Back in October I saw the trailers for the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie and expressed dismay at the direction the film seemed to be going. When I saw the film earlier this year, I discovered it was worse than I feared.
In that response to the trailers, I summarized the recent history of Inklings-novel dramatizations: great films, but far inferior to the books. The filmmakers clearly loved and generally understood the books, but didn’t “get” them deeply enough to do them justice. For true fans of the books, the Lord of the Rings and earlier Narnia movies were at worst disappointments. Dawn Treader, by contrast, is a slap in the face—a deliberate insult.
Each of the previous films (as usual, I’m including the Lord of the Rings here too) was basically faithful in its portrayal of what the book was about on the most superficial level: Lord of the Rings is about defeating Sauron forever by taking the Ring to Mount Doom and dropping it in. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about Edmund’s treason and Aslan’s sacrifice. Prince Caspian is about restoring Old Narnia under its rightful King, Caspian X. And we get that from the movies nearly as well as from the books.
But Dawn Treader is about a quest for honor (in seeking the seven lost lords, as Caspian swore to do when he was crowned), adventure, and the world’s end, undergone for no advantage or “useful” thing whatsoever. Not so in the movie; while the scene in which this first comes up is done nearly faithfully (omitting only Reepicheep’s “greater hope” for Aslan’s country at the world’s end), once they reach the Lone Islands they see the “evil green mist,” are given the first of the seven swords, and the search for the seven lords and for adventure in general is never mentioned again. Similarly, there’s a short scene that shows that Reepicheep would like to visit Aslan’s country some day (contrast this with his all-consuming longing that permeates the book!) … and then this, too, is never mentioned again until the end of the movie.
And it’s not only the plot, but also the central themes that the filmmakers did violence to. First, the subtle point from Caspian that victory need not involve bloody battles (which that film missed—but that’s understandable and excusable there) becomes a central theme in Dawn Treader, which features Reepicheep, of all people, shouting, “Don’t fight!” in the middle of the battle with the sea serpent, and the possibility that fighting might break out at any moment providing a tension to the Lone Islands sequence that the film tries and fails to duplicate. Instead, the film adds battles at every point it can.
Second, one of the points the book emphasizes over and over is that evil comes from within us; it is Caspian’s own greed at Deathwater, Eustace’s own “dragonish” thoughts, Lucy’s own vanity, and so on, from which their danger principally comes. And in each case it is Aslan’s intervention—an outside, and divine, force—that saves them from their trouble, even when (on Dark Island) the danger is external. The movie completely reverses this, turning toward the Pelagian heresy that evil comes from outside temptation (here ham-handedly symbolized by the green mist), and is defeated by the goodness inside the characters. This was precisely the point that Lewis refuted in the book.
And for all this, it isn’t even a good movie. The pacing is very rushed, and the film relies heavily on characters telling rather than showing their feelings and explaining the obvious. The end credits, based on the Pauline Baynes illustrations that have enchanted readers of the books for decades, were by far the best part of the movie—but they belong with a true Narnia movie. Not with a movie sharing only the title and the slightest resemblance with what Lewis wrote.