How “Prince Caspian” Botches the Meaning of the Book

Want to know if Andrew Adamson’s Prince Caspian is fun and entertaining? Check out the reviews archived at Rotten Tomatoes.

But if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, which is something quite different, and if you hope to see Lewis’s ideas come to life on the big screen in Adamson’s film, well… what follows is a collection of reviews that address that question.

This collection will be updated as I find further interesting reviews on the subject. Feel free to submit more reviews, or even your own, in the comments below.

Before we get to the reviews: Here’s a note from a trusted moviegoing friend, Joel Clarkson, who is a big fan of C.S. Lewis. He writes:

During the credits tonight, after the midnight premiere, my sister turned to me and asked, “Tell me in one word what you thought of the movie”. I replied, “Letdown”. She fixed me with a glare that could shoot daggers from her eyes, and countered incredulously, “Heresy”. I reluctantly had to concede the point.

Later, over at ArtsandFaith.com, he wrote:

Throughout the film, the whole theme regarding the initially accepted skepticism, and then gradual appreciation for the actual existence of the four children, and even more consequently, Aslan himself, was significantly downplayed as a theme regarding faith and trust in the divine. Again in this movie, as in the first of the Narnia films, Aslan appears at the end of the movie, reprising his role as the alternating WMD for the good guys, and converse best buddy of Lucy. The film practically throws away the crucial central theme in the book, regarding how Aslan had worked throughout the story in the lives of the protagonists, and that their worries were quelled, and even reproved by Aslan, because of his omnipotence and love for his own.

I had the nagging feeling the whole movie, which was confirmed when I read Andrew Adamson’s recent remarks, that Adamson probably resented the spiritual themes in Lewis’ books, and in all likelihood saw them as a hindrance to the story. Unlike Peter Jackson, with the Lord of the Rings enterprise, there was no respect for the subject material, or the author’s intent in Caspian.

Is Joel just being nit-picky?

Many reviewers are celebrating Prince Caspian for being entertaining. Some point out that the novel really wasn’t Lewis’s best work, and might not have made a compelling movie. Some are immediately embracing Adamson’s movie because it has C.S. Lewis’s name on it, and they’re rejoicing that it has a general “pro-faith” (but which faith?) storyline.

But let’s listen to some of the reviewers who have taken the time to notice just how far the filmmakers went in stripping away the meaning that Lewis carefully wove through the story…

At the C.S. Lewis blog, Dr. Bruce Edwards writes:

Prince Caspian is the perfect summer movie for audiences that know nothing about Narnia, or, even, perhaps would prefer to know nothing about Narnia. For in its 2 hours and 40 minutes, you will spend ample time in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, William Wilson’s Scotland, Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and maybe even fleeting moments in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but you will not spend more than 15 minutes in the world that Aslan made and that C. S. Lewis invented.

Is that a bad thing? Not if your goal is to erase the basic tenets of the Narniad, and re-envision the realm as primarily grim internecine warfare, a land, 1300 years since we last visited, surprisingly full of crossbows and catapults and other Vader-like war machines.

Yikes.

Even Focus on the Family’s review includes an observation as to how the film compromises Lewis’s storytelling:

Kids typically get hooked on Lewis’ Narnia books between the ages of 8 and 12. Then they graduate to, say, The Lord of the Rings. So it would seem The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian should be targeting tweens and pre-tweens. It’s not. This isn’t a kids’ movie. Or even a “family” movie.

It’s a war movie.

As I posted before, and include here again, here are Peter Chattaway at Christianity Today and Steven Greydanus at Decent Films:

Greydanus:

There is definitely an up side: Not only is Caspian a better-made film, in some ways it manages to improve on Lewis’s plot without violating its spirit.

Thematically, Prince Caspian the book may be said to be about the triumph of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism. The movie almost entirely omits the skepticism, and greatly diminishes the triumph of mythic imagination.

On the one hand, the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, and spirits of wood and water. No longer do we see Caspian’s nurse dismissed for telling the young prince stories of Old Narnia, or his tutor Dr. Cornelius daring to instruct Caspian in these matters only in private. This might not matter so much if the film had other ways of making the point — but it doesn’t. The whole notion that stories of Old Narnia are anathema in modern Narnia is simply omitted.

Worse, Trumpkin — in Lewis an archetypal lovable skeptic (compare to MacPhee in That Hideous Strength) whose heart knows better than his head — no longer shows any sign of disbelieving the old stories. This Trumpkin appears to believe that Aslan and the Pevensies were real in their day, but abandoned Narnia long ago, leaving the Narnians to fend for themselves. This fatally undercuts the theme of Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism which is basic to the whole point of the book.

