Monday, April 2, 2012

Book vs. Movie: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Many forces shape the life of a child. It's easy to generalize and make statements that don't take into account all that has been at work. I use to think parenting advice could be laid out quite simply, but I've learned life is a bit more complicated. And even though there are some basic truths that must be understood and taken into account, no parent is an island, no child is an island, and there are lots of variables that come into play in our development.

I ponder this reality as I look back over 18 years with our firstborn and 16 with our second. In this post, I don't intend to try to discuss the shaping forces, but as I share a paper our 16-year-old wrote this week for an online AP English course, I am brought to pause and ponder some of those forces that have affected her development into a careful, thoughtful, perceptive, and considerate human being.

As I enjoy her blossoming individuality and her contribution to The Great Conversation, there is a long list of people and numerous resources for which I am deeply grateful and to which I am deeply indebted.

In this paper, Rachelle shows the contrast between the C. S. Lewis book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the movie by the same name. (I've removed her footnotes and bibliography.)


A Sea Change: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Reinvented

            On viewing a film version of the work of a fellow novelist, C. S. Lewis stated, “It would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.”[1] Ironically, Lewis’s own writings are now being produced as films and drastically changed. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the recent movie adaptation of the third volume of his Chronicles of Narnia, disappointed Lewis readers who had hoped for a film loyal to the book. While the movie is nominally based on Lewis’s seafaring tale, the themes and the portrayal of the characters Aslan, Reepicheep, and Lucy in the film The Voyage of the Dawn Treader drift a lamentable distance from the Christian messages weaved through Lewis’s story.

            The irreversible death of the White Witch, unquestioned in Lewis’s book, becomes ambiguous in the movie. By repeatedly reintroducing the White Witch, the film denies the fundamental truth that Aslan destroyed the evil Jadis. Appearing as a mist to Edmund in the film, Jadis tells him, “You can never kill me. I’ll always be alive in your mind.”[2] Unfortunately, in doubting Jadis’s death, the film also doubts Aslan’s power; if the White Witch remains in existence, even as a ghost, after Aslan has striven to annihilate her, then Aslan fails. Through the regrettable revival of the White Witch’s spirit in the movie The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the filmmakers fracture the story by discrediting Aslan’s essential power.

            The movie also weakens Lewis’s Aslan by pushing him behind the scenes and positioning magic and earthly power at center stage, a shift in focus evidenced conspicuously by two particular lines from the film. In the movie, as the crew of the Dawn Treader leaves the Lone Islands, Lord Bern gives the company his sword, one of the seven swords the travelers are seeking, and says, “May it protect you.”[3] Near the end of the film, after King Caspian delivers a brief speech to his men, everyone cries, “For Narnia!”[4] and the crew plunges into the ominous Dark Island. However, in the book, swords cannot guard the travelers from evil, but Aslan can and does. In addition, rather than focusing on Narnia, Caspian and his friends trust in Aslan; in Lewis’s story, the King announces, “And now, in Aslan’s name, forward,”[5] as the ship enters the Dark Island. Though subtle, the changes in the film downplay the importance of the Great Lion.

            One specific exchange in the film, absent in the book, sparks a doubt as to the trustworthiness of Aslan. When Gael, a young girl aboard the Dawn Treader, expresses a longing to see her captive mother again and Lucy assures Gael that Aslan will help them find her mother, Gael responds, “But Aslan couldn’t stop her from being taken.” Lucy pauses and says, “We’ll find her. I promise. Somehow.”[6] Although the crew of the Dawn Treader does succeed in rescuing Gael’s mother, the question about Aslan’s ability to have prevented her capture remains unresolved. In a few brief lines, the film manages to challenge Aslan’s claims to dependability and authority.

            Not only is Aslan minimized and doubted in the movie, but several specific Christian allusions from the book are excluded. For instance, Lewis’s description of Eustace bathing in a bubbling pool of water after his restoration to human form clearly resembles the Christian practice of baptism.[7] Moreover, the story Lucy reads in the Magician’s Book about “a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill”[8] appears to mirror the story of the crucifixion, the cup referring to the Holy Grail, the sword to the blade the disciple Peter used to sever a man’s ear, the tree to the cross upon which Christ died, and the green hill to Calvary.[9] Finally, when Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace reach the world’s end, they encounter a Lamb who gives them fish to eat; the incident parallels the occasion in the New Testament when Christ, known as the Lamb of God, serves his apostles a breakfast of fish.[10] Even though, in the words of Wesley A. Kort, “religious...interests were integral to the...critical work in which [Lewis] engaged,”[11] all three Christian allusions disappear in the film adaptation of Lewis’s story.

