Narnia film long on action, short on faith

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“Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence: and take not thy holy Spirit from me. O give me the comfort of thy help again: and stablish me with thy free Spirit.” (Psalm 51, v. 10)

AT THE OPENING of Prince Caspian, the second book in the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series, the inhabitants of C.S. Lewis’ fantastical world have been bereft of the actual, physical presence of the Lord for a very long time. For the four Pevensies – English siblings who were called to Narnia to free it from the perpetual winter cast upon it by the fearsome White Witch – one year has passed since their first sojourn on the other side of the wardrobe. But, in Narnia, more than a thousand years have passed. The land has been cruelly subjugated by human invaders, and the indigenous population – talking animals and creatures out of mythology like centaurs, fauns, and dryads – has been killed or driven into hiding.

In Narnia, the manifestation of Christ, the Son (and Word) of God, takes the form of the great lion, Aslan. He has not been seen in ages, but the faithful hew to their faith. That faith is answered when the sounding of an ancient horn calls the four human children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy – back to Narnia, not as the fully grown kings and queens they’d once been, but as children, albeit extraordinarily brave and resourceful children. Now their quest is to save the Narnians from final annihilation at the hands of their human conquerors, and to restore one of the latter, a young prince who possesses a “right spirit,” to his rightful place as king.

The new cinematic treatment of Prince Caspian, directed by Andrew Adamson, who also helmed 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book, or at least of the book’s adventure elements. The film offers attractive locations and moments of discovery, excitement, humor, and even, to its credit, hints of the numinous (presence of the divine). Composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is especially effective when it references his themes from the earlier film. The emotional music and the eventual return of Aslan gives the film the power to move us at times. But, the film also ratchets up the action scenes, with an over-emphasis on battles. It’s precisely the same trap to which the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings fell prey. What’s lost in the process is the strong sense of character and place and emotion that’s present in the books. It’s a shame that filmmakers don’t trust their craft enough to indulge in leisurely scenes of quiet discovery and conversation. Without them, a film cannot hope to fully engage us in the fate of its characters or to immerse us in a world it only sketches.

At the heart of Prince Caspian (the book) were themes of faith, renewal, and rejoicing. Not all of those things make it intact from page to screen. Faith fares best of the three. One of the siblings asks Lucy, “Why do you think I didn’t see Aslan?” after the youngest of the four is the only one to espy Aslan at a figurative fork in the path. Lucy’s reply (and seemingly Lewis’ as well) is: “I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t really want to.” It’s an example of faith – earnest and eager and undoubting – in action. And the film references others who remain steadfast in their faith. But the book had so much more, like an old woman who has always believed in the stories of Aslan and Old Narnia. When the subject of her faith looks her in the face, she exclaims, “Oh, Aslan! I knew it was true. I’ve been waiting for this all my life.” The book’s moments like those are full of the joy of recognition and ultimate happy reunion, like a bride and groom.

What of renewal and rejoicing? True, the film depicts the reawakening of the trees and the reemergence from hiding of the other Narnians. But one element that’s conspicuous by its absence is the figure of a youthful Bacchus, portrayed in the book as a “wild” boy, clad in a fawn-skin and accompanied by “wild” girls and an old man on a donkey – all of them in a state of revelry and abandon. They form part of the growing entourage that accompanies Aslan as he brings renewal to the land. But there’s no sign of them, or the very particular kind of “wildness” they represent, on screen.

While the book’s Bacchus and his companions are never far from vines and grapes, they’re drunk not on wine but on the liberating, intoxicating presence of the Lord. Their wildness is emblematic of a Narnia that’s been freed from the oppressive “domestication” of Man – which, in Narnia as in our own world, leaves no room for the natural and unrestrained. Thus, vines generated by this wild procession pull down the man-made bridge that “chains” the river god. And this wildness signifies rebirth – an emotional spring, just like the literal spring that accompanied Aslan’s return in the first book: It’s part and parcel of the spirit of reunion, rebirth, reawakening, and transformation – themes that pervade the book but get short shrift in the film.

The film likewise neglects a contrast made in the book with a very different kind of wildness. Book and film both depict a sequence in which the children have a lethal encounter with a bear that has become a dumb brute – no longer fully sentient or ensouled. But the film omits Lucy’s prescient observation to her sister: “Such a horrible idea has come into my head … Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day, in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so that you’d never know which were which?”

Clearly, the wildness to which Lucy (and Lewis) is referring here is utterly different from the wildness of Bacchus and his revelers. Yet, who can deny that this savage kind of wildness has indeed found footholds (and far too many of them) in our world of the here and now? Perhaps our only comfort can come from the words of Aslan himself (words that again go missing from the film): “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve … And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Arts Magazine. © 2008 John Arkelian

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John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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