Book vs. Movie (Prince Caspian)

Don't you go talking about things you don't understand."
~Trufflehunter the Badger, in Prince Caspian

I saw THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (hereafter known as PRINCE CASPIAN, CASPIAN, or if I'm feeling punchy, TCON:PC) way back in May, a day or two after it came out. However, I was dissatisfied with my review, and a second draft fared no better, and CASPIAN got pushed aside for other summer films.

Since the movie came out this week on DVD, it's a good time to talk about the film. In addition, I want to start a new series I have been planning for some time: Book vs. Movie.

Longtime readers know that I preach (okay: scream) that you should judge a movie and the book it comes from as wholly separate works. This is easier said than done. Many adaptations get made because millions of fans love the book.

This Book vs. Movie series, then, is my attempt to honor the literary heritage of some of the biggest movies, and compare the two works for how they are similar and different. I AM NOT going to be one of those people who go "The movie changed this and this and left that out and waaah waaah waaah; I think I'll go eat some worms."

That said, I think it's interesting to look at the differences in how books and movies tell stories, and what changes should and shouldn't be made from one medium to the next. What makes one adaptation successful might not work for another, but if we keep at this, you and I, we might come up with a winning formula, and just maybe Hollywood will listen.

Movie-Hype (#753) - PRINCE CASPIAN (Book vs. Movie)

Many of you have seen the Narnia movies without reading the books. It is impossible for me to completely understand that experience because I have read the books at least 30 times; from what I can tell most people seem to enjoy both films.

Then there are the fans of C.S. Lewis, the ones who were embarrassed by the gaw-dawful BBC series, and who were pumped for a worthy big screen adaptation. Much like the Harry Potter fanatics, there was probably no pleasing them.

When I wrote my review of THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, I spent a fair amount of time yelling at outraged purists. This is because I knew many of them, and even lived with one. The slightest compression, omission or--oh noes!--rearranging of events had these people frothing like 911 conspiracy nuts. In fact, that's what we should call them: Narnia Truthers.

One can understand an extreme devotion built up for a favorite book, and therefore one tries to be compassionate and empathetic, so I say this with with delicacy and grace: most of the Narnia Truthers should be sterilized for the good of humanity. (Obviously in my mother's case, I mean now, not 33 years ago.)

There were legitimate cinematic criticisms you could make of the first movie, but for the Narnia Truthers, it was all about the deviance from canon. They seem to have no conceptual understanding whatsoever as to how and why movies and books are laid out so differently.

With all that as a backdrop, I wincingly admit that my initial thought on PRINCE CASPIAN, about one hour into the movie, was, "If Aslan saw this, he would turn over in his grave. (You know, if he hadn't conquered death and all.)"

This wasn't just deviation from the book, it was total departure.

I know, I know: you're laughing at me right now. All my righteous indignation, and yet a simple thing like making Susan less of a world-class bitch and I turn into a Narnia Truther myself! What is the world coming to?

Of course, these were my thoughts one hour in. By the end of the second hour it had occurred to me what the filmmakers were doing (and why), and from then on I saw the events on screen in a whole new light. Blessed with this new perspective, I am very much looking forward to seeing the film again.

But let me just warn anyone who's read the book but waited for the DVD to see the movie: you are going to be rocked, shocked and knocked off your block. If you're planning this for a family Christmas event you need to be prepared, and prepare your family, so chaos does not ensue.

I am going to discuss (generally) the differences between book and movie, and why (I think) they were done. This should help the Narnia Truthers enjoy the film better, and if you had a negative take the first time, perhaps a second viewing might restore some faith to your soul.

Prince Caspian was always my favorite Narnia book growing up. Of course, this cannot possibly have anything to do with the fact that I began reading Lewis as a boy, and the plot of Prince Caspian centers on a boy who is taught sword fighting and learns secret histories from a magical dwarf and finds out there are talking animals in the world who will serve him and help him fight his evil usurping uncle to become king. Total coincidence.

When I re-read Caspian (in preparation to see the movie), what struck me this time was how very little happens, and how oddly constructed the narrative is. As you will recall, at the end of Wardrobe (book/movie #1), the four Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and chipmunk-face Lucy) have grown up to be kings and queens of Narnia, and one day suddenly find themselves back in England, the same age as when they left. Book 2 (Caspian) starts about a year later (in our time), and the kids are pulled back into Narnia, although they don't realize this for some time, since it is 1300 years later there.

