Banner reviews, misunderstands Prince Caspian

This was originally posted on Facebook as a Note on May 1, 2008.

Prince Caspian movie poster

I read a review of Prince Caspian in the Banner. (For non-Calvin readers, the Banner is the denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, which can be found in stacks across campus.) I (obviously) haven’t seen the film, and this review is making me (slightly) uneasy about the prospect, because the reviewer shows a near-total misunderstanding of what the book was about.

Case in point: He says that “Although Lewis never liked to describe The Chronicles of Narnia as biblical allegory, but ‘only magic,’ the parallels are undeniable. Aslan represents Christ, the White Witch is Satan tempting Edmund, who is Judas, and so on and so on.” Several things are very wrong here. Even if we grant his premise that Narnia is allegory, these “parallels,” or at least the last one, leave much to be desired. Edmund is as much Simon Peter as he is Judas, and most of his character fits with neither. In fact, Aslan as Christ, White Witch as Satan, and Lucy and Susan as the women who were the first to see the empty tomb are pretty much as far as the alleged allegory can be taken.

However, Lewis didn’t only “not like to describe” Narnia as allegory, he flatly rejected that categorization in a (1958?) letter:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

Allegory is a genre where everything and everyone represents either an abstract concept or a real person or place. A Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm, and Lewis’s own A Pilgrim’s Regress are all examples of allegory. (This article on the question makes the same error in calling the Divine Comedy an allegory—in the Comedy the characters do not represent anything but themselves.) In Narnia Aslan is Christ—in a world of Talking Animals, God would take on animal flesh as he did human flesh here—the White Witch is that world’s Accuser, and so on.

But these novice misunderstandings aside, I’m not entirely sure I was reading the same novels as this reviewer, who wrote that he “found Lewis’s original novel a bit slow moving” but reassured us that “the movie will deliver some special effects thrills that rival Lord of the Rings.” As I’ve said before, that’s not a flattering comparison; the adaptation of Tolkien’s three volumes could have been drastically improved by shaving five percent or so of every battle scene (especially in the background stuff), maybe cut some of the superfluous additions, and instead included the Scouring of the Shire. Which is the most important part of the whole story (from a theoretical standpoint, anyway). Oh, and while we’re wishing for changes, turn Faramir from a Bormir clone back into the moral brother of the pair; omitting the trip to Osgiliath could have saved several minutes of screen time (though it would have eliminated the unintended funniest line of the whole trilogy: “We shouldn’t even be here!”). The same could have been done with the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: the Inklings’ pacing, anecdote selection, characterization, and ellipsis choice are much better than modern filmmakers’ second-guessing.

“The screen-writers changed the structure of the story as well, allowing them to contrast the four children with Prince Caspian.” We’ll have to see how this turns out; like I said, in general second-guessing the author is a Bad Idea, but the “backstory dump as Trumpkin’s story” took a while to grow on me in the book and putting Caspian’s story up to the sounding of the Horn first (which is what I would do if I were rearranging the story) could work.

Then again, the reviewer says that “The battle scenes are action-packed” and that “Three years ago I wrote . . . that I thought the pacing in the first Narnia film was a bit slow . . . [but Prince Caspian] is darker, livelier, and much swifter in its storytelling.” His take on the first film was entirely wrong, then; if anything it was much too fast-paced. While the ride to the Witch’s castle on Aslan’s back was a whirlwind of words, and the flight from the Beavers’ dam, the chase through the house that got them in the wardrobe in the fist place, and a few other passages were somewhat fast, the movie made everything at breakneck speed. (This was undoubtedly to make it all fit in a reasonable amount of time, but with the script’s additions–like the cricket game and, more to the point, that whole scene with the wolves on the ice–that added more time than the breathless pace of the movie shaved off, this is inexcusable.) And the removal of Lewis’s pacing of the flight from the dam was a major change outside the scope of a mere adaptation. More action is not what a movie needs; Narnia requires contemplation, solemnity, and some emotion other than mere thrills.

So, then, while I will eventually see Prince Caspian when it comes out, as well as any further installments—and, though my dad refused to see Return of the King because of how far the first two segments of Lord of the Rings had diverged from Tolkien, I watched it and will probably do the same with these—I have mixed feelings. While the visual picture of Narnia (though an order of magnitude too big) in the movies, and the particular actors playing the Pevensies, is compelling, I hope the production staff didn’t mess things up too much. At least I have the original to go back to if they do produce a flop.

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