Saturday, May 24, 2008

Caspian, adaptation, summation, disappointment?

I've been seeing very mixed reviews on Prince Caspian so far. Granted, I've been reading mainly the Christian reviewers I respect (Overstreet, Chattaway, Greydanus) rather than the more mainstream ones but given this is Narnia after all...

Anyway, in a nutshell, people are generally agreed that as a piece of filmmaking, it's actually pretty good, and even superior to the first instalment. Some are even prepared to say that it improves on the original plotline. I was interested to discover that Caspian seems to be regarded as the weakest of the Narnia books. I suppose it is true that in terms of the pacing of the book, it isn't always the best: lots of travelling and exposition. But thematically it's as rich as any other Narnia book, especially in the way it treats memory and maturity. Think of how the Penvensies must remember who they really are in Narnia (they even take a while to realise they're in Narnia!), how the recollection of Old Narnia sustains the hopes of those who oppose Miraz, Edmund's willingness to believe Lucy this time around (cf. Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), and perhaps more indirectly, the way the book itself is structured: extensive flashbacks, a travel narrative that mirrors the coming-of-age of the characters.

But I digress. The big question is: how faithful should the film be to the book, or perhaps a better question is, what counts as a faithful adaptation? How you answer this question will determine your reaction to the cinematic version. I suspect that if you don't care about the book there's no problem at all. [SPOILER ALERT follows for those who want to know absolutely nothing about the film] According to reviews I've been reading, here are some of the changes:
  • The contrasts between Old Narnia and "modern" Narnia under Miraz are minimised. That's quite a serious thing, as the (dis)enchantment of the world is a big theme in the book. See Greydanus for more.
  • Trumpkin becomes Mr. Grumpy, which misses the nuance of the character. In the book, Trumpkin is conflicted but willing and earnest to seek the truth. Sure, this means he's going to be a little gruff on occasion, but in the end he's always trustworthy. Considering that I think one of the key scenes in the book, the dispute between the Badger (whose name currently escapes me) and Nikabrik, is given its power precisely because of Trumpkin's qualities, I'm certainly not optimistic about this.
  • Reepicheep becomes the wisecracking equivalent of Shrek's Donkey. NOOOOO!!!! Reepicheep is the quintessence of chivalry and valiance. It's because of this that he is occasionally overly zealous, which leads to some pretty funny moments, but ironic he ain't.
  • As Stephen Altrogge quite memorably put it, Susan has a 'Saved By the Bell'-crush on Caspian. *slaps forehead*
  • Peter and Caspian have a clash of egos. Actually, I don't have a problem with this change, since I think it doesn't violate the spirit of the book in that both still have some growing up to do. I'm told Peter is actually much stronger in this film, which is a welcome change from the first movie.
  • Aslan is reduced to a bit role, and Lucy sees Aslan in a dream sequence - not in the book.
As you can plainly see, in this case, I'm all for a faithful adaptation. Personally, I don't think this means following the book slavishly - I have no problem with rearranging or expanding material. I'm glad the LOTR films are the way they are! But a faithful adaptation should seek to be true to the spirit of the book, and judging by the reviews, ugh.

Now to be fair, even the more mixed reviews have pointed out plenty of positives. I've already mentioned that most agree that the film is better on the pacing of the plot. A film buff friend of mine was sold on the Penvensies, whom he says really do shine here. The more positive reviews have faulted Christians for having unrealistic expectations of Hollywood and highlight the general spiritual themes that come through, such as those of faith, courage, the folly of folly. In one sense, that actually makes it more disappointing, because while all these are good, the film seems to have missed the boat in conveying the even richer vision of the book.

Despite that, I think I will go and see the film when it comes out. Who knows, maybe I'll revise my opinion.

More mixed:
Steven Greydanus - if you read just one review, this is probably it. Balanced and very thoughtful.
Jeffrey Overstreet
Peter Chattaway
Doug Wilson

More positive:
Christ and Pop Culture
John Mark Reynolds
Frederica Mathewes-Green (not a standalone review)
Mark Doebler

For fun: What would Repicheep say?

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