Saturday, May 24, 2008

Review of Prince Caspian

I saw Prince Caspian a week ago, and couldn't work up the energy to review it. Tonight someone called me* to ask for the review, so here it is, a week late and a dollar short.

Though I'll no doubt get hate mail for saying so, Prince Caspian is by far the weakest of the Narnia series. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is not a very good book at all. I remember thinking that it was boring when I read it as a child, and a few weeks ago, reading it to my son I was struck by its weakness again. This time, though, as an adult with a little training in understanding literature, I can see why.

The structure of the book is confused. C.S. Lewis seems to be trying to be Homer, starting the story out in media res, but it doesn't work. For the first two chapters (of a book with only fifteen), the children are just trying to figure out where they are -- but the mystery doesn't work, since A.) we know we're reading a book in the Narnia series, so naturally they're in Narnia, B.) the book is subtitled The Return to Narnia, so duh, and C.) why wouldn't the kids assume they are in Narnia anyway? Just how many magical worlds do they expect to wander into?

Then, Chapter 3 just introduces Trumpkin, who spends Chapters 4-7 telling them of Caspian's "adventures" in flashback (though I note that his adventures aren't very adventurous) -- so basically, everything is introduction and flashback for the first half of the book. Then, Chapters 8-11 they are travelling to see Caspian, with the allegorical crisis of faith happening in this section. They don't even meet Caspian until the very end of Chapter 12, followed by two chapters of action, and one chapter of deouement.

So here I am, trying to keep an 8-year-old boy interested in a book that has almost no real action whatsoever until it is nearly over, and all I could think was, I wonder if the movie is going to be as boring as the book? Spoilers below, so consider yourselves warned.

The Disney version takes great liberties with Lewis's novel, and in this case that's a very good thing. First of all, we start off very early learning what's going on in Narnia, and Susan's horn is blown much earlier, so the children start their journey to Caspian on the same day his own adventures start. The crisis-of-faith in the journey is truncated (a bit too much for my taste), and the children meet up with Caspian pretty quickly.

Of the three big changes, two of them are for Peter and Susan, which is just as well since they will only appear in bit roles in the remaining books (both in The Horse and His Boy, and Peter in The Last Battle).** Peter, we learn, is having trouble adjusting to no longer being a king when he returns to our world, so he and Caspian clash over authority when he arrives in Narnia. Susan becomes a love interest for Caspian, which is just as well since the very beautiful Anna Popplewell is getting a little old to play such a young girl. Since the actress is about 20,*** the minimalist romantic subplot seemed like a natural outgrowth for the character -- and it offers glimmers of what happens to her between Prince Caspian and The Last Battle.

The big change is the addition of a scene in which the heroes launch a failed assault the castle of Miraz. The scene works, I think, because it allows some other themes to be developed. In the book, Caspian's big defeat is handled in a single paragraph, so the temptation that Nikabrik felt to summon the White Witch seems disconnected from events. By having all the children together to suffer the defeat, the temptation to turn to evil, to take shortcuts, to convince oneself that the ends justify the means -- that temptation seems much more understandable.

Even then, some things seem to have ended up on the cutting room floor that needed to be in the film. For example, Peter learns his lesson in humility a bit too suddenly -- that transformation required its own scene. Also, Peter is tempted by the White Witch. Now, changing it so that Caspian was tempted worked for me, but I couldn't believe that Peter who had first-hand knowledge of the Witch's evil would have ever been tempted. Better to have left him out of the scene altogether.

Still, despite my complaints, by re-working the structure Disney improved on the book. The film keeps the Christian themes, but has a pacing that children can tolerate. My son really loved the film, especially, he said, "the fighting," and my daughter thought "It was good, but it had too much fighting." If your kids want to see minotaurs charge into battle, they'll like this one.

*Have I turned into the medieval Roger Ebert? Maybe I can get the Chicago Sun-Times to pay me for these reviews!
** I notice that IMDb has the actors credited for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, suggesting, I suppose, that they will have tiny roles in the film version before the other three children go to Narnia.
*** William Mosely, who plays Peter, is about 21; Skandar Keynes, who plays Edmund, is about 17, and Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy, is about 13 -- but those three seem to be about the right ages for their characters. Keynes, though, is maturing fast, and I'm thinking he might have trouble pulling off such a young character in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.


  1. Jennifer J8:14 AM

    Thanks, Scott! I'll make a call to the Sun-Times and see what I can do for ya! ;)

  2. As I'm re-reading Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my son, I'm struck by the structural problems that book brings to film adaptation. It's so episodic, the challenge might be to keep the film from feeling disjointed.

  3. the makers of Prince Caspian kept to the original story surprisingly well, all thinks considered... i heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case