Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #7

Re: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

Your recent review of the film Prince Caspian suggests that only a literal adaptation of the book can suffice, or that unless an audience is steeped in Christian allusion when watching Lewis’ “fairy stories” (as he called them) onscreen, the film versions are suspect.

Lois Lowry (author of The Giver) has said that a faithful film adaptation is “one that is true to the spirit of the book.” A faithful adaptation and a literal adaptation are not the same thing, and your review implies that unless literal, an adaptation cannot be faithful or true to the spirit of the book.

When in 1950, Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published, Lewis could assume that his (then primarily British) audience knew full well what these sparse lines meant: “This is the story of something that happened when they (the Pevensie children) were sent away from London during the War because of the air raids.” Lewis also said that unless “fairy stories” were grounded in the reality of the time, they wouldn’t work.

So in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the 2005 film opens with the bombing of London. Two lines in the book become the first nine minutes of the Walden/Disney film. A modern audience can’t be expected to know the horror and peril behind those lines and so, in moving from the word to the image, it is depicted rather than implied. And although Lewis sometimes turned up his nose at psychiatry, he was a darned good shrink himself: he knew that, even worse than the bombings of London, the real horror for the children of that book was being separated from their parents.

One of the real portents of the faithfulness of the film versions of Lion, Witch (and now Caspian) is their combined ability to re-introduce these “fairy stories” to an entirely new generation of readers — because they are so faithful.

People mistakenly think that if children first see the film, they won’t then read the book. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Finally, I refer you to Lewis’ lovely Letters to Children published in book form. Lewis has plenty to say about what he did — and did not — mean his books to mean.

Lewis’ Christian references and allusions are there for the taking for those who see them and make use of them. For those who do not, the stories also resonate. I think the films bring readers and moviegoers alike to a discovery of a magical place called Narnia where, as Aslan says in Prince Caspian, “Things never happen in the same way twice.”

Randy Michael Testa, Ed.D.
Vice President, Education and Professional Development,
Walden Media, LLC

Are you sure you read my review, Randy? Your notion that I in any way assume or imply that “only a literal adaptation of the book can suffice” is utterly off the mark; so far is this from the case that in fact my review thoroughly repudiates that notion, specifically going on for three paragraphs or so praising the film’s well-chosen departures from Lewis.

The view you ascribe to me is so contrary to my critical philosophy that I’m guessing you may be thinking, not of my review, but of my interview piece with Doug, Mark, Ben, Will and Peter (either that, or you’ve got me confused with some other critic altogether). In that piece I was interacting less with the film itself than with the book and what the filmmakers had to say about the film and the book.

I absolutely agree with the line you quote from Lois Lowry that a faithful film adaptation is “true to the spirit of the book.” That is why, when I do criticize your film, it is not for changes in literal incident, but where it misses or subverts the spirit of the book. Note well the last two sentences in the excerpt below:

Perhaps most damagingly, the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of Dwarfs, Talking Beasts and spirits of wood and water.

No longer do we see Caspian’s nurse dismissed for telling Caspian stories of Old Narnia, or his tutor Dr. Cornelius daring to instruct him in these matters only in private. This might not matter so much if the film had other ways of making the point — but it doesn’t. The notion that stories of Old Narnia are anathema in modern Narnia is simply lost.

Note that I specifically say that if only the “point,” i.e., the “spirit,” were preserved in some other way, revisions in detail wouldn’t matter. It’s the loss of the whole underlying theme, not particular incidents, that’s the problem.

I honestly don’t know what to make of your claims (and Mark’s too) about how extraordinarily faithful the Narnia films are. Holes is a faithful adaptation, and an excellent one. It remains your finest film. The Narnia films don’t achieve anything remotely approaching that kind of fidelity, either in letter or in spirit.

I have no problem with the air-raid sequence at the top of your version of LW&W. I do have a problem with that film’s systematic diminishing of Aslan and systematic strengthening of the Witch, its subversion of Peter’s leadership role, and its sympathetic reinterpretation of Edmund (who is no longer the bad kid Lewis imagines, but only misunderstood and mistreated by his brother), among other things.

I’m glad you’ve enjoyed Letters to Children, a book I’ve owned since I was one myself, and have read any number of times. I am curious which letter you are thinking of when you say that “Christian references and allusions are there for the taking for those who see them and make use of them.”

Though this meme has often been voiced in connection with the Narnia films, it seems to me, if not outright false, certainly very far from adequate. The Christian meaning in Lewis’s Narnia stories is not just a matter of “references and allusions” that are “there for the taking.” Aslan is not just a “Christ figure,” he is nothing less than an imaginary portrayal of the very Divine Person known as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in our world became the man Jesus and in this world appears as the Lion Aslan.

You write that “People mistakenly think that if children first see the film, they won’t then read the book. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Once again, you seem to be disagreeing with someone other than me. As I wrote back in 2005 in connection with the first film:

There is a happy sense in which, whatever liberties the film takes for good or ill, it can’t fail to bring Lewis’s story to a wider audience with all its themes fully intact. The reason, of course, is that films always send audiences in droves to the source material. Sales of the Narnia books have been climbing since the trailer for the film debuted last spring, and for weeks The Chronicles of Narnia has occupied the top spot on New York Times bestseller list for children’s paperbacks, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe currently in second place to the series as a whole.

Happily, the same principle holds today.

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