Review: “Prince Caspian” Doesn’t Sell It’s Soul

5.18.08 | | 14 comments

Although, not ranking with The Horse and His Boy, or The Last Battle as my favorite Narnian tales, Prince Caspian still holds a special place in my heart as part of C.S. Lewis’ repetoire of allegorical fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because the Narnia of that story has a different, wilder flavor than some of the other stories, or because it was pointed out to me once that it has some interesting parallels with the Mormon story of the Restoration– which, of course, Lewis did not intend. But it’s interesting– a boy tutored by a near mythical Moroni-like character who tells him of an ancient culture; a 1,300 year apostasy, after which a Restoration of old magic happens; a passing down of keys from ancient figures (one of them, incidentally, named Peter); and a young child seeing Aslan (God) in the woods, and no one will believe her at first. Perhaps this is an example of Karl Jung’s archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. Either way, the book has a certain power in its mythic narrative.

But with all of this baggage brought into the movie, it’s hard not to have a certain expectation from the film version, even when you’re trying to lower your expectations. What I received from the film version of Prince Caspian was really a mixed bag. On so many levels it exceeded my expectations. On a couple of levels it certainly didn’t.

First, I’ll focus on where I felt it fell short. One of the great things about the the first film of The Chronicles of Narnia was that the director Andrew Adamson was at least able to capture some of the “magic” of the Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It may be because the actual tale lacks some of the stunning images from some of the other books– no scarffed fawn under a lamp post, or magic wardrobe, or dragon peeling away its scales, or a boy wandering in the fog with Aslan following behind him, or a girl being blown off a cliff, or a freestanding doorway leading to a world even greater than Narnia. Looking back on it, Prince Caspian as a tale lacks a good deal of that vivid imagey that is present in the other books. And it is within that imagery where much of that magic is contained. So whether it is because the film makers did not dig up this imagery from somewhere, or because Lewis did not supply it in the first place, I can’t seem to put my finger on it. Yet, for a magical world, it seemed much more entrenched in realism than Narnia ought to be.

However, where Prince Caspian lacked in magic, it made up in storytelling and drama. Now there were points where the film veered away from its original source material. Added battles, added layers to character, even a little unsubstantiatred romance for good measure, etc. However, these were done in an effort to make the story more complex– which, to my surprise, worked. There is a night time battle, which is as intense as it is revelatory about the characters, especially Peter and Caspian. And within those two characters tragic flaws and hubris abounded, making some elements of the characters almost Shakespearean in their scope. It is Edmund, the reformed traitor from the first story, who provides one of the most powerful moments in the film after pointing out to the once pure Peter and the heir apparent Caspian the emptiness of temptation. Edmund’s moral compass in this film was stunning to me, firmly placing him as my favorite character in the film (even though Lucy is my favorite in the book). I don’t remember these dynamics being quite so clear in the book, which pointed out to me that adaptations can add even more meaning than the original intended.

The technical aspects and many of the creative aspects of the film were a vast improvement from its predecessor. The special effects, the battle scenes, the cinematography were all stunning. It seemed to me that Adamson grew a lot as a director. And much of the acting was quite good, as well as the script. Not to mention that the creatures and other magical inhabitants of Narnia were impressivelessly created, nearly seamless in their technical and creative execution.

But in seeing all of these Hollywood-ized improvements. It was good to see that Narnia had not lost its soul. Although Aslan is absent for most of the movie (an intentional meaning is given in that), the underlining meaning He gives the story in the end was not lost on me. I won’t spell out that meaning, so those who see the movie may discover it for themselves. Yet it is within Lewis’ allegories and meaningful phrases where the real magic of Narnia exists. And I for one was very glad to see these modern parables have not lost their lion’s teeth in the translation to film.

14 comments: “Review: “Prince Caspian” Doesn’t Sell It’s Soul

  1. Dave

    Yes, very nice comments, Mahonri. As you noted here for Prince Caspian, I noticed also in the Lord of the Rings movies that the screenplay brought out aspects of some of the characters that were not spelled out in the book (but that, on reflection, were there).

  2. Kent Larsen

    Perhaps I was expecting too much of the Narnia movies, but I was a little disappointed with how the Christian imagery of the novels seemed understated or undeveloped in the films. In both films, the plot felt rushed, as if the action takes place in a couple of days (Narnia time) instead of a few weeks or more, as the novels imply. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe it seemed possible to go through the entire film and not understand that Aslan is a Christ figure. And if that was understated in the first film, the relative lack of “magic”, as you call it, left Prince Caspian without much of the core Christian values Lewis intended.

    In my view, Prince Caspian is Lewis teaching how to live in an unbelieving world and maintain faith in Christ. To tell the story properly, the film needed to make the conflict over believing in Aslan the central conflict in the film. While elements were there, I don’t think that they were successful in communicating that central conflict to the viewer.

    BUT, I do agree that the film is very likable and enjoyable. My kids liked it (even the 5-year-old, who I worried would be scared at the fight scenes and tension) and, the plot was, I felt, largely faithful to the novel.

