Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Once upon a time, long before the founding of Hogwarts, before there were Star Treks or Wars, before Indiana Jones ever conceived of adventure, even before the discovery of Middle Earth, there was Narnia, a magical land of mythical beasts, talking animals and children's adventures. Immune to the appetites of the movie industry for many years, the third instalment of the 7 story series by C.S.Lewis has now been rendered into film.  Beginning in 2005 with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and continuing in 2008 with Prince Caspian (an amalgam of two original written works), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader finds the “franchise” in a new studio, as 20th Century Fox boldly goes where Disney Studios decided not to tread.
        In the interest of disclosing the bias in my writing, I confess that I was a fan of C.S.Lewis fantasy literature from about the age of 8. The only thing wrong with The Chronicles of Narnia was that they came to an end!  What was a boy to do to replace such a rich imaginal world?  Lewis’s space trilogy was a hallucinogenic enigma. His theological works were rife with a pietism that left me cold. Ever since, I have been pining ... for what? An equally engrossing fantasy? (Thank God for Guy Gavriel Kaye.) A lost childhood? The wonder and delight of those stories has never been equalled and among them, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader stood out as the pinnacle of Lewis’s oeuvre.
        What then to make of this translation from print to screen?  Bluntly, the book was better. Where the story as literature is a contemplation of the journey of faith, a pilgrimage to the edges of human self understanding, a Pilgrim’s Progress for kids, the movie is an uneven, poorly construed swashbuckler which is in thrall not to the muse of wonder and enlightenment but to the demands of the studio’s marketing department.  Therein lies the Achilles' heel of this piece of film. May God have mercy on the screen writers and editors who cobbled this together; even the cross of Christ was more elegantly constructed. Scenes come and go with little or no relation to each other: is this a story or a collage? Most glaringly, where Lewis weaves the problem of evil into his narrative as an intrinsic existential possibility, the director, Michael Apted, resorts to cheap gimmickry by representing the presence of the malign with a boiling green mist.  Shades of Cecil B. DeMille!  Will we ever be rid of this cinematic heresy?  Not, it seems, in my lifetime. And what about Aslan? Coming and going arbitrarily like an absentee landlord, the leonine One (voiced with great gravitas by Liam Neeson) becomes an oracle of moral observation with no particular investment in the course of the action. Although Lewis’s image of Holy transcendence is thus preserved, the vulnerability and compassion of his original is gone. Instead of a God who is radically free to the point of wildness, we’re left with a deus ex machina who exercises no power to save.
        The CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is good - all the requisite images are clear and stylish, so impressive in fact that the mortal actors shrink by comparison, an ironic reversal of the original, where the development of the main characters occupies the centre of attention.  Here, the characters remain two dimensional throughout: Lucy (Georgia Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) dutifully mouth their lines and while Eustace (Will Poulter) manages to be appropriately irritating, all are upstaged by the gallant Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), a mouse more human than any of his counterparts in the film or even his own literary manifestation as an upper class prig!
However, at the culmination of the journey, it’s left to Caspian (Ben Barnes) to deliver the coup de grace to the rich metaphor of Narnia as Lewis’s realized commonwealth of justice, compassion and humility.  With his leaden assertion, “I want to be a better king”, Caspian transforms the vision that Lewis articulated so eloquently - a world where righteousness and leadership are intricately woven - into an anachronism, an embarrassingly out of date image that has no pertinence to a post modern world.
        Consequently, this movie itself becomes a metaphor that encapsulates the dilemma of the church.  The circumstance of this story in the grip of this studio is an apt image for the situation of the Christian faith in hands of the Western world.  As we struggle to secure our place in the market of post modern inventions, as we bootstrap our story into the optics of the 21st century, how much do we sacrifice the integrity of our faith on the altar of entertainment and economic viability?  At what cost to the former is success in the latter?
        It’s been said that the revenues from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were sufficient to justify the risk that 20th Century Fox took by investing in the project; the movie “performed” well enough to generate the possibility of a next episode.  The mind races to imagine what that might be.  Will they engage the rubrics of Creation (The Magicians Nephew)?  Perhaps Muslim/Christian relations (The Horse and his Boy)?  How about apocalypse (The Last Battle)?  Given the evidence of this film, I can wait.
Submitted by Murray Groom, SCN Network Chair

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