Monday, June 16, 2008

Prince Caspian is Anvilicious

  • Anvilicious, adj:
    In media, the state of conveying a particular message so unsubtly that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.

Okay, so I'm late in seeing this movie. Ginny and I don't get out enough.

I always liked the Narnia books, even after I knew that Aslan represented Jesus. As someone who wasn't terribly absorbed in Christian mythology around age 10, the parallel wasn't immediately obvious to me at the time, but it seemed undeniable once someone pointed it out to me. Still, I continue to feel that Lewis was a much better fiction author than he was an apologist.

Prince Caspian was never my favorite of the series; in fact it would be fair to say that it's roughly tied with The Horse and His Boy as my least favorite. IMHO the best of the series, in order, are books 4 (The Silver Chair), 6 (Narnia's "genesis" story, which further explores the concept of parallel universes), and 3 (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which had some cool random adventurey stuff).

While Caspian wasn't that great, I don't remember it being particularly full of religious overtones as compared with many of the other books. I have a theory about this. Some of his own statements notwithstanding, it seems to me that Lewis wrote the first book as a straight-up Christian story. The lion getting killed for another character's sins and then coming back to life is just way too obvious to overlook. On the other hand, once he had settled into a mythos, Lewis got more comfortable with writing a good story whose characters take on their own life and don't necessarily have to correspond with Biblical figures.

But that's not the way the director of the latest movie series saw it. The first movie emphasized the religious overtones, and since there's not enough of that in the second book, by God he added some.

The white witch, who represents the devil, makes an all new appearance, tempting the main characters with personal glory and stuff. This never happened in the book, given that the witch had been dead for 200 years at this point.

Then at the end of the movie Aslan parts the red sea. I mean, he creates a wall of water to kill the Egyptian -- I mean Telmarine soldiers. In the process, the water morphs a giant "river god," resembling a huge old man with a beard. I couldn't resist whispering to my wife "Oh finally, God's here." I didn't remember this from the book, but Wikipedia mentions in passing that it's in there. It seems to get an awful lot more attention in the movie though; it sounds like in the book the river god only shows up to ask Aslan for a favor. In the movie, he wins the fight for them. And seriously, he looks suspiciously like "the" God rather than "a" god.

I don't mind religious themes in movies, for the most part, as long as it's a good movie. This particular movie is not a case where less is more, however. Caspian has a lot going for it: pretty good characters and actors, first rate CG effects, some entertaining writing in places. But the movie dragged on way too long for me anyway -- and the sad part is, most of the religious anvils are part of the unnecessary dead weight.

I'm convinced that the book is too short to make a faithful movie about. I can even admire some of the creative decisions taken by the team. At least the first half of the book has no action to speak of, since it is a dwarf retelling the backstory for the benefit of the four kids. I actually liked the way the first scene focused on Caspian escaping from guards, and the rest of the first half continually switched perspectives between Caspian and the kids, making all the events concurrent with each other.

But you could have lopped off Tilda Swinton's scenes reprising the witch, and not only not lost anything, but actually made a lot more sense.

I'm not a direct-translation purist. I'm happy to let movie directors add or chop scenes as they need to make the transition between media formats go smoothly. I'm less than happy about the directors' effort to shoehorn their own religious messages in there because they don't trust CS Lewis to beat you over the head with it enough.


  1. After I found out about the religious allegory aspect of the Narnia series, I found I had trouble figuring it out after "Aslan=Jesus." It makes more sense that Lewis slipped back and forth between allegory and original fantasy, than it does to try to read symbolism into everything.

    As a kid, I think "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" was my favorite, but I didn't read "Silver Chair" until I was much older. And I never got around to "Horse" or "Last Battle." I wish I'd read "Caspian" more recently before watching the movie, because I didn't really remember much of the film's events at all. Just to start, and maybe it's my privilege speaking, but I always pictured Caspian as kind of a dusty blond guy, not a "vaguely Middle Eastern" guy, like all the Telmarines in the movie.

    But the worst part for me (aside from the shoehorned-in White Witch, as you mention) was the whole "faith like a child" thing, which was dumb in the first one and ridiculous here. At one point, Peter (justifiably) asks "Why won't Aslan prove himself to us?" Lucy's groantastic reply: "Maybe it's us who have to prove ourselves to him." Congratulations, Lucy, you're a champion equivocator.

    Great post; I'm glad to see a review by someone who's read the book more recently (or at least remembers it better). Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Yes, yes, yes. My first comment when the movie ended: "Man, how useless is Aslan, seriously?"

    The irony being, of course, that his rolling around in the grass waiting for a little girl to risk her life searching for him while a bunch of innocents die--and those deaths are made much of in the film--is, like, yeah. God. That's why religion never made sense to me. Even if I thought such a creature existed, why would I worship it?

    And, Tom, that line was awful. I cringed and thought of Hitchens, asking why the hell we're supposed to accept a debt we never asked for that's imposed upon us at birth. It's all so...lame.

  3. I hate to admit it - but these stories were some of my favorites as a kid and I still love them. I think Lewis just wrote really good stories and although I am an atheist now - I still feel the pull of them. I have not seen Prince Caspian yet but I did enjoy the first movie.

    I wanted to see this one but the heavy-handedness you mention kind -of puts me off. We'll see. And since I live in VT where movies come and go like comets the point may be moot now. I might have to wait for netflix

  4. Actually, I thought the river god at the end of the movie looked more like King Triton from the Little Mermaid.

    But that's all fluff and nonsense as I really didn't like this movie. The religious overtones were heavy, the music was terrible, the acting was bad and I thought that most of the effects were pretty weak.

    I agree with you guys though, how useless IS Aslan?

    (I actually liked A Horse and his Boy... Just for the record...)

  5. Regarding the Narnia series : I recall this anecdote from a Lewis biography, written by his pal W.H.Auden :

    In one of the books, the kids are trapped in a witch's underground lair, located below Narnia. The witch proceeds to try and convince the kids that there's no such thing as Narnia.

    Oooo, evil atheist witch !

    Seems this was inspired by a real encounter with an atheist.
    Lewis was down at the pub with his drinking buddies, and in comes this French woman (a philosophy professor or student, I forgot which..). She and Lewis get to talking about religion, and Lewis gets his ideological ass handed to him. She completely destroyed all his fine apologetic arguments without even breaking a sweat, leaving Lewis bewildered, unable to defend himself, and completely embarassed in front of his friends.

    His reaction ? Write a piece of children's fiction where he wins the argument anyway.

    Even W.H.Auden thought that was a bit weak.


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