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Voyage of the Dawn Treader

January 4, 2011 2 comments

No book more influenced my childhood than this one. I used to dream I was on that boat; the combined longing and dissapointment on awakening is still with me. I loved every part of it, apart from the boring slave-trader early chapter; but especially I loved the places. And more than anything else, the moment of falling into that picture; the last three chapters, so intensely mythical and poetic that I reread them into adulthood; and those moments: in the magician’s library Lucy says ‘Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan?’; and Aslan replies, ‘I will tell it to you for years and years’. And again, by the great wave, ‘I shall be telling you all the time’. Heartbreaking, all the more so for beautifully fusing Christian propaganda with the wider agenda of image and myth.

And now it’s been made into a film. So along I take my daughters: what to make of it?

Firstly, this 3D thing is nice eye candy but it doesn’t transform the experience: film is persuasive enough as a substitute for reality to work perfectly well without it. The landscapes and buildings benefit most from the technqique: I only wished they’d linger on some of these more, let one enjoy them: the first shots cuts along the fake-Tudor entrance screen to King’s, giving me an unexpected chance to indulge in a few crockets and pinnacles, while feeling faintly perturbed at finding C.S. Lewis, an Oxford man, having his story relocated to Cambridge. This, for the geographically-attuned Englishman, is almost as worrying as confusing London north of the river with London south of it, or the moors of Yorkshire with those of Devon…

This eye candy thing is a problem. Perhaps I watch too many kids’ films, but the recent ones all share breathtakingly thought-through CGI places with exhausting editing that makes it quite impossible to sit back and enjoy said creations, or even, in the case of a certain Mr H. Potter,  to follow the plot.

But what’s more interesting is what they’ve done with said plot. Apart from being moved to Cambridge, Eustance is made geeky and inadequate (and, perceptively, lower class than the Pevensie kids): the anti-liberal stuff in the book is stripped away. The moment of entering the picture is delicious, if a little over-literal. And they play merry hell with the sequence of islands once the kids reach Narnia: the island with the golden pool and the island with the dragon are conflated into one; more to the point Lewis’ carefully constructed Platonic sequence of places is completely arsed-about with, by introducing a supernatural element to the ‘earthly’ Lone Islands, relocating the subsequent storm, and creating an entirely new plot line that involves a (yawn-not-another) quest for seven swords and necessitates placing the dark island last, after the island of the sleepers. The dark island is then ramped up, making the original idea – a great mass of foggy shadows within which both dreams and nightmares come to life – more vivid but less haunting (there’s an interesting account of Lewis’s revision of this passage for the US publication on Wikipaedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_the_Dawn_Treader). Eustace’s dragonising is extended over several islands, neatly tieing them into the plot but again reducing those islands’ roles as places in a symbolic sequence.

But the biggest damage is done at the end, where the loveliest aspects of the island of the sleepers — their role as a feasting place of the stars — is almost entirely done away with, and the beautiful final passages — over the mer-kingdom, through the sea of lilies where the water is warm, shallow and sweet, to the edge of Aslan’s country — cut to the barest minimum concomitant with the film makers idea of Most Childrens’ Patience Levels.

With this goes some subtle twistings of message. The spiritual (oh, ok, *Christian*) subtext of the Magician’s Island is replaced with (suprise suprise) a message about Being Yourself (Fulfilling Your Dreams, etc), even as Lucy wishes to be beautiful rather than to eavesdrop. The G*d stuff at the end is kept, indeed made more wincingly obvious than it is in the book: and both the lovely lines mentioned above are dropped, of fluffed.

All this makes this not (at all) a bad film, but also rather a different one from the book: one wonders what young readers will make of it should they turn there; indeed whether the CS Lewis estate exercises any control over things. At least an early plan to set the whole series in the States was scotched. And one realises how strongly one links image and text: several things, from the reimagining of the Dawn Treader picture as a tiny kitsch watercolour, through the landscapes of several islands (such as that with the gold-turning pool, and the island of the magician) where wrong — but only because Pauline Baynes’s pictures are so strongly linked to C.S Lewis’s words in our imaginations; just as the film will be for a younger generation.

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