The Dawn Treader Movie: Lots of Excitement, But No Star Song

Okay, here is my initial response to the movie adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I saw Friday evening. Spoilers abound. Read on at your own risk.

Yesterday when people at the Monastery asked me what I thought of the Dawn Treader movie, I found myself saying “It’s okay.” In other words, there were things I liked about it, and things I didn’t. As I feared, the story was sufficiently changed that much of the hidden, contemplative/mystical symbolism that dances through the book was simply lost in translation. I don’t know how any film could effectively convey such concepts as “drinkable light” or the song of the stars, or the birds that fly from the heart of the sun — not to mention the sheer loneliness, silence and luminosity of the entire final third of the story — particularly a film by a major studio that has invested millions in an effort to create a special effects-laden blockbuster. So what you get is a film where the emphasis is on all the wrong spots: Eustace’s encounter with Aslan, absolutely central to the book, is glossed over to the point where if you sneeze you’ll miss it — but the fight with the sea serpent just goes on and on and on.

If you’re intimately familiar with the book, you might feel, like I did, that  the writers of the screenplay took the book, cut all the pages out, tossed them in a big basket and shook them up, and then pulled out one page at a time and wrote the script accordingly. Everything seems slightly out of order. Deathwater Island and Dragon Island are combined, while the sea serpent attacks while the ship is trying to escape from the Dark Island. And the Dark Island is the last stop before the end of the world, after Ramandu’s Island (although Ramandu is nowhere to be seen).

The book features virtually no overarching conflict that drives the story. There are episodic struggles: against the slave traders on the Lone Islands; against the sea serpent; against the ultimately rather comical Dufflepuds; and against the fear-inducing darkness of the Dark Island. But what really drives the story is the various types of inner struggle: Eustace’s dragonish adventure; Lucy’s temptations when flipping through the book of incantations; Caspian’s struggle to live up to the duties and responsibilities of his stations as king. Of course, inner struggle doesn’t translate well to film, and so the Dufflepuds are made a bit scarier, the Dark Island more threatening, and, as I said, the sea serpent just seems to go on and on.

The abstract nature of the quest in the book (to find the seven lost lords and to deliver Reepicheep to the end of the world) apparently wasn’t good enough for the screenwriters either, so they introduced a new subplot to the story: of having to collect the swords of the lost lords and lay them all on Aslan’s Table, as some sort of spell to repel the expanding darkness of the Dark Isle. At first, I thought this was an interesting development: kind of a metaphor for the creeping loss of faith in our world. But the swords on the table seems so arbitrary, and also strikes me as a diminishment of the Eucharistic allusion that the Aslan’s Table signifies. Indeed, both of the sacramental symbols in the book fail to survive the translation to the big screen. Eustace’s immersion in water is written out of the story altogether, and Aslan’s Table is reduced to a magical, rather than sacramental, symbol — in the film it’s all about getting something done, instrumental rather than gratuitous.

I think one of the important messages in the original book version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the importance and necessity of sacrifice in the spiritual life. Caspian must sacrifice his desire to see Aslan’s Country in order to remain faithful to his vocation as king, while Reepicheep must surrender his sword (a symbol of his overly valued honor) to make the final journey. Eustace has to give up his selfish arrogance; Lucy her fear of not being beautiful; and Edmund his resentment of Eustace. Coriakin has undergone some sort of mysterious sacrifice, and even the Duffers are required to make the unwilling sacrifice of being turned into monopods. These elements are essential to C. S. Lewis’s story, but they are either absent, or deeply reduced, in the movie. Have we become so allergic to the concept of sacrifice that a major motion picture cannot even address the topic? It would appear so.

So, after all this, why do I say the movie is “okay”? Well, frankly, I enjoyed the movie simply because I love the book so much. It was a treat seeing how the film crew envisioned the story, from the ship itself to the amusing Dufflepuds to Eustace’s turn as a dragon. Like the first two Narnia movies, this is a lovely film, and recurring characters like Lucy, Edmund, Caspian and Reepicheep give the movie a sense of comfortable familiarity. As diminished as the ending of the story is, it still brought tears to my eyes. So I’d give the film two and a half stars out of five. It’s significantly better than the film version of Prince Caspian (which, frankly, was a disaster), and while it can’t hold a candle to the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe it is still, in balance, worth seeing. I just hope it will inspire more people to pick up the book, which is where the real magic lies.

Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
Following the Ancient Path Today
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Talking about Silence: An Interview with Patrick Shen
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Raven

    We saw it yesterday. You nailed it. Not much more to say about that!

  • Jon Zuck

    Ah, that’s disappointing. Dawn Treader was far and away my favorite of the books. I’ll see the movie, of course, but … well, you know.

  • BlackBirdie

    aw bummer. but i’ll still see it.
    for the record, i thought Prince Caspian was pretty decent.
    ” Aslan’s Table is reduced to a magical, rather than sacramental, symbol ”
    i think the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, could be seen as magical (esp. in the Catholic tradition, even though that’s not the tradition i come from). But i see your point.

  • Wronda

    Hi Carl,
    I took my 7 y/o nephew to the movie yesterday. I agree with you that some significant things were lost, but my nephew – who has not read the book yet – noticed things and talked about them afterwards. I asked him if he’d thought that Eustace being turned into a dragon was funny and he was astonished that I asked. Of course it wasn’t funny! It was really sad because Eustace is just a little boy. He asked me about Aslan’s cutting the dragon open to get Eustace out and when I explained that sometimes there are things we just can’t do on our own and we need help. He added that sometimes it hurts when things change – so he really noticed that the transformations to and from dragon were painful for Eustace.

    He also made note of Aslan’s last conversation with Lucy about how her knowledge of him was increased each time she visited Narnia. My nephew asked me what Aslan’s name is in our world. I was surprised because I thought we’d thoroughly covered that in The Lion… He said to me, “Auntie, I KNOW he’s God but what’s his NAME?” He was looking for a name like Harold or Dave or something. He also noticed that Reepicheep left behind his sword when he went to Aslan’s land and that brought us some conversation about Heaven – why Reepicheep wouldn’t need his sword there and whether or not Heaven was above us, or over the waves, or all around us. We decided it was all of the above, but maybe we can’t really see it, just a peek now and then. On his own, he came to the conclusion that there must be a little bit of Heaven inside of us right now too.

    So – no, the movie isn’t all it could have or should have been but there are jewels in it and I’d encourage you to take your children and have those conversations afterward. Peace.

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Wronda. I agree, the movie is worth seeing (and discussing), even if it didn’t do everything I had hoped it would.

  • Sharron Clemons

    [...] addition to this review, I highly recommend, and agree with, Will Vaus’s review and Carl McColman’s review at the Website of Unknowing.  Both have written books on Narnia and Lewis, and I value their [...]