    I just wish that the Christian conflicts in the novel were more central and obvious in the film.

  3. Michael C.

    My comments on the review are quite simple. I agree. Edmund seemed to be the binding tie in this second installment of Narnia. Peter’s character , in this film , was pretty much a twit. He was very unlikable until late in the movie. Caspian was nice. But hardly princely . Susan was conflicted and Lucy was the only one of the peeps who did not lose faith in the ” Magic ” of narnia ( Aslan )…although…as Aslan put it…” Why would that keep you from me..” ( paraphrased I guess )

    To Kent Larsen… I ( from a personal standpoint ) am pleased that the …” Christian imagery…Christian values …and Christian conflicts ” were downplayed in the movies. I want the films that I go to see with my children ( especially fantasy films ) to be filled with ” Magic ” not …Christian morality. My faith and that of my family is excersised in church and in our daily lives ( at least I hope so ) …it does not have to fill every waking moment of my existence.

    If you are looking for Christian conflicts…try this…Love thy neighbor…even the Muslim…Jewish…Pagan ones…without judgement or force feeding of Christian values in our movies…give it a break…

  4. Anneke Majors

    Michael, I’ll have to disagree with you. Divorcing art and entertainment from the underlying morality of the author always seems to compromise the quality of the art. In the case of Narnia, we’re not force-feeding morality into an otherwise intact fantasy story; the story itself is built of very firm and intentional Christian principles. That is the beauty of C.S. Lewis’s writing, and that is part of what makes the Narnia books so alive where so many other fantasy stories amount to nothing more than ephemeral fluff.

    I have never understood the opinion that we should downplay something that was the original intent of the author in order to appease a wider audience. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted Sheldon Harnick & Jerry Bock to downplay the Jewishness of Fiddler on the Roof so that Christians could enjoy it more; Jewishness is the essence of the story and is what makes the art alive. Even on a lighter note – I wouldn’t want to watch Bollywood movies divorced from the Hindu culture that created them. It happened in Bride and Prejudice and the result was a mediocre replica of the genre.

    I think any attempt to re-write the themes of beautiful literature in its transition to film is not only incredibly fraught with hubris but also generally tends to produce disappointed, watered-down art.

  5. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Interesting reactions.
    In principle I agree with Anneke and Kent, although I don’t think that it applies as much to the Narnian movies as Kent does. I actually was surprised at how much of the faith elements they kept in and don’t feel that they were particularly downplayed. I don’t see how any observant person could get through the first movie without realizing that Aslan is a Christ figure, and the spiritual undertones in the second film I thought were crystal clear (although I would have liked the reference that Reepicheep was a descendent of the mice who cut Asland free from the stone table). It’s been interesting to see the reactions of some of the national reviewers. There was a reviewer from either Boston or Chicago (can’t remember which, but I believe it was Chicago) who seemed absolutely offended that the message implied that we should rely on God in times of need, instead of ourselves. He thought it led to a “holy war” mindset. So it’s interesting, if you add any religious material certain people will be upset, and if you tone any of it down, others will be upset (and the same goes for movies like “The Golden Compass” which had the opposite intent). Personally, I found both Narnian films very spiritual.

  6. Kent Larsen

    Michael wrote:

    “My faith and that of my family is excersised in church and in our daily lives ( at least I hope so ) …it does not have to fill every waking moment of my existence.”

    I agree. When I want light entertainment that doesn’t involve religion, I choose entertainment that doesn’t include those things. I don’t choose a film in which the author of the underlying work was Christian and who made it clear that the work was about being Christian.

    In this case, all the Narnia books are about Christianity and being Christian. Leaving that out, IMO, makes the film less than what the author intended.

    So, Michael, why did you expect otherwise?

  7. Seth R.

    Michael, this is C.S. Lewis we’re talking about.

    If you want to get away from “overbearing Christian imagery,” don’t bother with C.S. Lewis. It’s that simple. Christian symbolism is what the guy was all about. To call for toned-down, or absence of, Christian symbolism in a film based on his books is more than a little strange.

  8. Cristy

    My 14-year-old daughter and I saw the movie last night and I did have mixed feelings about it, most of which folks have already spoken about. I did not think that it had quite the magical quality of the first film, however, I thought the Christian theme was a little clearer (for me, Okay, I am REALLY concrete!) in this film. I might have to see it again to remember everything, but Lucy saw Aslan because she was the only non-doubter. Aslan even made reference to the other siblings as having to be “woken up” which brought to mind the sleeping disciples of Jesus.

    Could someone please elaborate for me the ending – I thought that ony two of the four were going to leave Narnia, then all four ended up leaving. What did I miss???

    Thanks!!

  9. ET

    When the first movie came out, I was working at Disney in the product development department, so my opinions of the first film are somewhat skewed since I’m familiar with how much of the story was altered “because of the numbers.”

