Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prince Caspian

Have I previously mentioned that I'm a bit obsessive about the Narnia stories? I'd read all seven books (at least once each) by the time I was ten. I've probably read them all more times than I've read any other books. I probably still could recite large chunks of the books. So (a) I have to go and see these films at the cinema as soon as they're out, and (b) I'm highly critical of them. But the film adaptation of Lion, Witch & Wardrobe was very good and I managed to forgive its failings and occasional departures from the plot. So what about the sequel?

Well, in many ways, Prince Caspian is possibly the least interesting of the Narnia books. Its not very interesting an allegory and all the good bits of plot happen in flashback, not in the 'present'. It is also possibly the least cinematic of the lot, especially as much of the first part of the book is very talky and happens in flashback. Also there aren't any significant battle scenes, and battles is what the film-going audience want in a fantasy film these days.

You see, in the book, our heroes - the Pevensie kids - meet up with Aslan before they meet Caspian and there is an expectation from then on that Aslan will save the day, but we're just not sure when. The story is all about faith, trust and belief. But that doesn't make for a very dramatic movie - well, certainly not one playing to a secular audience. So the main reasons the movie fails as an adaptation are that they decided to remove the faith story and remove Aslan from the plot until the very, very end.

Obviously, this decision affects the rest of the plot. Given that they're not expecting Aslan to save the day (OK, Lucy is, but the rest aren't), what do they do? And how can we get an extra battle scene in the film?

The film can be split up into three main chunks:
  1. Setting up the story - Caspian escaping from Miraz, meeting the Old Narnians and the children getting back to Narnia and discovering what's going on.
  2. The middle bit from when the children meet up with Caspian until the duel between Miraz and Peter. This is what should be the heart of the story, but is actually the bit where the film strays furthest from the plot and spirit of the book.
  3. The final battle and Aslan's return.
Basically I think its fair to say that I enjoyed parts 1 and 3 and found most of part 2 unnecessary and annoying. So I'll moan about part 2 for a bit and then be positive about the rest of the film after that.

You see - in the book - once Peter and Edmund have met up with Caspian (the girls never meet Caspian until the very end), Peter does his very best to avoid battle and unnecessary bloodshed and hence suggests the duel, primarily to stop the two armies killing each other while the duel is arranged. Not in the film. In the film Peter is all about trying to engage the enemy in battle and attacking the castle. And once that has failed, we need a contrived reason to come back to a duel. Despite what some of the critics have said (that Susan is the weak character in the books), it is actually Peter who is the most 2D character in the books (and in the first film), so to make the plot revolve around him and his decisions is a bad idea. And the actor playing Peter isn't really up to the task of carrying the film through its middle section and so everything falls a bit flat.

The whole film looks like a homage to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies - compare the opening horse chase to the flight to the ford in Fellowship, compare the final river flood scene at the end to the scene at the ford in Fellowship, compare the battle scenes to ROTK, compare the angry trees to the Ents at Helms Deep, etc. But never is this more apparent than the night-time assault on Minas Tirith, sorry, I mean Miraz's castle. OK, so here the flying gryphons are the good guys, not evil Nazgul, but beyond that everything looks the same. We've seen this before.

But, the whole film does look really good, even if it is homage. It looks like the Narnia in my imagination, fleshed out with bigger towns and more people than the books describe. Despite being about a decade older than he should be, Caspian himself is great and I liked the way the Telmarines and Miraz, in particular, were done. Once again, putting more flesh on the story than there was in the book. Good.

I approve of most of the changes in the early part of the book, missing out all of Caspian's younger years and making the Telmarine situation a bit more political. The changes with the children's story are fine too, and the bits in the ruins of Cair Paravel and all the way up to the river Rush were great. Shame they dropped Edmund's "Where's this bally Rush got to?" line though. 'Bally' is a great non-expletive which should really be reintroduced.

From the River Rush on, though, things start to go wrong. It is at this point that the book deals with the robust faith of Lucy, the failing faith of Susan and the outright disbelief of Trumpkin and the various ways that Aslan deals with them when they all come face to face with him.

By missing out the doubting Susan storyline, the film makers had to change Susan's character for the movie, and I think they did a pretty good job. In the film Susan is a fantastically heroic figure, fighting as well as the boys and falling in love with Caspian as well. Anna Popplewell shines right through the film and I think she has a good future ahead of her.

But by removing Aslan and changing Susan, the film makers unfortunately chop my favourite bit of the entire book. You see, while Peter and Edmund go off to help Caspian face up to Miraz, Susan and Lucy go with Aslan and witness the transformation of Narnia from a stern, repressed, rule-based, grey country into a wild and free country of magic and parties. This is the bit of the story that - no doubt - gives many conservative Christian types cause to worry, as we see Aslan - the allegorical Christ figure - cavorting with pagan gods like Bacchus and enjoying a wine-fueled late night slumber party. Still, at least they left the river god in at the end.

The duel between Peter & Miraz is pretty good but not as good as it should have been. The fight does not suggest that Miraz is an experienced old soldier or that Peter is a great warrior in the prime of his youth. Its just two folk hitting each other with swords. The battle that follows this is OK, but its still just two armies running at each other and fighting. But I suppose that is what the film going public want to see.

The film is too long. With a bit of trimming (of the middle section and the final battle) a much better film would emerge. It's not faithful to the plot or the spirit of the book, but is entertaining enough by itself to stand as a movie in its own right. And it'll make bucket-loads of money, so hopefully we'll get to see a movie adaptation of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in due course. But then again, that book really doesn't have any potential for battle scenes in it, so they'll really have to change things for that. After that, I'm not really expecting them to make the other four films, although I really think they should do the Magician's Nephew sometime, with Tilda Swinton reprising her role as Jadis. But no battles in that either. Or they might just jump on to The Last Battle (cos they like battles) and be done with it. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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