Friday, December 18, 2009

Narnia nostalgia part 3: Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader on BBC TV

In November and December of 1989, BBC TV released Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 6 weekly half-hour episodes. These were later edited into a feature-length film on VHS, and later, DVD (now available online in secondary markets like eBay and Amazon Marketplace). The teleplay was written by Australian playwright Alan Seymour.

As with the Walden Media productions, a decision had to be made about the order in which to make the adaptations of the C S Lewis books. While The Magician’s Nephew is the first book chronologically, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first published and the most popular. It was a given that that book should be made first. However, a more difficult decision was what to do about a second production.

Although Prince Caspian was the second book published, and naturally follows the first book, it is one of the least popular. It is also needed to bridge the gap between The Lion and Dawn Treader. Walden attempted to deal with this dilemma by making the story a bit darker and more exciting, trying to appeal to a broader audience. This attempt had mixed results. (See Will the Australian Rating Hurt or Help Caspian? and Mark Johnson Admits Caspian Mistakes.)

The BBC solution was to devote only two 30-minute episodes to Prince Caspian, and the remaining four to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The year (England time) between the two books is ignored, and some of the joy of returning to Narnia at the beginning of Prince Caspian is diluted by cutting out the scene when the Pevensies splash in the ocean. The story is moved along more quickly, but important elements of both stories are missed.

The trick in editing a story is to know what details are can be cut so the finished product retains the essence of the original. The scriptwriter must also be conscious of important elements in the narrative not conveyed by the dialogue. Although the script may contain the exact, or nearly exact, words used by the characters, editing for length can completely change the meaning intended by the author.

When Reepicheep gives his speech to Aslan about losing his tail in the battle, Aslan is “conquered” to restore it not by his words, but by the proposed actions of his fellow mice. In the movie, Aslan responds immediately when Reepicheep explains that he will be made fun of if his tail is not restored. But in the book, his associate Peepicheep explains that all the mice are willing to cut off their own tails if their Chief’s honor is not restored. This affects the meaning of Alan’s words:

You have conquered me. … Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cord that bound me on the Stone Table… you shall have your tail again.

Although the screenplay contains some unfortunate editing, it does do a good job of conveying one of the main principles that is repeated throughout the two books. There are dangers and challenges that the voyagers must learn to face, and each must do his part. But, as it is in this world, there are some things that are beyond us, and beyond our control. These may be unyielding storms, trials, or temptations; the books are replete with all three. It is then that Aslan steps in and does what only he can do.

When Lucy is tempted by vanity to use magic to become more outwardly beautiful, Aslan’s appearance in the magician’s book helps her overcome that temptation. When the Dawn Treader is lost near the Dark Island, Caspian cries out to Aslan. An albatross appears and directs them back to the light. Many more instances when the Lion intervenes could be delineated.

Although God expects us to do what we can, he is always there to step in when we need him. That is not the only lesson of the books, but it is an important one, and it is well conveyed in the movie.

Without a doubt, Walden Media’s adaptation of Dawn Treader will have better special effects and will not cut out so many of the details. (See Narnia nostalgia part 2 - lion, witch, and wardrobe on BBC TV, including note 2 at the end of the article, for a few words about the limitations of the special effect in the BBC movies.) Hopefully it will do at least as well at conveying the import themes of the book. About a year from now we will find out.

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