On the other hand, the total absence of Bacchus, Silenus, the Maenads and the whole mythological riot of the final act is a much more serious omission here than in LW&W, which similarly excised Tumnus’s stories of the revelry in the old days when Bacchus came to Narnia. While Lewis’s inclusion of these pagan and roisterous elements may be discomfiting to some of his pious Evangelical admirers, and while the filmmakers may be sincere in finding rivers flowing with wine inappropriate for a family film, the romping and rioting represents the climax of the book’s theme of the vindication of mythic imagination over Enlightenment rationalism, and its omission severely undermines the spirit of the book.

Almost as seriously diminished is the theme of faith and sight, with faith opening one’s eyes to the extent that one believes. We do get the scene in which Lucy sees Aslan when no one else does — but not the rest of the plotline, in which Aslan is at first invisible to the children until one by one they begin to see him in proportion to their openness and willingness to see him. The whole drama of the scene in which Lucy disputes with the others about which way to go is passed over almost incidentally, with none of the momentousness that it has in Lewis.

Chattaway:

For all their talk of staying true to the spirit of C. S. Lewis’s novels, the makers of the Narnia films have frequently deviated from the books in ways both big and small, and the liberties they take with Prince Caspian — which echo but go far, far beyond the liberties they took with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — both help the film and hurt it. They help because you can sense that co-writer and director Andrew Adamson is finally making the big epic fantasy battle movie that he really wanted to make the first time around, and his devotion to that vision holds Prince Caspian together and makes it a more consistent, and consistently entertaining, sort of film than Wardrobe was. But in steering the film closer to his own vision, Adamson steers it away from Lewis’s, so it loses some of the book’s core spiritual themes.

Lewis wanted to give his readers — including Christians who had unthinkingly bought into modernity — a taste of the spiritual realm that animates our physical world. And since he believed that the pagan, pre-Christian man had a greater aptitude for the spiritual realm, and was thus easier to convert, than the secular, post-Christian man, Lewis wrote the Narnia books to introduce his readers to a “baptized” form of paganism. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the original book version of Prince Caspian, in which the Christ-figure Aslan literally dances with the Greco-Roman god Bacchus.

But Adamson and his co-writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, show no interest in that particular theme. Gone from this film are any and all references to Bacchus, Silenus or the Maenads — figures as important to this story as Father Christmas was to Wardrobe — and gone too are the scenes in which Aslan and his followers trash the schools that teach Narnian children not to believe in myths and fairy tales. And because those scenes are missing, the divine lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) has very little to do. Indeed, Aslan is almost entirely written out of the movie altogether. His first appearance — an actual encounter with Lucy in the book — is here heavily abbreviated, and quickly revealed to be a dream. It is only in the film’s final reels that Aslan indisputably steps onto the stage and takes action.

Here are a links to more reviews from thoughtful readers:

Ken Jones

And then, among mainstream press critics, we find these:

Canavese:

Granted: interpolations to the novel are a necessity, but some of the omissions are senseless. By not depicting Caspian’s boyhood awakening, Adamson guts his hero’s journey from blindness to sight. Gone are scenes of Lucy waltzing with trees and Caspian romping with fauns, scenes that had a chance of recapturing the first film’s essential sense of wonder. And why cut Lucy following an invisible Aslan back onto the proper path, a scene of Lewis’ that suggests a deft homage to Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints in the Sand.”

Lewis’ Christian allegory, though present, seems much quieter in the much noisier screen Caspian. And though Caspian‘s source material isn’t inspired or diverse as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the prose remains as effortless seeming as Adamson’s film feels labored. The filmmakers seem only dimly aware of what makes the novel continue to work today: not spectacle, but vision. Engaging the imagination is essential on the page, but can be a test in the literalizing, visual medium of film. For Lewis’ charmingly twee style and light touch with character motivation, it’s time for us, like the Pevensie children, to hit the books again.

Zacharek:

… in this latest Narnia installment Adamson has lost his way. … Adamson — who wrote the script, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — has lost (though perhaps “jettisoned” is a better word for it) the elegant simplicity of the structure of Lewis’ book. He doesn’t just flesh out certain details, as is any filmmaker’s right; he makes top-heavy additions that break faith with the source material. The climactic battle scene of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” felt vital and thrilling, possibly because it had something of a ragtag quality. But the giant battle sequence that caps “Prince Caspian” is so polished, and so super-enhanced, that it comes off as nothing more than an effort — a failed one — to top the wow factor of the battle scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. In an earlier sequence, Adamson takes some care to give us an emotional understanding of the weight of warfare: There’s a horrific moment in which a number of the good guys are left behind by their comrades, doomed to death, and it’s one of the few sequences in “Prince Caspian” that has any real dramatic power.

But later in the picture, that kind of subtlety is forgotten, or abandoned: Adamson apparently believes we’re supposed to get excited by throngs of CGI soldiers in shiny armor, but the action isn’t compelling; it’s just noisy and overwrought.

