A couple of months ago, I wrote an article concerning my mixed feelings about The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. I’m still mulling over how best to approach the project I mentioned at the end of that piece – writing a more contemporary version of Narnia – but I decided to write something more about the series, because over the past couple of days I’ve been watching the recent Disney adaptations of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on DVD, and I had some thoughts on them.
I remember when I first saw The Chronicles of Narnia in the cinema I enjoyed them all thoroughly. They were exciting, cleverly written, visually stunning, well acted and beautifully imagined. Andrew Adamson is an accomplished director, with such greats as the first two Shrek films under his belt, so it’s unsurprising that he should turn out three perfectly formed adaptions of the books. In fact, I remember liking them so much that when Skandar Keynes – the talented actor who plays Edmund with precocious confidence – joined my former college at Cambridge the year before last while I was doing my Masters there, I was so star-struck I didn’t corner him about the films, despite my long-time interest in the industry and in Narnia itself. I did, however, try to sell him a RAG Blind Date form one evening. But that, along with how I met Tilda Swinton’s nephew on the train from London to Cambridge, is a story for another time.
A couple of things stood out as being particularly memorable. Firstly, the casting in all three films was utterly inspired. James McAvoy cleverly combined in Tumnus the perfect measure of weakness and likeability; Georgie Henley’s Lucy was spot on whilst William Moseley looked (and sounded) as though he just stepped out of the books. Casting Spanish actors as the Telmarines was a point of genius, whilst avoiding casting ethnic minority actors as Calormenes in Dawn Treader was a disaster avoided. The sublime Peter Dinklage turned Trumpkin into a far more believable character than he was in the books – Lewis’ attempt to satirise sceptical academics in Trumpkin’s person jarred with his reputation as an accomplished warrior – while whoever asked Dawn French to give voice to Mrs Beaver deserves a knighthood. The next thing that really struck me was the music – Harry Gregson-Williams’ scores, with notable contributions from some of my favourite artists such as Alanis Morrisette and Imogen Heap were so good I was listening to them for months afterwards. And as a lover of “ordinary Narnia”, I really appreciated the artistic direction’s attention to detail in Narnian homes.
Like other reviewers, the one thing I found mildly disappointing, though, was how Adamson chose to make Prince Caspian into a war story. What worked so well with Wardrobe – telling the story as straight as any Hallmark movie – failed miserably as a strategy for approaching Caspian. This is odd, though, because Prince Caspian is, at heart, a war story – it is the tale of how a wronged prince fights to free his kingdom from tyranny. So why didn’t Adamson’s treatment do Prince Caspian justice, in the views of some?
I think the reason can be found in an amazing book I read on the Narnia series a couple of years ago – Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward. Ward puts forward the fascinating thesis that each book in the series reflects the traits of one of the planets in classical astrology. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, is a jovial book – that is to say, it is a book thematically aligned with the planet Jupiter. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with the heavy use of gold, the presence of many dragons and the suggestive use of the word “Dawn” in the title, is a book written in a solar vein. Prince Caspian, according to Ward, is Lewis’ treatment on Mars.
On one level, this seems to fit rather neatly with Adamson’s choice to portray Caspian as the Enemy at the Gates with fauns. Mars, after all, was the Roman god of war, so it only makes sense that his book (and its film) should be about warfare. However, a deeper understanding of Mars’ significance dispels such superficiality; Mars was not simply a god of slaughter, like the Greek war-god Ares, but rather a god of necessity. For the Ancient Romans, Mars was their go-to divinity in all situations where your life was on the line – not just in a fight, but in all the basic acts of living, from hunting to agriculture. Mars was syncretised with the woodland god Sylvanus, to become the embodiment of Nature – the realm of base needs. It is for good reason that victory in Prince Caspian is won by an army of trees – the trees are Mars’ people.
In this way, Mars is also connected with other gods who shared the woodland realm, and yet lack planetary influence – such as Baccus, who makes an appearance in the book, but not the film. Also through his syncretism with Sylvanus, Mars becomes a god of wild abandon and rusticity, first amongst the genius loci of the Tiber river valley; a world lamentably overcome by the cladding of civilisation as Rome (and Narnia) became progressively more civilised.
Ward’s observation – that Prince Caspian is a fully martial, rather than military, story – explains certain otherwise bizarre elements to the novel. The revival of Narnia’s genius loci in a Baccic romp; the fact that very little fighting actually takes place, except through proxies; the prevalence of trees – all of these elements become elegantly poignant when you apply the perspective suggested by Ward.
Adamson chose instead to flatten the complexity of Lewis’ martial vision, by focusing solely on the negative consequences of martial energies. In this way, the plot became a boys’ own war story – with the addition of several battle sequences, and a refocusing upon Peter and Caspian vying for power. Although this was a reasonable thing to have two brave young men doing, this same feature was largely absent from the book.
This reassessment of the martial themes within Prince Caspian extends into another sphere – the trope of necessity. They didn’t need to go down to Beruna, they didn’t need to attack Miraz’s castle, they didn’t need to wait so long before reaching out to Aslan – but they did so anyway. Unlike in the books, where it is insisted that everything is done because of direst need, Adamson bends the plot to incorporate even more profoundly unnecessary behaviour. Much of war, Adamson seems to be saying, is driven by the unnecessary vanity of boys, and of men playing games of power. This flatly contradicts Lewis’ own view on the subject; which in Prince Caspian at least seems to be that war is very much justified, so long as it is a matter of survival.
What’s illuminating about this is that Adamson is shown to have toed a much more faithfully Christian line here, than Lewis ever did. Jesus is a renowned pacifist, who would have had no truck with the martial call to arms in defence of life and limb. Adamson’s choice of bringing Lucy’s simple faith in Aslan to the fore, at the expense of the rampant animism of the original novel really hammers home the point that it is God, not ourselves, in whom we should trust to save the day. This is particularly evident in the disparity between the final few scenes of the film and what occurs in the books. While in the books Aslan roars once and for all to rouse the talking beasts, trees and rivers from their torpor, in the films he roars a number of times. This minor change shifted the tone of the animist assault upon the Telmarines considerably – rather than a reawakened landscape casting off the yoke of a foreign oppressor, the (few) walking trees and the river god seemed to be little more than anthropomorphic weapons, conjured by a singular Aslan who is very much in control of them.
In my view, though, Caspian is in no way a “bad” retelling of the original – in fact, I would say it makes a “better” Christian fantasy than the original. Prince Caspian – with its revived gods, astrological prophecies, personal landscape, and valorisation of the martial ethic of doing what you must to survive – is probably the most profoundly Pagan of all the Narnia books. By stripping out much of Lewis’ embellishments in favour of a more straightforward critique of war, Adamson has returned Prince Caspian to a far more evenly Christian keel.
However, the reason why people have criticised the film so much, and the reason why I can’t bring myself to watch it all the way through again, is that Lewis’ original is so much cleverer. The intricately woven dialogue between Pagan and Christian influences that so typifies Lewis’ writing was almost entirely abolished in this second instalment of the series, in favour of something far more simple and digestible for Midwestern moviegoers. But it still feels like a wasted opportunity.
I could criticise Adamson for this, but to be honest I’m loathed to do so – I think it’s a legitimate interpretation of the text (it is ultimately Aslan who saves the day, not Peter or Caspian), and it certainly doesn’t make The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian a bad film. A film does not need to brave in order to be well made, or enjoyable. But what this does remind me of is how, even if I want to give the Pagan side of Narnia greater emphasis – I can’t leave the Christian aspect out completely, without seriously impoverishing the source material.
Something to think about, at least.