A wonderful scene in the second half of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — the second film in the Narnia series, based on C. S. Lewis’s beloved books — highlights the importance of cultivating a memory of the past in the face of strong cultural and political tendencies toward decay and decline. Returning to Narnia after a one-year absence (1,300 years in Narnia time), the Pevensie children — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) — find themselves in a cave whose walls are covered with ancient drawings. The drawings are memorials to them and their heroic feats in Narnia; it turns out that they have entered a sort of crypt built around the stone tablet on which Aslan was murdered and from which he rose to defeat the White Witch.
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 (in a rather lackluster performance by Ben Barnes) 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.
Having issued that harsh charge, I hasten to add two qualifications. On its own terms, the film version of Prince Caspian has much to offer. It is a solid piece of entertainment, with rousing battle scenes and many moments of humor. (The CG character Reepicheep, the honorable and hilarious mouse, steals every scene in which he appears.) But Caspian is more: it contains moving portrayals of the seductive power of temptation, and profound reflections on heroism — including a lesson on how the inordinate use of violence harms the perpetrator as well as the victim. Perhaps most impressive, particularly for those who have seen the first film, is the transformation of Edmund, who remains repentant for having disbelieved Lucy and for having treacherously served the White Witch. In a splendid performance, Skandar Keynes makes Edmund’s moral development credible and palpable; he is now wiser, more faithful, and more resolute.
The other thing that needs saying about the film is that the book from which it is drawn presents greater challenges to the filmmaker than does The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Director Andrew Adamson, who directed the first Narnia film after achieving fame for his work on the Shrek movies, takes more liberties with Lewis’s book than he did in the first film, of necessity. In the first half of Lewis’s book, he brings the Pevensie children (and his readers) up to date on the 1,300 years of Narnian history since the events related in the first book.
Lewis is doing more here than giving us a prolix prelude to a final battle. He is attempting to captivate his audience with the art of storytelling and with the superiority of real history over what passes for knowledge of the past in contemporary culture or in an ordinary academic setting. Lewis is also telling us something about the eponymous Caspian, a royal son, raised by his scheming uncle Miraz — who, it turns out, murdered Caspian’s father, and whose opportunistic desire to care for Caspian dissolves once his own wife gives birth to a son. We also learn that Caspian is from his youth a “lover of the Old Things,” in contrast to his uncle, who actively seeks to suppress the ancient and heroic history of Narnia.
Now, it makes sense to streamline Lewis’s historical narration, but, apart from the scene in the cave, the film fails to find a way to inject its version of the story with Lewis’s sense of devotion to the “Old Things.” Stressing Caspian’s longing to revive a lost way of life would have given his character greater gravity, something needed in the film to counterbalance the boyish good looks of Ben Barnes. His pretty appearance, the lack of character depth, and the filmmakers decision to focus on his innocuous flirtations with Susan render him a less than persuasive embodiment of Lewis’s main character.
That is not to say that all the changes are ill-conceived. One addition that works effectively is a longish battle scene in which Peter leads a surprise attack on Miraz’s castle, from which his army has to retreat in humiliation and sorrow, leaving behind many dead comrades.
Another addition concerns the reappearance of the White Witch, whose return is mentioned in the book as a possibility, but which never comes to pass. In the film, she returns — and who can blame them for bringing back Tilda Swinton’s chilling menace? — paralyzed in ice, which is a marvelously fitting image that recalls both her commitment to making Narnia always winter and never Christmas, and Dante’s vision of Satan as paralyzed in ice. This time, she is a powerful temptation not to Edmund, but to Peter.
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.”
By contrast, in the film, the parting culminates with Susan’s sorrow over leaving Caspian. The scene is sweet and innocent enough, but it cultivates in the audience the mundane sense of unrealized romantic possibility, rather than the grand appreciation, both terrible and wonderful, of a cosmic romance of redemption.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.