LaSalle:

It’s sad, but let’s just say it: This time out, the kids are about as interesting as Chekov in a “Star Trek” sequel. Susan is sullen and unpleasant, and Peter, the eldest, is pompous. Edmund was shady last time, but he’s learned his lesson, so now he’s boring. And Lucy is no longer a little girl with a cute character face, but a pretty young lady on the brink of puberty. As such, she no longer effortlessly embodies spiritually gifted innocence.

It takes about a half hour for the bad news to sink in: “Prince Caspian” has little character interest and depicts no earthshaking moral conflict. The Christian allegory, unmistakable in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is nowhere to be found in “Prince Caspian.” Not even its former outlines are apparent. Alas, Lewis without Christianity just isn’t Lewis.

Biancolle:

… the world of Narnia should offer more than eye candy. There are indeed battles and bloodshed and chivalry in Lewis’s imagining, but they’re less important than the archetypal moral struggles that underpin them all — between good and evil, resolve and temptation, the cold allure of the White Witch and the “deep magic” of Aslan the Lion. These struggles remain, but Adamson (and co-screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) have tweaked the plot, rejiggered the character dynamics and piled on the epic warfare. By the end I had overdosed on surly Peter, pouty Caspian and over-digitized shock-and-awe.

In a dream, Lucy visits with Aslan in the midst of a sparkling forest. She asks him why he hasn’t shown up to help, and he replies: “Things never happen the same way twice, dear one.” He’s right. Sometimes, they lose their charm.

Long:

These things can be said about “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”: It may be one of the most violent “children’s” movies ever made, featuring a body count that would make Joseph Stalin proud.

Aw, but heck, it’s all got to be OK because everybody says these movies have underlying Christian messages. Something about a talking lion.

Hibbs:

The sense of the remote past, as both almost lost and yet recoverable, permeates Lewis’s book. Yet, apart from the scene in the cave, the film neglects this theme in favor of grand battles and a budding romance between Caspian … and Susan. Indeed, devoted readers of Lewis’s books will likely take umbrage at the many changes the filmmakers have introduced. The unsettling question they ought to be asking themselves is whether the film transforms what, following Chesterton, we might call a great romance of orthodoxy into a Hollywood bubble-gum romance.

The real problem with the film, I’m saddened to report, has to do with Aslan. This is due in part to the book’s relegation of him to a more marginal role than he had in the first book. On screen, he seems almost like one of the other animals — more powerful, certainly, but not all that mysterious. Except for when he roars, he is more cuddly than fearful. His admonitions to Lucy about the importance of fidelity to him come off as formulaic. A sign of the extent to which Aslan has been diminished in the film is evident in the penultimate scene, in which the children depart Narnia. In the book, they say goodbye to everyone else and then, last, “wonderfully and terribly,” as Lewis puts it, “it was farewell to Aslan himself.”

Turan:

Though it retains a kid-friendly PG rating and is directed with a surer hand by the returning Andrew Adamson, this film is noticeably darker in tone, even beginning with the piercing scream of a woman in childbirth…. Though the film makes sure that nary a drop of blood is shed in those battles – remember, this is the land of PG – all that fighting does make for an occasionally off-kilter mix with the kinder, gentler parts of the endeavor. Like a teenager having trouble finding its place in the world, Prince Caspian rights itself in the end but doesn’t always have an easy time finding its balance.

AICN’s Capone:

There’s a simple formula to decide whether of not you’ll like this second CHRONICLES OF NARNIA installment. If you liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you’ll love Prince Caspian. If you didn’t like the last film, you’ll probably dig Caspian a whole lot more; you might even like it. And if you’re predisposed to disliking a story for religious undertones (and make no mistake, the God overtones of the first story are far more buried in this one) or because its young stars seem a bit too foppish for your tastes, stop reading now and go find something constructive to do with your time.

Meanwhile, in the LA Daily News, Glenn Whipp writes:

Mr. Adamson doesn’t see the Narnia books as exclusively the property of Christians, saying that the myths Lewis created can be appreciated by people holding to a variety of beliefs. Producer Mark Johnson points out that the first film did huge business in India, China and Israel, cutting across all faiths.

“Americans have a big issue with religion,” says Mr. Adamson, who was born in New Zealand and grew up in New Guinea, where his Christian parents did church work. “When I did interviews for the first movie, I got asked a lot about the allegory and how it related to Christianity in the United States. When I went to France, I got asked why Americans seem so concerned with the allegorical aspects.

“Obviously, religion and spirituality are big issues for anyone, but it’s a personal issue,” Mr. Adamson says. “The film is what it is, and people can take it however they want, really.”

