I went to watch the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie today. It’s the third new new Narnia movie — The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was very good, and Prince Caspian was beautiful but disappointing. Dawn Treader has similar strengths and weaknesses to Prince Caspian. In many ways it’s very well made. The acting, costumes, sets, audio, and visual effects are good; nearly every scene is strikingly beautiful. As a fantasy movie it’s very decent. Coherent, lovely, well made. If I were reviewing Dawn Treader as a contemporary fantasy film, it’s good. Solidly attractive and entertaining.
All that is true and just, but it’s also all I can give to this film. The problem is that I can’t evaluate it as a piece of modern entertainment — not honestly. It’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Not a fantastic or brilliant book, but good — and more importantly, good in ways that are often foreign to modern fiction. There are three specific changes that represent to me how this story changed and what that signifies: the Dark Island, Ramandu, and the undragoning of Eustace.
The theatrical expansion of the place of the Dark Island could be interpreted in several ways. I could say that we have increased the place given to evil and madness among the wonders of the world. I could say that we have a more tightly focused sense of plot, so that it hardly makes sense in modern cinema to have a children’s adventure movie that’s simply about sailing about looking for stuff — just because. I could say that we apparently don’t know how to have a plot without conflict, or conflict without overblown evil. That’s all too bad. If we really can’t imagine adventure without evil, that’s a great poverty, since the world was created for adventure, but not for evil. But what stands out to me the most in the movie version of the Dark Island is the lack of simple grace.
There was a quote I once heard attributed to Fr Alexander Schmemann: that he would listen to the confessions of seminarians; they would come to him with all their complex psychologies, and all he had to offer them was Paschal joy: and they didn’t want it. The book account of the Dark Island is somewhat like that, only with a different conclusion. Lucy’s great strength i that she can and does accept grace, in every story. So they’re inside a great dark mess: it makes their nightmares real; a crazy Narnian lord they rescued told them so, and the men begin to panic. Just as things are about to get bad Lucy stands on the fighting top of the ship, by the lamp, and asks Aslan for help — she prays. A light appears, and an albatross, which guides them out; when they turn back to look at the island, it’s gone. The incident is simple, a bit creepy (in a children’s book), and resolves very fast — too fast, according to the movie, which makes a whole epic quest out of it. I like, though, that sometimes Aslan just steps in and does things without waiting for them to get out of control scary. Sometimes it’s alright to just accept Paschal joy.
Then there’s the undragoning of Eustace. In the movie it’s tied into the Dark Island Epic Quest just-in-the-nick-of-time stuff. In the book — well, first, it’s one of the best parts of the book. It has a beautiful mythic resonance: Alsan undresses, washes, and cloths Eustace — like Jesus healing a demoniac. Taking off layers of skin — but Eustace still can’t take them all off for himself, and Alsan must hurt him some, but it’s so much better afterwards. The movie kept just the tiniest bit of this, but not enough that I would have any idea what had happened if I had only that to go by. And Aslan doesn’t wash him! It’s important!
Which brings me to Ramandu’s island. The retired star at the end of the world, who has a feast daily renewed, and the stone knife that once killed Aslan. Every morning a great flock of white birds flies from East of the rising sun to the island, put a live coal in Ramandu’s mouth (which will make him a little younger each day until, in centuries or ages, he’s prepared to be a star once more). eat all the food on Aslan’s table, and replace the feast once again. It’s beautiful mythology, and such a very, very Eucharistic reference. It’s hard to overstate allegorical tendencies of this reference — they’re about as obvious and certain as the Stone Table and the Crucifixion. But people nowadays don’t get Eucharistic references. So it’s not in the movie. Not at all. Instead Caspian and company have to collect the seven swords and bring them to the table to dispel the darkness. Seven swords? What on earth does that even mean? Well, it’s contemporary fantasy — it probably doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an old legend. Therein lies the problem. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a disappointing movie because there’s no concern for what in the book is for the sake of plot, what is Lewis’ own symbolism, and what is ancient Christian symbolism. The ancient Christian is simply gone. I can’t remember if there was any oil, but if there were it no doubt would be gone from the movie — because now it’s simply fantasy, not numinous.