Posted by: Robin | May 24, 2008

“Prince Caspian”: The Book, the Movie

Prince Caspian was my introduction to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  I was nineteen and listening to a theology lecture. As an illustration for one of his points the lecturer used the scene in Caspian when Lucy sees Aslan but the other children don’t. Peter doesn’t believe her and insists they go a different direction. Later that night, after a disastrous day, Aslan comes to Lucy again, and she starts to bad mouth the others for not believing. A grumble in his throat is all it takes for Lucy to realize that Aslan expected her to follow that morning whether the others did or not. He sent her on the uncomfortable task of waking her older siblings in the middle of the night to come with her and Aslan, though they still won’t see him. Only as they trust Lucy and follow her along a treacherous trail in the dark out of obedience did they finally catch sight of the great lion. It was such a simple but powerful parable of faith and obedience that I sat stunned. As soon as I could I bought the whole series and devoured them.

In the movie “Prince Caspian” the scene above is broken down into three different scenes that take place at different times throughout the movie. In the process it leaves out the best bit of wisdom in the book when Lucy asks if she’d listened the first time would it have turned out all right. Aslan says, “To know what would have happened, child? . . . No one is ever told that.”  ‘What ifs’ are a fool’s pursuit. We can only do some thing about what is now. For me the filmmakers’ choice felt like the watering down of a powerful moment, but it is a personal quibble. After all, novels and a movies are very different mediums.

Adapting a novel to the screen requires compression, translating the verbal to the visual, requiring a greater need to sustain dramatic tension and pace, and establishing character more immediately. Catering to the audience is also a necessary evil when a film costs millions to shoot. The trick, especially if it is a well-loved piece of fiction, is to stay true to the spirit of the author’s story if not the exact way he or she told it. The Harry Potter films are, for the most part, an exemplar for walking this fine line. When screenwriters and directors start adding stuff that wasn’t in the book and isn’t even implied then things get dicey. Sometimes it works, but more often not. Over the last couple years film adaptions of fantasy novels have littered the ground with critical and box office busts because of it. Those type of changes happened a lot in this movie.

FROM HERE ON BEWARE OF SPOILERS***************************************************************************

It starts immediately with a boy making googly eyes at Susan, and Peter picking fights in the train station. Romance and flirtation had little place in Lewis’ idea of a good yarn, and maybe that was a shortcoming. The flirtation was the shortest way to foreshadow that Susan is growing up and outgrowing Narnia. The really new twist was the speculation by the filmmakers about what it must have been like for these children to live to their twenties as kings and queens of a vast land with medieval sensibilities, and in an instant return to being children again, living children’s lives in WWII England. There conclusion was it must have been torture. That makes sense. Imagine even without the royalty going from twenty-eight to fifteen and having to live those years over. Hence Susan’s disdain of her admirer, and Peter’s picking fights because someone wasn’t showing him proper respect.

The thing is that is not the tension Lewis explores in Caspian, especially with Peter. When the children find themselves back in Narnia, the struggle is remembering how to be kings and queens again, not the reverse. They are quite at home being children again, and it’s a stretch for them to resume their royal roles.

Some changes I could understand, like aging Caspian to be a few years older than the Pevensies rather than than about Peter’s age. It appeals to a wider audience. I could understand the flirtation between Caspian and Susan for the same reason. I cheered Susan as an active warrior, against Lewis’ insistance through Aslan that girls have no place in battle. Where I balked was the wholesale change of Peter into an arrogant, too-full-of-himself young man making reckless decisions out of pride.

The testing of Peter as the central theme changed the point of gravity in the story. The book’s locus is Caspian, and how he must grow into the king Narnia needs. It is critical not only for this novel but the next two. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are there to show him the way, but it is clear from the start it is no longer their time. Peter’s personal crisis is early. It was simply not listening to Lucy when she saw Aslan and being too conscious of Trumpkin’s skepticism. It was not a foolhardy attack of the Telmarine Castle that cost a lot of lives, or a confrontation with the White Witch, both additions not found in the book. Tilda Swinton is great in this cameo, but there is no such repeat of Edmund’s temptation. “Things don’t happen the same way twice.”

Sure changing Peter to an impetuous, arrogant and power-gone-to-his-head young man is an interesting angle and creates additional conflict among the siblings, but William Moseley is not yet a skilled enough actor to carry that burden as well as the physical demands of his role for an entire movie. Craziest of all, this take on Peter contradicts their premise. The High King Peter that left Narnia was a mature and wise young man as well as king (see books The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy ). He might be irked and frustrated by his situation and the immaturity of his peers in present-day England, but petulance and random violence would be out of character for the boy who remembered so well the man he was (or the Peter he was through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, book and movie). His struggle in Narnia is to find his balance being again the young man he left behind the previous year. In the books the air of Narnia at least partially physically matures them again. When Peter doesn’t believe Lucy, he manfully admits his mistake within hours. From then on his sole focus is facing the enemies of Narnia and placing Caspian on the throne.

If there is a coming-of-age lesson that these young men and women (and we) must come to terms with during this stay in Narnia, it is that the past is the past. What we have is now, and the present duty. We can’t go back. We can only move forward. Each thing has its time and season, and we can’t know what would have happened if we’d acted differently, only what is. We must stand on what we know to be true and step out with courage as Lucy eventually did with no guarantees of how it will turn out except that Aslan will be with us. Appearances can be deceptive, and sometimes acting on the truth is necessary before we can believe it. Above all Caspian, as a Telmarine, needed to understand these things to be the king he must be for all Narnians.

Maybe this lesson doesn’t lend itself well to dramatization, but having met it in other films, it can be done with a great film the result. Lewis was the last person to think that moralizing made a good story, but he believed in the heroic. He believed that love, courage, integrity and sacrifice are what makes heroes, and there is a hero waiting in each of us, young or old. It will be hard to live it, but can there really be any other choice? “Prince Caspian,” the movie, tried to bring greater complexity and contemporary sensibility to the story and the two older Pevensie children before we bid them farewell, but it never fully delivered, and in the process lost some of the heart of the original. They focused on the past king rather than fully realizing the new king who will carry us into the next adventure. It entertained, but where heroes are concerned, is that enough?

(For a more general review see the earlier post “A Good Ride and Dessert.”)

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Responses

  1. Hi Robin –

    >In the process it leaves out the best bit of wisdom in the book when Lucy asks if she’d listened the first time would it have turned out all right. Aslan says, ”To know what would have happened, child? . . . No one is ever told that.”

    Actually, they did include this in the movie – it came at the end where Lucy finds Aslan and he wakes up the trees.

    jkm

  2. Thanks for the save. I must have had mental stutter I remembered Aslan repeating, “Things never happen the same way twice,” in that scene, and I thought it strange it was repeated.

  3. I just came home from seeing the film and I think you have hit the nail on the head on just about every point. The film was beautifully rendered, despite the small changes made from the novel [likely to show more clearly what would be subtleties in text the changes taking place..].

    But I do beg to differ on JKM’s comment- Aslan DOES repeat the same phrase when he sees Lucy in the wood. He says it once in her vision, or dream- whichever you would prefer to call it. When she is sent off on the horse to find Aslan with the Telmarines pursuing her and he roars in to save her, Aslan does indeed repeat “Things never happen the same way twice.”

  4. Thanks so much for your comment and restoring my confidence in my memory . . . at least about the movie. It has been nagging me.


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