Eventually the four rescue a dwarf (Trumpkin), and he proceeds to tell the children a story. In Trumpkin's story there is another dwarf who ends up telling a story, and all of this goes on for some time. (There's quite a bit of narrative here, but the upshot is that Prince Caspian and the animals/whatever are fighting the Telmarines, or humans, and they need help.) So, the Pevensies and Trumpkin set off toward Caspian, which takes a considerable amount of time, and includes some important Life Lessons along the way. Meanwhile, Caspian, having recently met some of the talking animals and other creatures of the forest, goes around to many many many other creatures of the forest, and is introduced, gains loyalty, etc.

None of this is boring by any stretch, but as far as a plot-centered structure, you can see where a movie would have trouble. I have just described a good two thirds of the book, and extraordinarily little "action" has taken place. A movie, especially a blockbuster of this nature, is going to have to up the ante tremendously.

The leisurely storytelling and walkabout pace of the book is compressed in the film, which I think most reasonable people can understand. The timeline of when the four Pevensie children appear is altered as well, to bring them on earlier, since the kids aren't really in over half the book, and you cannot do that with your main characters!

As to adding action, the filmmakers invent the idea of assaulting the Telmarine castle, by air, no less. The movie justifies this plot development by having Caspians beloved teacher held prisoner, as well as developing the conflict between Caspian and Peter. (More on that in a minute.)

Purists might well hate the invented sequence, but I found out that C.S. Lewis's adopted son was/is the driving force behind these movies getting made, and he approved of all the changes. Every non reader I talked to thought this was a great sequence, and it was thrilling to watch.

This brings us to the other, massive change from the book, one that fans will either learn to live with, or get so angry they throw things. (In the space of the 142 minute running time, I did both.)

In the book, Lewis spends very little time working through what it might have been like to discover a magical land, grow up as King, and then have it all vanish into nothing.

However, a movie reality is different, and added to that our postmodern way of looking at adolescents' lives with more complexity. This leads us to the beginning of movie CASPIAN, with Peter in a brawl, and come to find out he's been fighting quite a bit this last year. That resonates emotionally. You give a person 20 years where his every word is treated as law and then snatch that away; there are bound to be readjustment issues.

In the book, the return of the four Pevensie children is treated with awe by the talking beasts of the forests. Even if they are young, the four are Legend in Narnia, and can do no wrong. Nowhere is this respect afforded more highly than from Caspian himself. In the book Caspian is around 11 or 12 years old, and has a wide-eyed "I can't believe this is happening!" feel to him. He defers on all decisions to the four, especially the high king Peter.

I can see the wheels in your head turning. Movies need sex and violence, and above all else, conflict, right? It is not enough for enemies to battle. In our modern times friends must do so as well.

In the movie, Caspian is not a young boy with stars in his eyes. He is (cough cough) seventeen, but one of those 90210/OC seventeens. As luck would have it, the actress who plays Susan (Anna Popplewell) is now gorgeous, and a big-time undercurrent romance plays out between them.

(For the record, I don't think she's pretty at all, but plenty of people disagree, and my views are probably biased by my feelings for Susan the book character, which we'll get to in just a sec.)

Again, I can see the Narnia Truthers wailing and gnashing their teeth, but from a cinematic angle the love story is a natural fit. The other great advantage to making Caspian older is that he's more self-possessed. He sees himself as a king (in the manner of kings, fighting a war to prove that very fact). These "other" kings and queens from 1300 years ago are all well and good, but they aren't from around here, and did I mention he sees himself AS A KING!

You can see where this is going. Peter takes his return to Narnia like slipping into a favorite pair of shoes, and expects to be obeyed as a king. Peter is not all that enamored with the idea of Caspian, who, after all, is a Telmarine, one of the dreaded humans who infested Narnia and brought them to the state they're in.

As my friend Carlos would say: "Drama!"

But here's the kicker: in the book, Aslan shows up when the gang is headed to Caspian's Army, and points out a better way. At first only Lucy can see him, but Susan most pointedly does not, and is quite cruel and vicious to Lucy. It takes Susan the longest to see Aslan and follow his path.

This "unbelief" of Susan's is the Christian allegorical part of the story, and much like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," doesn't get in the way. It does have the practical effect of making Susan a loathsome character. Because of that I (along with all good-hearted people) grew up hating Susan with a passion.

Well, you cannot have a romance between a young prince and a pile of PMS, so in the movie, Susan's defining character trait is simply gone!

Oh, the Narnianity!

Being robbed of my childhood Susan-hating was a crushing blow, and I spent a good twenty minutes of the movie fuming. However, I started to think about it, and realized what was going on. Attempting to be truthful to the spirit of the book, there is still a conflict, but it has been given to Peter, in the form of Pride. Peter's loss of status in England is hard for him, as it is difficult to share power when back in Narnia.