            Along with lessening the importance of Aslan and Christianity, the film takes one of the most beloved characters from the book, Reepicheep the noble mouse, and reconstructs him as a humorous swashbuckler. Although the movie retains Reepicheep’s bravery, the mouse’s intense, unfaltering desire for Aslan’s country vanishes in the film. Lewis’s stately Reepicheep wastes no time on foolishness but makes use of every moment to further his life’s purpose; his “goal, his heart’s desire, is to ‘go on into the utter east and never return into the world,’ but instead to live with Aslan in Aslan’s country.”[12] In contrast, the movie’s trivialized Reepicheep jauntily pokes fun at Eustace, calling him “jelly legs” and teasing that Eustace seems “as effervescent as ever.”[13] Doubtless, a wish to see the Great Lion’s country resides in the back of Reepicheep’s mind in the film, but in the book, the quest to unconditionally surrender his life and join Aslan in the utter east dwells perpetually in the front of his mind and defines his actions. While a solemn but passionate mission animates Lewis’s committed Reepicheep, the film’s version of the mouse sinks to the level of a witty daredevil.

            In addition, through the character of Lucy, the filmmakers incorporate into the story the idea that people must believe in themselves. Feeling inferior to Susan, Lucy speaks a spell from the Magician’s Book in hopes of turning herself into her beautiful sister: “Transform my reflection, cast into perfection, lashes, lips, and complexion. Make me she, whom I’d agree, holds more beauty over me.”[14] When the enchantment seems to succeed and Lucy becomes her sister Susan, she realizes how terrible not existing as herself would be. In a flash of light Lucy returns to her old self, and Aslan speaks to her. “You wished yourself away,” he reproaches her. “Don’t run from who you are.”[15] After learning her lesson, Lucy later gives her friend Gael advice that mirrors Aslan’s counsel and summarizes one of the film’s most prominent themes: “You should be just like you.”[16]

            To Lewis, belief in self is mere selfishness. In his story, the enchantment which Lucy is tempted to speak is “an infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.”[17] Far from wishing herself away, Lucy longs to strengthen herself and become superior to Susan; Lucy wants to believe in herself. She sees an image of what she could be, lovelier than Susan, fought over by kings, and she desires to be that Lucy. However, “she [has] a strong feeling that she mustn’t”[18] say the spell, and she chooses not to. Lewis’s Christian perspective emerges shortly after, when Lucy hears a noise and turns from the Magician’s Book. “Her face lit up till, for a moment (but of course she didn’t know it) she looked almost as beautiful as that other Lucy in the picture, and she ran forward with a little cry of delight and with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan.”[19] Jonathan Rogers explains, “True freedom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is freedom from the self, freedom to turn one’s attention outward, toward the things that give purpose and meaning to the self.” [20] Lewis implies that beauty and freedom arise not from Lucy’s uniqueness as she looks at herself but from her relationship with Aslan as she looks at Him.

            Sadly, by reinventing characters, excluding Christian allusions, and inserting a hollow theme, the film adaptation of Lewis’s inspiring The Voyage of the Dawn Treader diminishes Christianity and virtue and exalts magic and selfishness. The movie mars Lewis’s most admirable characters by suppressing the parallel between Aslan and Christ, by turning Reepicheep, the “mouse of vision,”[21] into a comical adventurer, and by praising pride and self-absorption in Lucy. In contrast, Lewis’s tale is defined by what Michael Ward called “Christological purposes.”[22] According to Lewis himself, “The whole Narnian story is about Christ.”[23] The soul of his The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is simply and beautifully preserved in the words of Kathryn Ann Lindskoog: “Lord of the Utter East, you know where each of us is on this voyage. Please preserve us from Deathwater curses and Dark Island dreams. Give us the courage to endure through rough storms and dull calms. Keep telling us how to get to your country from our world. And help us to know you better here.”[24]