Review: New Narnia movie avoids risk

12/15/2010

7:00 A.M. EST December 14, 2010

The helm of the ship, the Dawn Treader. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.
The helm of the ship, the Dawn Treader. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.

In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Eustace, the peevish, younger cousin of Edmund and Lucy, is the central character. Edmund and Lucy have their share of adventures as the good ship Dawn Treader sails eastward to Aslan’s country. But it is the halting – at times excruciating – inner journey of Eustace that propels the story. Eustace sojourns from immature unbelief toward a begrudging acceptance of a world wider than his imagination.

So I was pleased that it is Eustace—masterfully portrayed by Will Poulter—who steals the show in the latest release of “The Chronicles of Narnia” film series. Poulter performs this feat of theatrical magic with his wonderfully expressive face. Insolent lips curl. Eyebrows dance with astonishment. Eyes grow sodden in frustration. Every other character in the film seems flat in comparison. For Edmund (Skander Keynes), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and King Caspian (Ben Barnes), trust in the higher power of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) come so effortlessly that it’s difficult to relate. In large part, this is due to the cautious adaptation of screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni. They seem intent on taming the original story. In their hands, Lewis’s novel becomes safe and predictable. I’m not referring to the bloodless swordfights or the squeaky-clean dialogue. That’s an appropriate choice for a family movie. However, the resolutions come a bit too quickly and much too easily.

That’s a shame because it runs counter to the author’s intent. For Lewis, following Christ – or Aslan if you happen to be in Narnia – is a treacherous path. As we learn in the first of the chronicles, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Aslan may be good but he’s certainly not safe. He is to remain both improbable and imponderable.

And this is why the movie would have been both more engaging and truer to the spirit of the book if it had focused more on Eustace. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s brisk portrayal of Eustace’s “conversion.”

After confronting her greatest temptation, Lucy (Georgie Henley) seeks counsel from Aslan the Lion. Photo credit: Phil Bray. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.
After confronting her greatest temptation, Lucy (Georgie Henley) seeks counsel from Aslan the Lion. Photo credit: Phil Bray. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.

In the magical world of Narnia, Eustace becomes a creature consistent with his character—a scaly, snorting, fire-breathing dragon. His transformation back into a boy—one now receptive to the mysteries of faith—is the pivotal moment of the novel: “I looked up,” says Eustace, “and saw … a huge lion coming toward me … [and] I was terribly afraid of it.” Unfortunately, director Michael Apted is reluctant to display ambivalence in the face of goodness.

Apted is even more reluctant to admit that our embracing of the good—what Christians call repentance—requires the pain of letting go. In the novel, the connection is clear. Eustace must allow Aslan to claw at his dragon scales. “The very first tear he made was so deep,” says Eustace, “that I thought it had gone right into my heart.” Only after his beastly skin has been peeled away could he then be roughly tossed into the stinging cold water of a well.

“It smarted like anything, but only for a moment. After that,” recalls Eustace, “it became perfectly delicious and….And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”

In the movie, this pivotal event is replaced with a scene where Eustace the dragon watches safely from a distance as Aslan merely paws at the ground. As a comforting light envelops him, Eustace becomes a boy again. No pain in repentance. Nothing cherished to be surrendered.

Why the filmmakers chose to make this change is understandable. Quick, painless resolutions—alongside expertly animated battles with sea serpents—play more easily on the screen than inner turmoil. A movie can’t take the audience inside a character the way a book can. That is a challenge faced by every adaptation. And yet different choices could have been made. I can envision a “family-friendly movie” that still leaves its audience ruminating over what parts of ourselves must be painfully peeled away in order to return our true selves. What is lost, I’m afraid, is much of the point.

Eustace (Will Poulter) and his newfound friend, Reepicheep, head east aboard the Dawn Treader.
Photo credit: Phil Bray. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.
Eustace (Will Poulter) and his newfound friend, Reepicheep, head east aboard the Dawn Treader. Photo credit: Phil Bray. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.

We get a hint of the author’s intent in the first sentence of the book. Lewis introduces Eustace with reference to his awkward name: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.” By the end of the novel, Eustace comes to deserve this unusual name in a different way. He almost becomes worthy of being the namesake of Saint Eustace—a legendary Christian martyr of the second century.

Saint Eustace endured terrible calamities but never surrendered his faith. In Greek, the name Eustace means “good stability.” In other words, everything the Eustace of Narnia is not. When we meet him, he’s neither good nor very stable! And yet this is what he becomes after Aslan “catches hold of him.”

Following Christ requires risk. It is sometimes painful, and it’s never easy. This is the point of Lewis’s novel and unfortunately, this is what is lost in its cinematic form. Here, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” more closely resembles a Disney cruise than the arduous, spiritual pilgrimage that Lewis had in mind.

*Ralls is senior pastor of Asbury First United Methodist Church, Rochester, N.Y.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5441 or newsdesk@umcom.org.