For more than 50 years, parents have tucked their children in with tales of Narnia, the Pevensy children — and Aslan. The seven-book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis is a masterful blend of adventure and allegory. However, recent big-screen adaptations have left many fans wondering if filmmakers could have better translated the beloved characters and Christian symbolism of the classic book series. With The Voyage of the Dawn Treader due in theaters Dec. 10, we thought we'd explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of the first two films.
"Adapting a book can be a thankless job," said Paul McCusker, writer and director of the award-winning Radio Theatre adaptation of Lewis' books. "You're up against the expectations of those who have read the original work and expect you to represent it well. But you also have to deliver an engaging experience in a different medium that has its own expectations. So I'm willing to go along with changes from book to film, so long as they stay true to the spirit of the original."
McCusker thinks the first film got a lot of that "spirit" right. "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a decent adaptation. It certainly captured the world of Narnia for its intended audience of families," he said. "If I had any grievances, it was less in the adaptation as much as the director's interpretation of the characters."
Clearly, the new movie versions are modeled after other visually dynamic fantasy blockbusters. Consequently, the second film, Prince Caspian, seemed to emphasize epic battles more than story. Radio Theatre producer Dave Arnold noted, "It felt as if the director was trying to ride The Lord of the Rings' coattails instead of allowing Narnia its own identity."
Kurt Bruner, co-author of Finding God in the Land of Narnia, went into the theater with fairly low expectations, which actually helped him enjoy the movies. "The filmmakers didn't, as many feared, eliminate the Stone Table or Aslan's resurrection," he explained. "They did not add excessively gratuitous violence, as was done in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, as a Narnia purist, I would have avoided instances of creative license such as the failed castle attack in Prince Caspian, which isn't in the book, and the teen-romance angle created for Susan and Caspian."
McCusker agrees that the second film strayed further from the original than he liked. "More than anything, I was disturbed that Aslan was relegated to a secondary role," he explained. "With his role diminished, the spiritual insights were diminished, too."
Will the same be true of Dawn Treader? According to early reports, a powerful moment from that story has been left intact. In this scene, Aslan reassures Lucy and Edmund Pevensy that, while they will never return to Narnia, they will nevertheless see him in another place, where he goes by another name. The inclusion of this scene may suggest that filmmakers are taking fans' reactions to heart as they chart a course for the future of the franchise.
Of course, no matter how faithful the adaptation, parents realize that no special effects extravaganza can possibly duplicate the experience of reading at a child's bedside. Bruner hopes that the films draw families back to the classic stories. "I view the Narnia movies through the lens of one eager to motivate people to dive into the original books," he said. "There, readers will encounter Lewis' Christian faith bubbling up through the stories."
This article first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2010 by Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com.
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