    My feeling about the first film is that it was so close yet so far away… and it had everything to do with the portrayal of Aslan as Christ. Forget that when he shows up, all I kept thinking was, “huh, Aslan sounds a lot like Liam Neeson.” Forget that the CGI was miserably bad. No, the problem with the first film was that Aslan represented the Christ that sells rather than the one believed in by Lewis. Aslan was a kind and merciful kitty, a big, furry friend. And certainly this aspect of Christ, which even we as Mormons tend to oversell a bit (in my opinion), is true. But Aslan was also a king. And the film failed abysmally to capture the majesty. The film threw us a bone. “Okay, Christians, allegorically speaking, you can have your heavenly friend, but we’re not giving you a god.” We were given Jesus without Jehovah.

    The purest example of this is when Mr. Beaver tells the children that Aslan is on the move. In the books, the very name of Aslan is majestic, causing the children to react even though the have no idea who Aslan is. But in the movie, the majesty of the moment is exchanged for stupified looks of “huh?”. Even the witch doesn’t fear really fear Aslan to the degree that she does in the books (see the negotiation scene). When Aslan finally shows some teeth, as it were, and kills the witch, it’s more a scene about a lion killing a woman than good defeating evil.

    To my friends and associates who like their cinematic Christianity pureed for easy digestion, I honestly have no problem with it. In fact, I didn’t need an Aslan-as-Christ connection in the film. Like any good parable, it’s there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. But I did need an Aslan-as-Aslan connection. Now, I hesitate to see the sequel for fear of seeing a mythology steeped in whether or not the people of an alternate world believe in a big, friendly cat who sounds a heck of a lot like Liam Neeson.

  10. Anneke Majors

    Cristy, regarding your question about the ending:

    Aslan tells Peter and Susan that they won’t be able to return to Narnia – they won’t have any future adventures. But all of the children are supposed to return home as the end of the current adventure.

    I finally saw Prince Caspian last night and I did think it was very well done. It did an excellent job of bringing to life my least favorite of the books (Not that I dislike it, it’s just the book I’m least fanatically enamored of.)

    I’m trying to figure out how much of the Telmarines-as-Spaniards was intentional in Lewis’s book and how much was expanded on by the film. I’m curious to see how the future films will treat the Muslim/Calormen similarities.

    And am I the only one who kept waiting for Caspian to say “My name is Prince Caspian. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”? ;)

  11. patrick

    the makers of Prince Caspian kept to the original story surprisingly well, all thinks considered… i heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case

  12. Hushicho

    Actually Lewis said several times that the Narnia books were not meant as allegory and, up until ‘The Last Battle’ it’s not really anything that’s clearly supposed to be allegorical. Any reading into it is done by the reader or the viewer, not intended by the author. Although his sometimes gushing personal beliefs bled into his works, he did not create the Narnia series as any sort of intentional ‘Christian fairy story’ for others to read.

    The closest that he came was admitting at one point that the Narnia books may make children who read them at a young age more agreeable to religion (specifically Christianity in his idea) when they grew older. However, outside of ‘The Last Battle’, which was problematic for many reasons (and often, in my opinion deservedly, criticised for his apparent bowing to more fanatical Christians’ pressures to include overt imagery), there was little that could really be seen as completely, blatantly, overtly a Christian message.

    In short, whatever you’re reading into it, you’re doing yourself. Lewis did not intend for it to be read that way and on multiple occasions said so. I can understand why people are put off by the insistence that one must somehow derive it from the Narnia films; they can be seen very easily as simply fantasy fare, which is how many people enjoy them. They need not be Christian morality tales, and in fact the values taught by these stories could just as easily apply to nearly any spiritual path in the history of the world.

  13. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Hushico,
    I believe I may have read the Lewis quote you’re referring to, but I’m not sure. Could you give a direct, exact quote and reference? I know that Tolkien definitely said something like this, but I want to make sure you’re taking the Lewis quote in context. If I remember the quote correctly (which I may not), it seemed to me that he didn’t necessarily want children to immediately recognize the meaning, but to have those images in mind when they came across Christianity later in life. I’ll try to look for that quote, too.
    Whatever the case, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no doubt about what the allegory of Aslan on the Stone Table is referring to. You can’t tell me that it was accidental, or that Prince Caspian and The Silver Chair don’t have allegories about the nature of faith, or that The Magician’s Nephew wasn’t about the creation of the world, or that the dragon episode in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t refer to repentance, baptism and the Grace of Christ. I agree that on one level, they can be enjoyed as mere fantasy adventure stories– but what makes them beautiful and meaningful is that there are other levels, yes, ALLEGORICAL levels. Lewis was a master of allegory, which was evident from his first major work of fiction “Pilgrim’s Regress” to his last major work of fiction “Till We Have Faces.” The allegory is not hidden. He wore his faith on his sleeve, and was derided by many people for it, but I think they were bold and beautiful choices he made, which is why he is so remembered and loved. No one had cause to doubt what cause he advocated.
    As a side note, I think “The Last Battle” ranks up there with “The Horse and His Boy” as the best of the Narnian books. I don’t see anything problematic about it, it’s a graceful, beautiful book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>