Thoughts on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Christian Fantasy

Over the past several weeks, I’ve witnessed much discussion online regarding The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie, with many individuals addressing valid concerns–the focus on conquering darkness by one’s own strength, generic moralistic lines scattered throughout the film, the heightened rivalry between Edmund and Caspian, and so forth. But while many disliked the adaptation, I’ve also heard from people who enjoyed the film and thought it captured well what they loved about the novel.

After experiencing Prince Caspian, my expectations  for the film remained low. I tried to enter the theater with the awareness that differences between the written word and film would necessitate some changes to the storyline. As an aside regarding substantive changes between book and film, CS Lewis expressed his profound displeasure with this practice when he witnessed it done in his time. Regarding the claim that a book must be dramatically  altered to support cinematic demands,  he said “It would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.”  Based upon his own words, I cannot help but think he would have been less than enthused about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s adaptation. But at any rate, when I went to see the film, I tried to remove the book from my mind and pretend that this was a fresh tale…and so doing I found that I did not enjoy the movie even in its own right. It fell flat for me, both as an original tale and as an adaptation. That lead me to consider why–what was the difference between the film and the book, that one could captivate me and the other leave me cold?

For me, the key difference was the change in the very purpose of the tale. The film stripped away the driving motives for the original journey, a heroic quest taken not because evil threatened to overtake the entire world, but because Caspian and his companions desired adventure and yearned to seek after the hidden and unknown things.

This can be plainly seen in the book when they discover the last remaining lords on Ramandu’s Island and find that to break the enchantment over the three sleepers they must travel as close to the World’s End as they can. At that moment, Caspian says, “even if it were not so, it would break my heart not to go as near to the World’s End as the Dawn Treader will take us” revealing the greater motive propelling him onward from the beginning. And Reepicheep echoes a similar sentiment even more strongly, caught up in the grand vision of finding Aslan’s country, no matter the cost, “My own plans are made. While I can, I will sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise…”

Going a step further, toward the very end of the story, when the outward quest reached total fulfillment–the lords found and the enchantment broken–Caspian still yearned to see the World’s End, and was even willing to forsake his kingdom, so strongly did he desire it. In these occurrences, we see the greater journey, the chief desire, the sense of wonder experienced when exploring uncharted territories and pursuing that which is outside of the knowledge of man.

This sense of anticipation, of wonder and exploration, of glorious vision was exchanged for a generic fantasy mash-up plotline, one of an evil green mist, a vague, nebulous force threatening to overtake and corrupt the world for absolutely no reason. In the film, Caspian and crew continue on the journey because if they don’t succeed, they will die and all of Narnia will be consumed by evil…quite a different emphasis from the original, and one altogether lacking in its own right, due to the fashion it which it was crafted.

To be clear, I have no objection to stories seeking to save the world from an evil foe, after all, such is a staple of the fantasy genre and a storyline I often enjoy. But even those stories derive strength from showing the beauty and worth of that which the characters seek to preserve. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo thinks of the safety of his beloved Shire and the innocent citizens and this gives him boldness to go on. We’re shown the good, that which is valued and cherished, and it gives greater meaning to the battle against evil, as well as imparting the determination and perseverance needed for the fight. Granted, the movie gives a few token nods in this direction, but we are never really shown a glimpse of true Narnian wonder and beauty until the end, when evil has been defeated. And that moment, when we get a glimpse of Aslan’s country, was for me the only meaningful part of the film.

All that said, I know many have different views on this, and I’m interested in other perspectives. Have you seen the movie? I’d like to hear your thoughts, whether in agreement or dissent!

Comments

  • Jeff Chapman
    January 5, 2011 - 5:16 pm · Reply

    Hi Sarah,

    I haven’t seen any of the Narnia films, but I have read all the books. (How’s that for a fresh reversal? : ) ) Thanks for your summary of the major changes. I’m usually tolerant of books being altered a bit for adaptation. A book and a film are different entities. However, I hate it when someone changes the point of a story as your summary suggests in the case of the Dawn Treader. Why would the original point of the adventure not have translated to film? People go on vacations or backpacking around the world just to have fun. Why would movie goers not be able to relate?