At this point, all the non-readers are rolling their eyes and thanking their golden idols they never learned to read. There is some merit to that. If the movie gives us a good conflict, and throws in a romance to boot, who are we to complain?

Ah, but you can appreciate the point of view of the faithful as well. Changing Susan's character in this way isn't compressing a time-line or adding an exciting battle: it's fundamentally altering the "message" of the book, and possibly changing the outcome of the seventh film. (You non-readers will have to wait to figure out what I'm talking about, but fans of C.S. Lewis just went, "oh, noes!")

The whole Susan thing is monumental, and I can't argue what position you should take. I also cannot let it derail me from mentioning the coolest change.

Because of the Peter/Pride dynamic, the scene where Nikabrik, the werewolf and hags are dealt with is ten times cooler. The filmmakers bring back the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) for a small cameo, and the scene is breathtakingly awesome. I'm not even going to say anything more, so you can be completely surprised.

When I read Prince Caspian this last time, I had to admit the allure of my youth had faded a bit. Caspian seemed less cohesive and dramatic than Wardrobe, which I had always considered inferior.

I still loved Caspian's teacher. I still loved Trumpkin, and EVERYBODY loves Reepicheep (who will happily be in the third movie, too). I even loved all the references about the Bear.

(Sadly, there is no time for it in the movie, but suffice it to say that one of the Bears in the book is a honor guard, and continually embarrasses all concerned by sucking his paws. This HAD to be some private joke on Lewis's part.)

As for the movie, I find I cannot give it a complete grade without seeing the film again (with a proper attitude), something I have not been able to do. I think casual fans should be happy, and as for those Narnia Truthers......They can be happy to, as long as they're reasonable.

Who sees that happening?

December 5, 2008

You'll use "Oh, the Narnianity!" You will


Anonymous said...

I have not seen the movie, and I was in 5th grade when I read the book, so I don't really remember much. Despite that, I still enjoyed the column, and I definitely look forward to more Book vs Movie entries in the future. I think looking at the strengths and weaknesses of different media is an interesting and useful thing to do.

Persimmon said...

It's been a long time since I've read Caspian, and so I couldn't put my finger on the source of my general unease while watching the film... until I read your column and suddenly realized that I had been deprived of my rightful Susan-hating! Thanks for reminding me. (I think it's time for a re-read if I can get through the whole movie without picking up on that! Although, I was so confused and distracted by all the changes, especially to the childrens' characters, I'm not surprised...) I will have to re-read the book again now! So much was changed, but I believe as you said, the two mediums need to be treated almost separately. That being said, I didn't enjoy this movie nearly as much as the first one, and although I can understand the reasoning behind the changes, they were not for me...

Anyway, my main reason for the comment was to thank you for an intelligently written "movie vs book" review! And especially, one that didn't get too bogged down in details or purism. Looking forward to more!

Hyperion said...

Bear - I have dozens of book-vs-movie columns planned. The trick is finding the time to get them in. But I hope to.

lisa marie - I don't think I've ever seen a comment from you before, so if you're new, welcome!

You're so right that "Susan-hating" was an essential part of the book-reading experience, especially to those of us who read it when we were young.

As I mentioned above, I do have other book-vs-movie columns planned, but I can't guarantee a date, especially with all the columns that already have topically-related "hard" post dates. I don't have a "follower" widget on Movie-Hype yet, but you can sign up for the RSS feed of that site, or for the Hyperion Institute, where any movie/book column would also run.

Or, you can sign up to get a free personal email notification every time I write a new column. Email me if you're interested, and I will put you on the list.

Anonymous said...

I agree very much with your post here, except when you said that Prince Caspian was 10 or 11 years old. In the book it says that Caspian was around the same age as Peter. So unless Peter was 10 or 11 years old in the book (and I doubt that he was)you are wrong. If you don't beleive me you can check it out in chapter 11 "Sorcery and Sudden Vengence" or on page 165-166 if you have the book pictured above. My veiw is that Susan and Caspian didn't meet until the battle was over in the book and thus they didn't have a very long time to get to know each other very well befor the Pevencies had to leave Narnia.

Hyperion said...

Anonymous - I could be off by a year or so here. My memory (spotty at best) had Peter around 13 and I thought Caspian at 12 or so, but then again, that could have just been my impression. One thing we can all agree on; he wasn't a 20-something Frenchie! That said, they probably did what they had to do to pull in the female audience.