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Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

December 7, 2010 3 comments

As is always the case when dealing with something potentially controversial, I will start by identifying factors that may influence my thinking. That will give all readers an opportunity to judge the extent to which my review is skewed by any of those elements feeding into my opinions. As an explicitly Christian film based on the novel written by a middle-class British man of Irish ancestry, I confirm that I am an atheist holding British nationality although my paternal grandmother was Irish. Like the author, I am a middle-class intellectual, now reaching old age.

This film is a fascinating recreation of the middle-class style of language and behaviour. The accents are very clipped (almost lovingly BBC in their Home Counties phrasing) and very much of the period. I am faintly surprised because this places an immediate cultural barrier between what we see and hear on the screen, and modern sensibilities. The writers and director could have allowed the children to be “modern”. Indeed, from a production point of view, it would have been so much easier to make the film. Just think how much time and effort had to go into vocal coaching to teach these children how to speak in this artificial way. If they had spoken in contemporary British English or in the mid-Western and somewhat anonymous American English so popular in today’s international cinema, it would have made them so much more accessible to the modern audience. Since the primary part of the narrative takes place in a fantasy world, there was no need to recreate C. S. Lewis’ England and its emotionally stunted behaviour. The issues faced by people today are exactly the same as those faced by these children out of time.

Over the decades, I have seen many different productions of Shakespeare. Some in traditional costume with “Elizabethan” accents. Some in contemporary or futuristic settings with any number of different vocal and behavioural styles, including one memorable version of Comedy of Errors as a West End musical. In the making of this and the two preceding films, there were no limits on the characterisation for the children. They could have been placed in any Earthly environment. Thus, the decision to frame the story in this way must be to distance the audience from the characters. The modern audience is not expected to empathise with these children, but rather to see them and understand them as symbols. We witness the processes they must go through, and appreciate their struggle at a more intellectual than emotional level.

So what are these processes? The key to understanding this film lies in one set of symbols. To defeat “evil”, the quest for those on the Dawn Treader is to acquire seven swords, one to slay each of the seven Cardinal Sins which, for these purposes, we can take as envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. At an individual level, we must defeat the evil that lies within us before we can defeat the evil in the world. This means each of the primary characters must be tempted and find the power to resist. For those who succumb to temptation, the road to redemption will be harder but, because this is a film about the resilience of the human spirit, those who find a greater truth about who they are as individuals are saved. Those that never doubt who they are go on to a better place.

The original novels in the Chronicles of Narnia are all very short by modern standards. I read them all in the 1950s when they first appeared in my local library. This film runs for 112 minutes. To produce content for this length has required everyone to slow things down and, wherever possible, embellish the original sketched narrative as full-blown action sequences. This is not in itself a criticism, but it does place a burden on the viewer. For example, in the first island sequence, we are asked to sit through an extended version of capture by slave traders, an offer of sale at market and a fight as the crew from the Dawn Treader stages a rescue. This is a significant rewrite. Instead of Lord Bern buying Caspian, he is a prisoner himself who also has to be rescued. There are more radical inventions later. Even if I forget everything I know about the original, the whole narrative is dragged out at every turn so that we can make the length. What could be deft, becomes cumbersome. Lucy is envious of her sister’s “beauty”. She covets what she sees in others rather than trusting herself to grow into a fine human being. This does not need spell books, complicated tricks with mirrors and an alternate universe peek into a different future. It is overcomplicating a simple idea. We should see the sins more clearly for what they are, and understand how and why the children are tempted.

If this had been thirty or more minutes shorter, it would have been vastly improved. The English evangelist Rowland Hill is credited with posing the question, “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?” Over the decades, I have seen some very powerful Christian narratives in all the different media. Some are very beautiful as images or music or both. Authors have created inspiring texts. In other words, art can be harnessed in any cause to touch you no matter what your beliefs. Just as the foot taps to the drum beats summoning men to war, so any universal message can transcend intellectual barriers and make an emotional impact. We resonate in tune with stories of nobility and heroism, self-sacrifice and love.

Without the power of CGI to create sweeping seascapes and different islands, to show us a Britain at war or a sea monster at length, the director would have been forced into a simpler way of telling a story of great truth. No matter what your beliefs, you do first have to overcome your own weaknesses before you can find your own place in the world. As originally conceived, this is an elegant Christian allegory. In this version, we have an overblown and plodding story of a fantastic quest involving monsters. In charge are young folk who are sustained by the faith that a lion will save them. Sadly, the director has not given the Christian cause one of the best tunes. The cast are all adequate with Will Poulter‘s Eustace amusingly dense, Georgie Henley‘s Lucy suitably sure of herself, Skandar Keynes who is improving in acting credibility as he ages, and Ben Barnes who underplays Caspian. The dragon is quite well done and the use of 3D is slightly better in this film than in other recent efforts. So, for those of you who are Christian and have not read the original, you may find the story both exciting and uplifting even at this length (more minutes for your money). That will be for you to judge. The rest of you, if you are inclined to explore Narnia, should stay with the book which is probably the best of the series.

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