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 7, 2011 - 12:43 pm · Reply

      I like that reversal, and I don’t think you have missed a great deal not seeing this particular movie. 🙂

      In this case, the director Michael Apted actually said “We were able to steal, really, from the book CS Lewis didn’t write” and “it (presumably the book Lewis didn’t write) enabled us to find a stronger reason for the journey, since there is no real reason for the journey as it stands.” Remarks like that make me wonder about the attention he actually gave the book to begin with, since there are clear motives for the characters and for the journey.

      At any rate, with that mentality, it’s no surprise that the very nature of the film differed drastically from the book. As you said, some changes must take place to account for a different medium, but if they’re going to rob it of all that made the story unique, why bother with the tale in the first place?

      I certainly agree that movie-goers can relate to the idea of adventure and a quest for exploration and would have loved to see some of that captured on screen.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    January 5, 2011 - 8:45 pm · Reply

    I missed the real drive that Reep had, and his sacrifice. He was such a good character in the movie (as he is in the book), but that big moment was watered down. That’s pretty much how I felt about the whole movie—what wasn’t changed was watered down. And yes, I doubt if Lewis would be pleased. However, I say again, I’m glad they’re making the movies, if for no other reason than that more people are buying and reading the books.

    Great, great review, Sarah. You do a wonderful job analyzing stories.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 7, 2011 - 12:52 pm · Reply

      Thanks so much, Becky!

      I also would have loved to see more of Reepicheep’s drive, as that was central to his very nature. I think you summed it up well with the idea that things were either changed or watered down, much to my dismay.

      I do hope the film will garner additional attention and a wider audience for books. It certainly serves to bring them into the public eye. I’d be interested to know how much of an increase in sales of the Narnia books has taken place as a result of the films (though such things can be difficult to measure).

  • Rachel Starr Thomson
    January 6, 2011 - 12:50 am · Reply

    Yes, yes, yes. I concur exactly. I am not a huge stickler for “exact representations of the book,” but I just didn’t like the movie in its own right.
    Honestly, I think the old BBC version, for all of its corny acting and dreadful special effects, captured the wonder of the book–and is, for me, a much more fulfilling movie experience.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 7, 2011 - 12:56 pm · Reply

      I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my feelings. If they managed to make a compelling film, I think I would have been able to enjoy it for its own sake…but unfortunately that was not the case.

      I was just thinking about the old BBC films a few days ago. I haven’t seen them in years, but I’d like to watch them again, and your recommendation makes me all the more eager to do so. That sense of wonder is what I’ve missed so much in the recent adaptations.

  • Aubrey Hansen
    January 6, 2011 - 4:12 pm · Reply

    Being a screenwriter, I will defend the film industry for a moment – books change when they translate to the screen. Script and prose are vastly different arts. In fact, it has been said that the best “literary” novels often make the worst scripts!

    That being said, filmmakers sometimes make ridiculous changes… I haven’t seen any of the Narnia films, being rather neutral on the Narnia subject, but I have heard enough positive reviews of this film to make me curious to see it. Many of my friends, though they questioned some of the changes, enjoyed this film.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 7, 2011 - 1:09 pm · Reply

      Aubrey, thanks for sharing your perspective as one with more experience in the film industry. I agree that books must have some level of adaptation to make it to film and that many novels simply aren’t suited to becoming movies.

      Interestingly, in the Lewis essay I quoted from above, he discussed different sorts of “excitement” that we experience when interacting with story (whether on screen or on paper), using the example that a fate of death by slow, agonizing starvation in an enclosed tomb is a very different matter from the swift death brought on by being caught in the path of an erupting volcano and burned alive, and that the emotional core of the story is therefore different. From his perspective, if the nature of the emotion stirred must change completely for the story to make it onto film, it would be better not to attempt the adaptation. I just thought that was interesting in the light of what was done with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

      I think in my case, I’m fairly open to changes, as long as the core themes and nature of the story and characters are preserved. To use a non-fantasy example, the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea films captured the emotion of the books, their sweetness and sense of imagination, and the essence of the characters, despite changes that combined about four of the original books into two films and involved omitting certain characters and storylines.