UPDATE: 5/21

Barbara Nicolosi:

I guess I can say that I was less consumed by tedium during the Prince Caspian movie than I was during The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, it could just be that the latest Narnia entry has an hour less of walking trees and ugly creatures getting impaled on spears by masked evil legions. I am not someone who responds well to endless battle scenes between characters that look like bad halloween costumes. … [It's] competently executed fantasy movie. Having said that, I am not sure what the point of it is – what it comes down to. … There is a lot of fighting in Caspian, but there are also a lot of pleasant visuals and engaging actors at whom to stare. The score was variously intrusive and I thought the ending song a mismatch – like bringing in the gang from American Idol to croon over the sacrifice of Abraham scene in a medieval mystery play. … Basically, I see this latest movie as one being one more proud bearer of the Walden Media hallmark – a mediocre script. Go see it or not. Won’t hurt. Won’t save anybody either.

Fischer:

Adamson returns for this second installment, but rather than extending the appeal of the first, he’s opted for a dark, dull tone inspired by the Lord of the Rings.

Prince Caspian, though bloodless, is almost shockingly violent. In one encounter after another, the Pevensie kids kill Telmarines with gusto. During a raid on the regent’s castle, human soldiers similarly tear into Narnia’s centaurs and minotaurs. There’s little to carry the film through the battles, however.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • slidglid

    My review:
    Another sad instance of a director who doesn’t give a damn about the message, just about whoever wins the fight. This time around, I was rootin’ for the good guys, but only because the Telmarines were so unbelievably boring. The Narnians themselves lacked, what’s the word…
    oh yes, Magic. Yknow, the Deep Stuff we were supposed to be seeing? I guess that wasn’t in their budget, which somehow went to $100 mill, but failed to show anything better than a moving tree or two. Where was Bacchus, Pan, et all? I’ve always heard that imagination is better
    than film, and here that saying is proven indisputably correct. Even Aslan, a supposed incarnation of diety, is about as boring as a real lion. The only moment I actually enjoyed was the appearance of the Frost Giant, aka the White Witch. Of course, it didn’t go anywhere, but it was a bit of a thrill.
    Furthermore, the theme of `uphill battle’ that miraculously turns into victory is absent. The Telmarines… just don’t seem like an actual threat. The theme of `believe in fantasy’ because it’s sometimes truer than reality, is also absent. The theme of `defeat of rationalism’ is gone. The impact on `the real world’ is therefore, well, just not there.
    What’re we left with? Eh, a fight or two. A nifty effect laden transport to Narnar. Basically, a movie about soul that lacks a soul. I’m not sure if they were going for
    `devil’s mockery,’ but that’s what they’ve successfully produced. Congratulations.

  • http://spaceforgod.wordpress.com/ spaceforgod

    Iambic Admonit has another good review here.

  • cdtsmith

    Like Msgr. Barr, I’m a diehard Narnia fan and was pleasantly surprised by the Prince Caspian film. It’s not without flaws, but it’s far better in quality and in depth of Christian themes than I expected.

    My full review is at http://www.christandpopculture.com/featured/prince-caspian-putting-away-the-fear-of-childishness/

  • anamchara50

    The movie Prince Caspian is an exceptional film which builds on the themes Lewis used and in many ways surpasses them. PC is perhaps the weakest literary effort in Lewis’ series from a literary point of view and Adamson does a great job of inserting more drama. As a secular film, it even manages to preserve most of the religious meaning For a more in depth presentation of why I disagree with most of the above comments, please check out my review at

    http://anamchara.blogs.com

    I sure do appreciate this discussion–let’s keep it going!

    Msgr. Eric R. Barr

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com Jared

    My review: I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I tried to be fair. I did enjoy myself on some level both times, but in order to do so I felt that I had to lay my appreciation for, and even knowledge of, the original book completely aside. That’s just not right.

    I think the way the story was “streamlined” during the opening was very weak, and made little sense. I think that future viewings will really make me cringe at certain points (I didn’t feel that during the first movie). Actually, I’m sure I could come up with a fairly extensive list of gripes . . . but what would be the point? I’d really like to hear Gresham defend this, though. Perhaps the Christianity Today interview should have been conducted after the movie’s release, when he would have actually talked about it.

    Was anyone else bothered by the song at the end, and the way it started up a few minutes before the credits? I immediately disliked that. It felt all wrong, somehow . . . a lame attempt at being hip and moving at the same time that just came off as trite.

  • judg

    Not only did they strip away the central theme of the book, but the attempts to re-introduce some depth to the story were almost unbearably clumsy. I rant on this more fully in my own review.

    http://the-walrus-said.blogspot.com/2008/05/prince-caspian-movie-review.html

    The fact that Douglas Gresham was associated with this gutting is particularly disheartening.


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