Battle Fatigue: A Review of Prince Caspian
May 16th, 2008 | Skip to comments
Prince Caspian is the perfect summer movie for audiences that know nothing about Narnia, or, even, perhaps would prefer to know nothing about Narnia. For in its 2 hours and 40 minutes, you will spend ample time in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, William Wallace’s Scotland, Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and maybe even fleeting moments in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but you will not spend more than 15 minutes in the world that Aslan made and that C. S. Lewis invented.
Is that a bad thing? Not if your goal is to erase the basic tenets of the Narniad, and re-envision the realm as primarily grim internecine warfare, a land, 1300 years since we last visited, surprisingly full of crossbows and catapults and other Vader-like war machines. There is evil in this world, but its roots are fundamentally different from Lewis’s version, for in his book, the problem with Narnia is suppressed knowledge, a spiritual amnesia, a people separated from its own nature, a true prince denied his throne. Here viciousness and vice are simply personal ambition writ large—a common enough, even commonplace conflict. And enough to fill a screen with more deaths per frame than perhaps any other summer movie will provide.
The cineplexes will soon flow with blood, guts, action, adventure, mayhem, and CGI. And on that score, Prince Caspian will hold its own; it is at least twice as good as last summer’s Transformers, more technologically impressive than its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and, certainly, filled with enough whimsy and valor (primarily in Peter Drinklage’s Trumpkin and Eddie Izzard’s Reepicheep) to please a wide range of moviegoers hungry for Shrek 4.
But, simply put, this no more a movie about Narnia than Shadowlands was about C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. The opening titles suggest that it is “Based on the Book by C. S. Lewis,” and, in the sense that character and place names are derived from his original work, fair enough. But almost from the start the liberties taken from Lewis emerge that rob the dedicated, affectionate reader of The Chronicles of that familiar sense of belonging, that “inconsolable longing” that suggests “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.” These moviemakers know movies; they don’t know, perhaps have never been to, Narnia. And it shows. For this scent we know well, this tune we hum constantly, and this country is all too overbooked.
Please don’t mistake these comments as mere rant, seeping from another wounded, disappointed apologist looking for spiritual pegs on which to hang his allegorical garments. Atmosphere is everything to Lewis: it’s what makes a countryside, a sunrise, a waterfall, a poem, a book, worth viewing, worth inhabiting. Prince Caspian, the book, is awash in nature, of boisterous Bacchanalian grandeur and joy—and thereby we are drawn in, captivated, enchanted, incarnate. Adamson has a glass eye and tin ear for such subtleties. This is epic movie making, not nuanced scene-setting; the closest the movie comes to it is near the end when the trees clasp their hands and the river rises up to restore order and balance in Narnia. More of this, sir, and less of the rest.
Anyone making this sequel would face the unenviable task of following perhaps the most beloved book of all those that Lewis wrote: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is a hard act to follow both theologically and, perhaps, cinematically, for is there anything that happens in Prince Caspian as momentous and as personally moving as confronting the raw evil of an oppressed Narnia, the anticipation of Aslan’s arrival, the climactic spiritual warfare between him and Queen Jadis, followed by his resurrection and the renewal of Narnia? The Fall, the Sacrifice, the Redemption, the Reign. How can that be topped? It can’t.
But it can be extended and branched out by gathering a new cast of characters placed in circumstances equally perilous and challenging. What would happen if Narnians forgot who Aslan is? What if they became oblivious to their history and the true story of their redemption? Lewis knew this theme well, for it described his own experience of the modern world, a world drowning in its own self-afflicted amnesia. And thus he wrote a much different sort of story to bridge them and us onto the Narnian future, bringing the Pevensies back in a rather ingenious time-displacement story told simultaneously retrospectively (through Trumpkin’s account of Dr. Cornelius’ mentorship over Caspian) and prospectively (through his familiar narrator’s wistful voice).
Prince Caspian, thus, is about what happens next, what happens when the mystique and the mystery of life has been stripped away or treated contemptuously—about what happens when Aslan’s true nature and the Pevensie’s righteous reign are discarded or buried or ignored. A movie made of such poignant substance, could be transcendent, lyrical, mythopoeic, could be a wondrous standalone tale in itself—as the forgotten kings and queens of Narnia return not a moment too soon to help the noble but naive Prince Caspian learn his destiny and help true Narnians recover their birthright. Regrettably, that is not the movie Andrew Adamson and his crew have chosen to make.
Prince Caspian is meant as an indigenous story, a story that begs to be told by, for, and through the inhabitants on the other side of the
wardrobe, er, railway. Unfortunately and inexplicably, this script relentlessly mistrusts Lewis’s narrative emphasis on character development and the role of honor and integrity and substitutes mere battle armor, a mindless proliferation of arrows and blades. With the lavish attention to state of the art CGI, it may seem perverse for me to say that the movie lacks imagination. It is, in its failures, too literal.
This is a movie that not only downplays exposition—absent are explanations of why and how Caspian must be tutored by Dr. Cornelius, why Nikabrik may doubt the existence of Aslan and choose to cavort with hags and werewolfs who can reanimate a dead Queen Jadis, why the Pevensies would long to see the hide-and-seek, reluctantly heroic, passive-aggressive Aslan again in the first place—it seems to depise it. An outsider to the Narnian universe must wonder, if not from the beginning, in various junctures, why this is all happening, in this order, for these reasons: all resulting in confusion, creating head-scratching puzzlement over what exactly it means to be a Narnian, and why it would be honorable to fight for its heritage against these evil Telmarines.
Aslan’s deployment here is quite perfunctory, and essentially reduced to a rather cynical cameo; while Narnians are dying heroically, he is roaming the woods, awaiting Lucy’s arrival to remind her of how brave she is. He shows up at the movie’s climactic scene not so much to save the day (it is too late for that), but to demonstrate his power over nature, soliciting the question, where were you in reel one?
The item that I object to most in this screenplay is transferral of the temptation to conjure up the White Witch to Caspian and Peter—not something that Lewis would have approved; it fits neither their character nor the flow of the plot. It barely explains why even the world-weary dwarf, Nikabrik, whose faith has been shattered, would be so inclined, so desperate. Whence comes his rage and doubt? Lewis provides that motivation and in the book’s most poignant scene, uses Nikabrik’s own comrades to explain why his twisted logic would bring further ruin upon Narnia.
In the end, too much battle left this Narnian admirer and Lewis lover fatigued and bad-tempered. Some very good actors, including those playing the Pevensies, are not given much to do. More’s the pity. We can only hope that Michael Apted, the director named to oversee The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” will be more respectful of the Narnian worldview and provide the franchise some spiritual depth, and moral courage. At least we have more of Reepicheep to look forward to; let’s hope his personality does not morph into his lesser second cousin twice-removed, Mickey.