Eye Candy and Vague Faith: Narnia Filmmakers Talk Prince Caspian
From a National Catholic Register article
By Steven D. Greydanus
“You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember,” warns Trumpkin the dwarf in a trailer-ready line from this weekend’s new family adventure, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. 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 world than they remember from the first film (both 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 by phone from New York, producer Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson and heir, suggested that the new film’s more mature tone was partly a reflection of the book itself. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was written very much to be read aloud,” Gresham explained. “With Prince Caspian, in [Lewis’s] mind his audience had moved up a few years in age, and so Prince Caspian was written for them to read to themselves.”
Other filmmakers agreed that Prince Caspian mitigates the storybook feel of the first book. “The starting point for the story is that the magic has gone out of the land,” British actor Ben Barnes, who plays Caspian, commented at a recent New York press event with other Narnia filmmakers. “A lot of people are a little cynical, thinking, ‘They’re making a sequel; it’s got to be darker and have more action, or no one will see it.’ But I think actually it’s simply the way the book has been written.”
In particular, Barnes cited Caspian’s human villain as a key difference from the earlier story. “The villain of this story is not a magic witch,” he said. “It’s a very human dictatorship.” According to Barnes, Castellitto “very much saw Miraz as a kind of Hitlerian figure.”
Will Moseley, who plays Peter, agreed. “I think it makes it a very different film — fighting humans as opposed to fighting mythical creatures. That’s almost like a greater evil, and something kids need to be reminded of — that the evil person like the White Witch isn’t going to be with great big horns and breathing like a bull.” (Not that Tilda Swinton quite fits that description, but point taken.)
At the same time, Gresham acknowledged that bringing this book to the screen posed special challenges. “The story is much more difficult to put in a film,” Gresham said. “But I do think we’ve made a better movie.”
Fair enough. So what did they change? Unlike presidential candidates, 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, citing The Natural, My Dog Skip and The Notebook. “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. “Jack would understand and appreciate the changes we made and understand why we made them,” Gresham maintained, using Lewis’s nickname. “If I thought there was something there that Jack would disappove of, I would try to stop it altogether.”
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.
Moseley 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 think people rush into sort of blind faith… It’s sort of, you don’t really know why you’re entering into something… 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.
“I think [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, as noted in my review, 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.”
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. 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, except with the fun we could have with it on the screen. In the Prince Caspian movie, he does appear larger, because it’s in the text. 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. “I think it’s probably obvious throughout the movie that Trumpkin doesn’t believe. He’s more of an agnostic than anyone else in the whole story.“ Pressed further, he went on, “These are things that in a movie you could overplay too heavily. It’s true that Trumpkin is someone who doesn’t believe in Aslan. Whether he believes that he 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 successful as an adaptation than Caspian. In the Narnia canon, Caspian may be a relatively minor work, but Dawn Treader is clearly one of the major favorites. A Caspian disappointing to Lewis fans 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 is 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. The fate of the franchise may hang in the balance.