preference—where one person finds a blemish and another expresses approval, statements which have a way of being uttered as if they were absolute truth? (“Opening with the bombing of London was a total mistake.” “The bombing scene was a brilliant way to begin the film.”)
One way to do this might be to distinguish between thematic changes—Do the films say what the books say?—and cinematic changes, changes made in order to adapt a book to a different medium.
The greatest of these cinematic changes in the film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has to do with the quest to find the seven lords who were exiled by the evil King Miraz, a mission which Lewis completes in chapter thirteen when the final three lords are found asleep at Aslan’s Table where they had threatened violence to each other there. Lewis has Caspian haltingly suggest, “I think our quest is at an end.” This scene works well on the page but is not exactly the makings of a great cinematic climax. It has certainly never been on anyone’s Top 100 Most Dramatic Moments in Narnia.
In Lewis’s original, only four of the lost lords return home in the end: the three quarrelers and Lord Rhoop who is broken and half-mad from his ordeal at Dark Island. Lord Bern, the only one of the seven who might have made much of a contribution back in Narnia, decides to stay in the Lone Islands because he has married a girl there. These details, told in summary on the final page, fit in well with other loose ends Lewis ties up, but again are not exactly the makings of a great cinematic finale.
In addition, Lewis gave The Voyage of the Dawn Treader an episodic structure composed of a series of independent adventures. Each episode—from the run-in with the slavers to the near escape on Deathwater Island to the encounter with the Dufflepuds—is largely self-contained, like beads on a string. While this makes for terrific reading because we can finish an entire adventure each night before going to bed, it lacks the three-act structure which today’s two-hour films are based on. Since audiences will watch the film all in one sitting rather than seeing a bit each night, the filmmakers have made it somewhat less of a series of separate adventures and given it more of an overall rise and fall. This was done by adding a quest for the seven swords these lost lords were given.
But does the film say what the book says? The best way to answer this is to turn to the book’s central characters: Lucy, Edmund, Caspian, Reepicheep, and Eustace. Their film counterparts convey every bit of spiritual truth that Lewis’s original did—messages about courage, sacrifice, temptation, steadfastness, envy, pride, real beauty, real friendship, duty, and our eternal destiny. About these vitally important topics, the film tells us just what the book tells us.
Visually the film is breathtaking and does justice to Lewis’s great imagination—which is saying a lot. The wonderful ship alone is reason enough to see the movie. Audiences will love the film versions of Lucy, Reepicheep, and Eustace (as boy and as dragon) as much as they do Lewis’s originals—and this is really saying a lot. An entire essay could be devoted to the extraordinary way that these three beloved characters—the real highlights of the third Narnia book—have been brought to life and developed in the film.
What about some of my personal preferences? Do I think Eustace’s undragoning should have seemed a little more painful? Yes. In the book Eustace tells Edmund, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.” People who have undergone a fundamental transformation in their life, and Lewis was one of them, know that the process of dying to old ways can be agonizing. Having said this, it should be noted that if Eustace’s transformation back into a boy had been shown on screen in the same way it was told about in the book, the film would have been too intense for young audiences and a PG rating. That’s how these things work.
Do I think the quest to lay the seven swords on Aslan’s Table—the cinematic change added to give more unity to the episodic stops the crew makes—should have seemed a little less arbitrary? Again, yes. But this may be something that is not as important to young audiences.
In both these instances the film could have more powerfully said what the book said. But these are differences in degree not in kind. Is the film as good as the book? In my mind, only The Wizard of Oz can undisputedly make this claim. One thing undisputable about the film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is that it will lead many young people to read the book who never would have otherwise—kids who would never have set a foot in a library or Sunday school class. And in today’s culture, anyone would agree that this is a great achievement.
Three final thoughts to keep in mind during discussions about the third film which are bound to take place (or about anything when personal preferences mean that people are going to disagree).
First, even Lewis and Tolkien disagreed on a number of aspects of each other’s writing. In a letter to Tolkien after having read the finished manuscript of The Lord of the Rings—which he overwhelmingly approved of—Lewis went on to note: “There are many passages I could wish you had written otherwise or omitted altogether.” For his part Tolkien objected to the presence of Father Christmas in Narnia. Readers everywhere rejoice that Lewis did not follow his advice. It would have been a poorer world without Mr. Tumnus’s line that in Narnia it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
Secondly, here is a post which an ardent Tolkien fan made after the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring came out, a fan who did not make my distinction between a thematic change and a cinematic change: “The film must be judged SOLELY by a standard of absolute fidelity to the book, any deviation whatsoever constituting conclusive proof the very creation of the film was indefensible. No, I don't expect to get through to you. But I'm RIGHT.” This is probably not how you want to sound.
Finally, here is the short poem which Tolkien wrote about individual taste and the widely varying responses his work evoked, depending on whether it matched or did not match the personal preferences of his critics:
The Lord of the Rings
Is one of those things:
If you like you do:
If you don’t, then you boo!
I liked the new film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader very much. It is exceedingly moving at times and also at times very funny. It has kept all that was essential to Lewis’s original while still opening up the story to be adapted to a different medium. I am convinced that Lewis fans—young and old, new and longtime—are going to like it very much as well. As one of the countless readers who have been comforted, inspired, and challenged by Lewis over the years, I would like to offer my congratulations and my thanks.
I heartily encourage you to see the film and afterwards to add your own thoughts in a comment here. This forum is a great place for the kind of lively “hammer and tongs” discussion that Lewis and his friends loved.
— Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a course on C. S. Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).