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Voyage of the Dawn Treader: film (and book) review

23 December 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #5)The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went to see the film of The voyage of the Dawn Treader last night, and today finished reading the book for the fifth time, and noted some of the differences between the film and the book.

I hadn’t seen the previous two Narnia films in the current series, perhaps for the same reason as I never saw (and don’t want to see) the films of Lord of the Rings, because I don’t want the film to interfere with the pictures in my head when I read the books. But The voyage of the Dawn Treader is different. It isn’t set in Narnia itself, and is more like a series of short stories.

In the prepublicity leading up the the film release there was some talk of the film removing all the “Christian” elements of the book, and interviews with the producers in various publications, in which they said that they weren’t Christian, and so hadn’t handled it as a Christian story (see, eg New “Narnia” Film Stirs Religious Controversy – ABC News).

Well, I don’t think C.S. Lewis himself regarded it as a specifically Christian story, though it is, of course, informed by his Christian worldview. The most overtly Christian thing about it is at the end, where Aslan says that he is known in our world by another name, and the children returning to our world need to learn to know him by that name, and that was retained in the film. What disappeared in the film was a lot of the theological nuances, and as it was written as a children’s story, they wouldn’t be apparent to most children on a first reading either. Perhaps seeing the film might encourage childrent to read the book.

One of the things that stood out for me was that Reepicheep came across as a much more sympathetic character in the film than in the book. The first couple of times I read it I found him rather tiresome, and sympathised with Caspian, when Reepicheep said to him, ‘Your Majesty promised to be a good lord to the Talking Beasts of Narnia.’

‘Talking beasts, yes,’ said Caspian. ‘I said nothing about beasts that never stop talking.’

And perhaps something of the film lingered when I reread the book, because I saw Reepicheep in a new light.

The film handled Eustace Scrubb fairly well, and showed his change from an unpleasant character to a somewhat improved character fairly well, though some of this was lost because in the film most of the changes took place in his dragon form, and not his boy form. Edmund and Lucy, however, appeared much older in the film than they do in the book. Perhaps it was difficult to handle their appearing to be older while in Narnia and reverting to the chronology of this world on their return.

One of the things I found interesting was the things that the film added to the book, and those that it removed, or emphasised less.

One of the first additions was people from the Lone Islands disappearing into the mist, and a girl from the Lone Islands stowing away on the Dawn Treader and becoming a kind of companion to Lucy, though her role is not clear, and it is not helped by her somewhat wooden-faced performance.

What gets lost in that part of the story, partly because of the changes and spurious additions, is the point that comes out strongly in Lewis’s narrative — that bureaucrats who pay more attention to statistics and economic trends than to people tend to lose sight of justice, and are unworthy of their office. I can’t help wondering if this was perhaps a bow to political correctness on the part of the film’s producers, in a time when governments keep telling us that cuts in spending have to be made because of the statistics, regardless of the effect that they might have on people.

The order of events is also changed somewhat. In one sense this does not matter very much, since each episode on the voyage, each island or archipelago visited is independent of the others. But in the book there is a progression. At the first stop, at the Lone Islands, the voyagers are faced by mainly human evil – slave traders and a corrupt bureaucracy.

In the book the next stop is at the dragon island, where Eustace is briefly transformed into a dragon, and there, of course, magic enters the picture, certainly in the actual transformation. But it is also human evil, in that it is linked to Eustace’s dragonish thoughts. The actual transformation is handled quite well in the film. Where it is different, and not improved, is that while in the book Eustace is transformed back into a boy before they leave the island, in the film it is moved much later, and Eustace stays in dragon form for longer, I suspect because the film producers wanted him to fight the sea-serpent in his dragon form rather than his human form.

The sea-serpent episode is also moved closer to the end of the film, and that, to me, is one of its greatest weaknesses. It tends to turn the film into a B-movie like Anaconda, and I got the impression that the producers simply could not resist the temptation to play with Anaconda-like special effects in 3D, with close-ups of the lunging head that kept snapping but never seemed to actually do any significant damage. In the book it is the boy Eustace, rather than the dragon, who attacks the sea-serpent, his first significant (though ineffectual) act of bravery in the story.

The other significant addition in the film is the quest to collect the swords of the seven missing lords, and to bring them together on Aslan’s table, and the change in Eustace is marked by him being the one to put the last sword there, which is supposed to make everything right.

What is missing from the film is Ramandu.

Ramandu’s daughter makes an appearance, and she is a star, and goes back to being one, instead of marrying Caspian (though the film does show the attraction he feels towards her). But Ramandu, though mentioned, does not appear at all, and this is where some of the theological nuances get lost in the film.

‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’
‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of. And in this world you have already met a star; for I think you have been with Koriakin.’
‘Is he a retired star, too?’ said Lucy.
‘Well, not quite the same,’ said Ramandu. ‘It was not quite as a rest that he was set to govern the Duffers. You might call it a punishment. He might have shone for thousands of years more in the southern winter sky if all had gone well.’
‘What did he do, Sir?’ asked Caspian.
‘My son,’ said Ramandu, ‘it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit.’

And so Lewis hints, briefly, at the possibility of the repentance of fallen angels. And while the Bible, and other books, like the Book of Enoch, speaks of the sons of gods marrying the daughters of men, Lewis has a son of Adam marrying a daughter of the gods. But the film skips this episode.

I suppose one of my disappointments, with both the film and the books, is the sea-serpant episode. In the film the sea-serpent is reduced to a lunging, snapping, special-effects reptile, with no real significance for the story. But in the book, while the sea-serpent could have had some Rahab-like characteristics (cf Isaiah 55:9-11), Lewis makes it merely dim-witted.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 December 2010 8:12 pm

    Thanks for the detailed review. Was thinking of watching it tonight and then opted for Milky Lane (my kids are just too young).

    Watch LOTR. You’ll never think of a Balrog the same way again. Yes there are important ommissions (like the Burrow-Downs and Scourging of the Shire) but it’s well worth the time.

    • 24 December 2010 4:53 am

      I think I would need to re-read Lord of the Rings before watching the film. One of my reason for seaing the Dawn Treader film was that it has some clear theological tgemes. amd I was interested in seeing how the film producers handled them. They handled the temptations of beauty, wealth and power fairly well, I thought, but missed some of the others.

  2. 23 December 2010 8:45 pm

    Yes, thanks. Although I think you have persuaded me not to see it! I’m like you and like to keep the images from the book. I also haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings and don’t want to (sorry Mark!) I did see The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe and much preferred the book.
    However, I do think CS Lewis would have approved. I wonder what Tolkien would have thought?

    • 24 December 2010 4:56 am

      I didn’t want to put anyone off seeing the film. I’d recommend seeing it, and would be interested to hear from others who have seen it, especially on how they think the theological themes were handled.

  3. KarlH permalink
    24 December 2010 7:10 pm

    Thanks for the review. The only critique I have of it is that I think Ramandu really is supposed to be a star. There’s a lot of Platonic elements in the Narnia series, and this is just another instance of Lewis’ Platonism (it’s been effectually argued that the 7 books in the series correspond to the planetary cycles).

    I’m not sure your own background in Platonism, but stars are guided by spirits and animated by the power of the One. The idea that such a spirit might take the appearance of a human is an influence from Barfield, perhaps (through Steiner).

    • 27 December 2010 6:59 pm

      In The magician’s nephew the stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and that has echoes in Tolkien’s Ainulindale, and in the account of the creation of our world in Job 38:7 “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

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