It’s not easy being a villain in Narnia. Twice now, in the two movies based on C.S. Lewis’ beloved series, the bad guys begin with the whole world in their hands, only to be thwarted—like some mythic, British take on Scooby Doo—by a band of meddling kids.
Narnia can be a pretty brutal place for filmmakers as well. Lewis’ books have spawned millions of passionate, highly defensive devotees across three generations. Meaning that anybody who dares to put their beloved tales on screen does so at their own peril. They also risks the scorn of movie critics, who are as notoriously finicky as any Narnia fans, and perhaps even less rational.
No surprise, then, that director Andrew Adamson has come out of Prince Caspian, the second film installment in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, with nearly as many bruises as the movie’s whipped, onscreen villains. While Caspian has grossed over $115 million worldwide, it hasn’t lived up to its expectations, critical or commercial. Its earnings have been nearly doubled by the less-hyped Iron Man, and according to Yahoo!, its average critics’ rating is B-, matched recently by other lackluster films like Leatherheads and Baby Mama.
Compare and Despair
At the heart of the matter seems to be a game of comparison. In review after review, from both fans and critics alike, there are complaints about how Caspian stacks up against both the first story in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a series of three movies based on books by Lewis’ friend, colleague and fellow Christian J.R.R. Tolkien. (They’re called The Lord of the Rings, and made over a billion dollars. Maybe you’ve heard of them.)
To this Narnia fan (and occasional movie reviewer), the unfavorable comparisons are accurate. But are they fair? Well, yes and no. Lewis’ material deserves some of the blame for the sophomore slump; but we should also point a finger at any critic who refuses to lighten up a little about a movie that’s ultimately an adaptation of a kid’s book.
Prince Caspian starts much like its precursor: with the four Pevensie
children in England, and Narnia again under the control of malevolent forces. (Lewis was a Milton scholar, and shared the poet’s penchant for starting, a la Paradise Lost, in the middle of a cataclysm.) But now the Pevensies are a little older, a little wiser, and nostalgic for their heydays as heroes in another world. And in Narnia, the face of evil has changed. Instead of a White Witch, it’s now overrun by a race of men called Telmarines.
While I must have read the Chronicles of Narnia a half dozen times as a child, it’s revealing that I couldn’t recall a single thing about Prince Caspian’s antagonists or its title character when I sat down for the film screening. There’s little to remember about them. It took C.S. Lewis a couple books to recapture the magic of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Caspian’s most compelling characters are holdovers.
But you can’t convict a director for the sins of the author. To his credit, Adamson must have sensed this weakness of the book. The Telmarines spend as little time on screen as possible, just enough to foil the Pevensies and Prince Caspian, a Telmarine himself who is cast off by his usurper uncle. Where the movie does go astray, however, is in portraying the people of Telmar as vaguely Spanish—something not found in the book. It’s as if we’re meant to infer their wickedness from their dark skin and foreign accents. Caspian himself, played by the English actor Ben Barnes, comes off like a weird, Iberian admixture of Hamlet and Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride—brooding, swashbuckling, and bent on avenging his murdered father, the former king.
The Pevensies and Caspian raise an army to do battle against their oppressors, a battle framed by the film as one between doubt and faith. The skeptical Telmarines dismiss most of what they’ve heard about Narnia as old-fashioned fairy tales. They are countered by those waiting patiently for Aslan’s return: the “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” of Narnia, along with their animal compatriots, many of whom are too cute for their own good. (That’s one small, personal gripe with the film: Lewis, in his novels, endowed his diminutive, talking creatures with a certain degree of nobility, which is mostly eschewed here—I’d hazard to guess that is because noble mice don’t sell merchandise as well as cute ones do).
It’s both a blessing and a curse that the Narnia films come on the heels of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson’s success ensured a big box office and wide audience for Lewis’ Christian allegory, and Caspian’s battle sequences seem intended to recall Jackson’s epic, heart-pounding martial artistry. But with imitation of greatness comes greater expectations. The Lord of the Rings brilliantly married an otherworldly wonder with a rich story; Jackson was unafraid to extend his films’ running time in order to develop both his characters and his audience’s reasons to care about them. Prince Caspian, by comparison, feels haphazardly abbreviated, and more commercially motivated. The special effects are less special, and we only get glimpses of character in moments that are absolutely central to the plot.
But here, perhaps, is where the comparisons are most unfair. After all, Lewis’ stories, unlike Tolkien’s, were written for children, who care far less for characterization than they do for imagination and instruction. Adamson does his best to preserve a bit of both elements. He keeps us riveted at the end with a beautifully imagined sword fighting sequence, where good gains a satisfactory triumph over evil. And he retains the author’s lessons about the gradual letting go which is so central to adolescence. There’s a poignancy to the moment when the adolescent siblings, Peter and Susan, realize and accept that this is their final voyage to Narnia—a poignancy that reminds us of Wendy as she says goodbye to the nursery in Peter Pan.
Many critics have rather backhandedly labeled Prince Caspian an atypically dark children’s tale, citing its violent battles and serious themes like patricide. To me, all this proves is that an alarming number of movie critics have never read a fairy tale, or they’ve merely forgotten what it once was like to be young. Children are hardly any different than their parents: they can handle a fright, but they want a happy ending. And again, to Adamson’s credit, they get their wish. We witness the return of Aslan, Narnia’s allegorical Christ, who transforms dystopia to utopia and discord to harmony. (Milton would be proud.) He breathes on his followers, imparts his aphoristic wisdom, and rewards the good citizens of our world and his. The kids go home happy, and so, in the end, did I—even if a little disappointed.