Trailers indicate Dawn Treader off course

Two and a half years ago, I wrote:

The Lord of the Rings. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And now Prince Caspian. Each of these may be a great movie. But each was allegedly adapted from a truly extraordinary novel.

In each of those movies, where the filmmakers’ choices differed from the originals they varied from hack-work to “very good but not as good as the original.” (Plus a few necessary cuts.) Fortunately, their additions and substitutions tended to be closer to the “inferior only to the original” side of the spectrum than to hack work; unfortunately, based on the latest trailers for the upcoming film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (I tip my hat to E. Stephen Burnett and GlumPuddle), it looks to have reversed that trend.

From the trailers, the two high points of the Narnia films so far—stunning visuals and inspired casting—seem to have continued. But the third mainstay of the series so far, spotty plotting, has worsened. Peter Jackson and Andrew Adamson (or their screenwriters) fabricated plot threads and entire subplots, but in The Lord of the Rings and the first two Narnia films, neither created the main plot out of whole cloth and made the original plot a subplot. And, from what we see in those films, neither Jackson nor Adamson would have let the “seven swords” plot get off the ground.

Both Jackson and Adamson made some major unusual, disastrous, and idiotic changes to some characters. To recapitulate some highlights: in Lord of the Rings the conflation of Arwen and Glorfindel is actually quite reasonable, but replacing Faramir with Boromir Mark II should have been unthinkable. In Narnia, beyond the hinted romance between Susan and Caspian that the filmmakers fabricated out of whole cloth, Prince Caspian nearly consistently misportrays most of the main characters. In the book, the fact that the Second Battle of Beruna was basically bloodless, as was the transition afterward, is a deliberate stroke of characterization of Aslan; the movie made the opposite characterization. Similarly, in the books the Pevensies—and earlier Diggory Kirke and Polly Plummer, and later Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole—come back from their encounters with Aslan permanently (except perhaps in the case of Susan) and markedly changed for the better. Sure, the Pevensies’ bodies lost fourteen years of age in a few moments, but would High King Peter the Magnificent really stoop to brawling in a train station, no matter how old his body was? Caspian, on the other hand, is thirteen in the book of which he is the title character and tries to decline the crown of Narnia on the grounds that he is “just a boy”—diametrically opposed to the way he was played in the film.

However, the Dawn Treader trailers seem to suggest it contains far worse changes. King Edmund the Just and King Caspian may be only teenagers, but each has been King over Narnia and met Aslan, and in any case neither of them is from the post-sixties America where their behavior in the scene in the trailer where they meet Ramandu’s daughter would be likely or acceptable. (Ramandu’s daughter supposedly being able to change her form at will is equally unlikely, but that’s mere silliness, while this is far more serious.) And then there’s Edmund’s unexplainable reaction to the White Witch: In Prince Caspian it is Peter who is tempted and Edmund who resists, apparently effortlessly. Edmund of all people should be the least likely to even listen to the White Witch, so why does the trailer depict him almost giving in to her?

So, basically, again, the directors are usurping the authors’ prerogative “to have a Better Idea.” The story would be far better served by producing it straight.

You may or may not be aware that in the late ’80s the BBC produced adaptations of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair for television. Except for a very few things, those adaptations were far superior to the last few years’ feature film adaptations: first, their special effects are typical of the era, usually obvious cell animation added to live-action scenes but also costumed actors for the animals. Second, the productions were obviously low budget, settling for third-rate settings, forgoing any elaborate props or sets, and avoiding scene changes when possible. Third, the more recent productions’ casting was arguably (arguably, mind, not certainly) better. And fourth, the television adaptation made even more cuts than the films. Now, most of the BBC’s cuts were logical and reasonable ones given their constraints (Caspian in only two episodes, and Dawn Treader in only four, with the other two novels in six each) but it’s hard to decide whether we prefer a tattered but well-done version or a more complete but badly adapted version.

What I really want is the BBC serials redone with the material they cut put back in, the special effects updated, the secondary cast and perhaps some of the principals replaced by better actors, and the cinematography done more professionally. That’s it. We don’t want Harry Potter’s younger step-sibling. We want Narnia. And from the trailers I’ve seen, Dawn Treader may not deliver.

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