If only C. S. Lewis had known that the success or failure of The Chronicles of Narnia — the Hollywood franchise, that is, not the Oxford don’s original seven-book cycle — would hinge on how the series’ third installment performed at the box office. Then he might have written The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with Robert McKee’s guide to screenwriting by his side, instead of taking his inspiration from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the imaginative mapmakers of the Middle Ages. Or else he might have saved Dawn Treader’s episodic, picaresque charms for book six or so, and moved The Silver Chair or The Horse and His Boy to the third slot, the better to furnish Hollywood with the kind of pitched battles, clear antagonists, and good-versus-evil finales that a blockbuster requires.
Such heretical thoughts, no doubt, occasionally flitted through the minds of the studio executives charged with floating Dawn Treader into theaters this Christmas, and saving the Narnia series from a premature decommissioning in the process. The attempt to build a box-office juggernaut out of Lewis’s beloved series got off to a solid enough start with 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but 2008’s Prince Caspian was widely (if somewhat unfairly) judged a clunking failure, and after its grosses failed to justify its price tag, the franchise was unceremoniously dry-docked by Walt Disney Pictures. At this point Fox swept in, slashed the budget, replaced Andrew Adamson (of Shrek infamy) in the director’s chair with the old pro Michael Apted, and pushed the saga out for one more cinematic voyage.