Saturday, November 09, 2013

Dufflepuds and jiggery pokery: review of Voyage of the Dawn Treader

So last night I finally got to watch Voyage of the Dawn Treader, several years after I bought the DVD and several more after it was released in cinemas. I'm a bit of a C. S. Lewis nut really so it's surprising that I've taken this long to watch it, but perhaps not so surprising that I found the film all wrong.

Now I can understand that the director and writers like to take a bit of liberty with the plot of the books to make them filmable. In Prince Caspian actually I think this all worked superbly - it was a war movie, with many of the key battles being fought by animals: there's nothing more thrilling than seeing an army consisting of leopards and hawks besieging the castle of an enemy by night. Another thing entirely happened in Voyage though; things seem to be going okay when Eustace and Edmund and Lucy are plonked unceremoniously into a Narnian ocean. Eustace is agreeably disagreeable, when they are rescued Edmund suggests "maybe you could throw him back in", and there's a minotaur on board. What? That's not in the book. But anyway, minotaur schminotaur; his inclusion on the boat is not particularly significant to the plot either way, apart from making Eustace faint right at the beginning.

And then they get to the Lone Islands and things start going screwy. Not only do they have to deal with slave holders, but apparently a killer fog right out of John Carpenter. By the time Caspian and Scrubb and the Pevensies win the island back two completely useless characters, for very little reason other than eliciting our sympathies, are forced with a little effort on the scriptwriter's part into the plot and onto the Dawn Treader. Like the minotaur they play a part of very little significance after in the plot, so you wonder why the scriptwriters went to the time and effort in the first place.

Then it's on to the Island of the Dufflepuds (Eustace's transformation into a dragon is reserved for later) and another extraneous plot element is introduced; some jiggery pokery nonsense about the killer fog coming from a Black Island and the seven swords of the seven lost lords being lain on a table being the only way to stop the Black Island from doing whatever it is doing. There's very little explanation and very little reason for this, again, apart from giving the plot more of a generic Hollywood kid's adventure feel.

It's all very strange to me; why lay down a new plot on top of a book that already has a perfectly good plot? Instead of going in search of seven lost lords, Caspian and his mates all of a sudden find themselves picking up the swords, one by one, so they can go on to stop the power of this Black Island. What I really love about the original book is the unfolding sense of discovery, enchantment, and desire - the battles with the slavers and the threat of the Dufflepuds is quickly dispensed with in the first third of Lewis' book, to be replaced by a journey into the unknown; the search for the lost Lords gives it purpose but doesn't detract from (rather, it adds to) the mystery and enchantment. And why, above all, have this stuff about the magical swords - putting a kind of Deus Ex Machina into the plot of a film which already has Deus Ex Machina all over it?

There is, thankfully, a lot of stuff the film does do well: Eustace is a great character and we get a lot of opportunities to see how horrible he is. His transformation into dragon and finally back into boy is good. (It is however much better in the book: when Eustace becomes boy again, Aslan repeatedly leaps upon him and tears the dragon skin off him in an incredibly vivid and visceral scene that demonstrates Lewis's allegory about sin and redemption excellently). Lucy's temptation by the beauty spell (and guilt, and retribution by Aslan) is also good. Several other plot points from the book are dragged together, though they are done so quite skilfully. It all makes you wonder, though: why did they bother with all that magic sword mumbo jumbo? Why fiddle with a perfectly good plot to make it into a slightly less good plot?


Steve said...

Yes, the film somehow ended up less than the sum of its parts, quite a few of which were pretty good, as you note. I felt particularly disappointed given that I had been to see the ship set when it was at Cleveland. (I did a post about that at the time.)

I hadn't read the book for decades before I saw the movie, so I wasn't quite sure sometimes as to which bits were from Lewis and which weren't. The swords was clearly new, though, and really didn't work that well.

I also didn't really like the way the sea serpent was sort of grotesqued up, so to speak. But I always felt you could say that about the Lord of the Rings movies too - they contained imagery which I thought was much darker than one really got from reading the novels. (I think - given that I never got more than 100 pages into the first book.)

But back to Dawn Treader: I really think the direction was dull, whereas I thought the first two films were really well directed by Adamson. But yes, the key problem probably does come down to the story extras.

TimT said...

The only major interferences with the plot are the killer fog, the introduction of some new characters on the boat (the annoying kid and her brother), the twaddle about the fog coming from the Dark Island, and the seven swords mumbo jumbo. The team does seem to have a liberal approach to film adaptations that served well in Prince Caspian (and, actually, pretty well in some scenes of Dawn Treader), and maybe credit goes to them for preserving most of the important plot points of Dawn Treader and making sure the production/studios didn't interfere anymore in the film to make it accessible and sellable.

A friend told me on facebook that they're ditching plans to make Magicians Nephew and are instead going ahead with Silver Chair. So we'll see what that's like in a year or two!

TimT said...

Just got this review via Rotten Tomatoes and it seems to be pretty much spot on:

While her friends sleep, Lucy is kidnapped by invisible “Dufflepuds.” They lead her to The Book of Incantations and ask her to read a spell that will break their invisibility curse. They’re illiterate, you see.

Can you hear the high-fiving at Walden Media? They’ve never produced a scene that better illustrates their primary mission: to make movies that inspire young people to read great books.

I laughed. He's right! But

Critic Steven Greydanus points out that the filmmakers even overlook the significance of the title: They never once show Caspian’s ship fulfilling its purpose and sailing eastward toward the dawn— toward Aslan’s country.

Watching Dawn Treader’s storytellers lose their “golden compass,” I was startled to see that they preserved the story’s most blatantly “evangelical” moment: Aslan tells Lucy that she can seek him in her own world by another name.

That scene set Seattle film critics to groaning. I heard one lament that the movie would have been better without “all of that religious stuff.”

And although I’m risking the wrath of all Narnians, I gotta say—I agree.

For me, Aslan’s words to Lucy remain one of the most frustrating moments in the Narnia Chronicles. Profound as they might be, they violate the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle so fundamental to great storytelling. When Aslan starts pointing out direct correlations with Christ, his story is reduced to a Sunday School lesson.

Dunno about this - Aslan's line about Lucy seeking him in her world by another name has never bothered me; I agree the great virtue of the stories is in the way they 'show' (and the film lost most of that) but Lewis is good at the 'tell' bit too, and I don't think 'show, not tell' should be followed all of the time anyway. But maybe this was due to the Lewis estate - doesn't the evangelical Douglas Gresham still have final say in what goes on in the films?

TimT said...

A small mark of how lovely Lewis could be: when Douglas Gresham converted to Judaism as a child Lewis 'had to find him kosher food'. No proselytising there. Okay, I'll stop now cos I've got to go shopping.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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