It’s been seven years now since my family first heard whisperings of a potential Narnia movie. While we waited, we filmed our own version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe–twelve cousins working 18 months to produce a faithful, creative, hilarious family treasure that will ever tie us together … and ever bore viewers whose surname isn’t De Vries.
Now, Walden has completed their final Narnia film.* It certainly isn’t a poorly-made adaption, but our post-theater spirits were rather low. The film fluctuates between didactic, in an ambiguously moral sort of way, and Typical Fantasy Movie. It is an okay production; but when a film is just okay, there’s no need for Hollywood to dip their fingers into any more of the series.
The Dawn Treader is faithful to the structure of its source, and the human-Eustace scenes are very good, the glue that holds the film together. But Lewis’ stories emanate a certain thrill that this movie lacks in all but a few moments. Notice I said Lewis’ stories. It’s not just an issue of book vs. movie. It’s story vs. story.
I realize that certain elements are required when a story is transferred onto the big screen: a driving motivation, for one, and discernible growth among the cast. But when a character’s flaws are reduced to one besetting sin, and a seat-of-the-pants adventure is structured to provide a seven-point goal, the film’s story becomes commonplace. The audience knows what is going to happen next, not because they’ve read the book, but because they’ve seen this movie a dozen times.
“If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summon up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him.” (Tim Keller)
There is an essential difference between moralistic and Christ-centered storytelling. Every Hollywood film, no matter its source, preaches some degree of morality. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes the filmmakers are more subtle, and create a desire within the viewers to emulate the hero. But either way, it’s about us summoning up the faith and courage to fight the giants in our lives.
In this film’s story, Eustace is pulled into Narnia so that he can overcome certain character defects, to help complete a mission and save hapless lives. Just like Frodo. Just like Harry. Just like Dorothy and Luke Skywalker. In the original story, however, Eustace is drawn into Narnia for one great adventure: Aslan saving him.
The men and women behind The Voyage of the Dawn Treader focus on good deeds and green mist and summoning strength because that’s the way storytelling works within their worldview.
But for a tale to be more than okay, you must replace the moralistic center. Heroic deeds flow naturally and painlessly, even poetically, from a cast that is anchored by the character of Aslan. Such a story is only possible when the artist’s work is Christ-centered. That doesn’t mean Christ dominates the story. On the contrary, such a center frees the story from being overwhelmed by its quest, balances the twin engines of plot and character. In the novel, Aslan only appears a few times. But his presence under-girds and motivates everything.
Thank God for the nonpareil awesomeness of Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre. If you haven’t listened to one of their broadcasts lately, dust off The Dawn Treader today. Right now. And enjoy.
*Seriously? You still think they’re going to keep going?