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.