      Of course, in all this, I speak from the perspective of a novelist, not a screenwriter. 🙂

      If you do go to see the movie, I’d be quite interested to hear your thoughts.

  • Nichole White
    January 8, 2011 - 1:34 pm · Reply

    I had mixed thoughts on the movie.

    As a book turned into a movie I was disappointed. The book was my favorite out of the series, and I felt like the movie didn’t capture the magic and wonder of the book. There were some changes that were obvious but that I was ok with… like Eustace as the dragon. I thought that worked alright, though I immediately knew how they had changed it. I also thought mixing Dragon Isle with Gold Water Isle was a decent idea, considering both islands had similar qualities.

    However, the green mist was, in my opinion, completely unnecessary. As was switching around Ramandu’s Isle and Dark Isle. And I wasn’t happy about the secondary plot with the swords either. You were right in that aspect: this evil green mist seems to have no connection to the swords whatsoever… so why should the swords be able to undo the evil spell? And what caused the spell in the first place? There’s nothing that says. In the book, Dark Isle was just there: it wasn’t trying to take over the world or anything… it was just there.

    And then, of course, we have the aweful mess up with Reepacheep’s sacrifice. That was one of my favorite part of the book and they completely ruined it.

    When I went to watch the movie just as a movie, and put the book as far out of my head as possible, I didn’t think it was that bad but I still wasn’t completely satisfied with it. As a movie based on the book, they didn’t do that great a job. Better than Prince Caspian… but no where near as good as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    I hope they do better with the last four books.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 11, 2011 - 12:17 pm · Reply

      I agree that some of the changes made sense and could have improved the flow of the film, if they were the only alterations. Sadly, that was not the case!

      I join you in hoping that the remaining films (if they are made) do a better job capturing what made the books so unique and meaningful. Certain ones, like The Last Battle , I would rather not see filmed if they are botched so badly. I think it would be too painful. We’ll just have to wait and see!

  • Hannah
    August 11, 2011 - 12:01 pm · Reply

    Miriam just recommended your blog to me, and this post immediately caught my eye.

    I find it interesting that your opinion matches those of most of the Narnia fans I know (and quite confirms my deduction that “viewing the film for itself, separate from the book” was the best way to dislike it. 🙂

    I agree with much of what you said about the plot, and it does seem that the makers did not understand the book well at all.

    But (you asked for it :), there is another perspective I think one can take. Here, I wrote my (brief) review on Narniaweb, and I’d be interested to see what you think of it: http://www.narniaweb.com/reviews/?id=272

    • Sarah Sawyer
      August 12, 2011 - 5:04 pm · Reply

      Hannah, thanks for stopping by and taking time to share your thoughts. I just read your review, and I think you addressed some good points.

      For me, everything else going on in the movie cluttered it to the extent that I disengaged. Therefore, I couldn’t sense the spirit of Narnia, the wonder which I was hoping to experience. If I did, I likely would have found the other issues much easier to forgive, as you did. Perhaps going in with a different mindset would have helped in that regard.

      At any rate, your review helped me understand the viewpoint of those who did enjoy the tale, so I’m glad you shared your perspective. 🙂

      • Hannah
        August 15, 2011 - 10:00 pm · Reply

        Thanks for reading and answering!

        Yes, I think one of the worst things about the movie is its fast pacing, precisely because it doesn’t allow the viewer to easily see the richness underneath the clutter.

        Likewise, I appreciate hearing your perspective, particularly because you wrote without the anger and scathing comments I’ve seen in other reviews. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Rachel Starr Thomson. Cancel Reply