This was originally posted on Facebook as a Note on May 2, 2008.
I wrote yesterday (this morning?) about the review of the upcoming Prince Caspian in The Banner. At that point all I had to go on was the book (worse: merely my memory of it), the review, and the inset of a poster of the movie. After sending the note to News Feeds across the state, I went looking for trailers, and found trailers and more, including TV ads and behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries. While all this visual stimulation stirred up what Lewis called Joy, the longing for the real country of which even Narnia is only a shadow, it also left me shaking my head.
I now know of exactly one filmmaker in the world today who, adapting a literary classic into a movie, does a straight adaptation and makes a film classic. That man is Kenneth Branagh, who adapts Shakespeare (though he had a cameo as Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). And even he makes the occasional weird choice (though I have yet to see one that broke the original), like setting As You Like It in feudal Japan. (Which, after seeing it once, actually works–unlike the production I saw in Stratford which set it in Vietnam-era America, Calvin’s fall 2005 production setting it in “the forest frontier” of America rather than “the forest of Arden,” or the movie coming out this summer whose trailers come up on YouTube above even the 2006 Branagh film’s.)
The director of the Narnia films–whose name I have not bothered to note–appears to be making the same error as Peter Jackson, who directed the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. And it comes from a virtue in filmmakers. The error is to suppose that a his judgement of what would be a stunning visual effect, plot twist, etc., is to be preferred to that of the author whose work he is adapting. This comes from two sources: first, the virtue of a keen eye for drama, stunning visual effects, etc., and second from our culture’s adrenaline and general thrill addiction.
The consequence and symptom of this disorder in the Narnia films, and in Jackson’s take on Tolkien, is an increasing divergence from the text of the novels. Caspian is described everywhere–in the trailers, by the actor playing the title role, by the director–as an “epic.” (It’s worth noting that a fan trailer produced soon after the first movie came out, probably as soon as Caspian was announced, called it Lewis’s “beloved masterpiece” while the official trailer calls it his “epic masterpiece.”) While it is probably more “epic” than the first, if you go by the text it is most certainly not. (Unless you mean “in the tradition of the epics,” which would tend to exclude “epic battles”–while I haven’t read it, I am given to understand that even the Iliad contains more sitting, talking, arguing, etc., than fighting.) Tolkien’s work may approach “epic,” but Jackson (or the team under his direction) broadened the scope of the story by at least an order of magnitude, falsified characters (Faramir, Arwen out of Glorfindel, Aragorn’s horse, etc.), deleted what is in my opinion the most important sequence of the entire three volumes, the Scouring of the Shire (this article has a fair treatment of the subject), added elements contradicting major themes (elves at Helm’s Deep, for one), and so on, and so on. It’s almost as if Jackson thought that Tolkien’s text was a starting point that could be made into a good story, rather than the masterpiece of literature that it is.
In the first Narnia film, though this disorder is present, it is much subtler–as indeed it was in the first installment of Lord of the Rings. The primary symptoms are the emphasis on both the vast size of Narnia (which contradicts the impression I got from the book, of Narnia being, like Israel, a tiny country given disproportionate importance to the history of the world) and on combat. There are perhaps four battles in the entire novel, depending on whether you count Peter’s encounter with the wolf where he “earns his spurs,” and all are treated rather briefly–the final battle mostly in a post-operation debrief. But you’d never know it from the film. And, as I remarked in my last Note, everything is rushed. The trailers and other related footage show that, while something of the nostalgia of the first few chapters comes through better than I had hoped, again the director had a “Better Idea.” (Which is, as Bujold has remarked, the author’s prerogative. My corollary: The author’s alone. Perhaps shared with the reader, cf. her essay “The Unsung Collaborator” in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma and the tremendous community that writes “fan fiction” to ease the pain of Better Ideas that turned out to be worse.) The trailers show Caspian coming to the island ruins of Cair Paravel (though that may be a conflation of two scenes from different parts of the movie, as is common in trailers), two catapults firing into either a field of trees or a castle (sorry, didn’t happen—and the armies around the catapults were entirely too large for either side to have supported given how small Narnia is, even after ten generations of Telmarine rule. Calormen, maybe; Narnia, no, not even with Archenland’s help), and the actor playing Caspian describing his part the first day of shooting as riding in to “save the day” which left him feeling “like a prince.” Again, that’s not in the book I read; while Caspian was properly trained for the job until his cousin was born, he was “just a kid.”
I hope and pray that a majority with sense and the ethics not to be in the Disney lobby’s pocket reforms the copyright law SOON, so that someone like Kenneth Branagh can make proper adaptations of the monumental classics of our age.