Max DeCurtins questions the franchisability and basic structural weakness of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia with his re-view of Prince Caspian.
The aughts were arguably the decade of the film franchise. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings; from Star Trek to Star Wars; film franchises seemed like sure bets for studios not yet aware that they would soon face competition from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and others. Disney jumped aboard this gravy train in 2005 with The Chronicles of Narnia, and I have little doubt that, with seven books in C.S. Lewis’ critiqued but widely popular series, Disney thought they had a thoroughbred waiting to lap its way to victory seven times over. Sometimes in racing, though, you bet on the wrong horse.
The problem is, the Chronicles were never going to be as successful as these other film franchises, and the reason lies in the fundamental structure of the series itself. The Chronicles—plural—of Narnia are essentially a collection of semi-independent vignettes. This reflects Lewis’ writing process; each time he added another book to the Narnia series, he assumed it would be the last, and in each case he proved himself wrong by writing another installment. And it is in this assumption, this lack of continuity, that we find the roots of the Chronicles’ struggles as a film franchise; there’s something profoundly counterproductive from a filmmaking perspective about introducing viewers to a fantastical world, putting a cast of characters front and center, and then dispensing with all that because those characters inhabit just one or two segments of many. There’s no real reason to invest in the development of the Pevensies, the central characters, when they’re going to be cast aside after two stories; audiences identify with actors as the embodiment of characters, and viewers want to feel as though they have gotten to know said characters and their place in the saga they inhabit. So, from a filmmaker’s perspective, staying faithful to the original source of the Chronicles actually amounts to an incredible act of self-sabotage.
This is all to say that sometimes, the better choice with large-scale series is to choose which parts of them you are going to adapt, and then work to sculpt those parts into an independent artistic artifact that demands a more authorial role of the writers and filmmakers, something the Chronicles need because Lewis’ material ain’t gonna get there on its own. It lacks the depth and internal cohesion of Lord of the Rings, the operatic flavor of Star Wars’ heroic Rebel struggle, and the central protagonist’s narrative of Harry Potter. All of these multipartite sagas went on to much, much better success than the Chronicles, and the nature of their source material and storytelling explains why.
However much you think Peter Jackson may have bungled the trio of Hobbit films that serve to set up the events of the Lord of the Rings, there can be no question that both trilogies profited from Tolkien’s superior worldbuilding and his approach to storytelling within that world, which shows the reader (and the viewer of Jackson’s films) how characters end up dealing with the consequences of actions taken by other characters previous to them; with a few consistent actors and a few familiar places (e.g. the Shire, Rivendell, etc.), this creates a cohesion between the films and a pitch for seeing them all through.
Star Wars’ structure (and of course, as you loyal 10YA readers know well, I’m referring to the original trilogy) comes from a different place; the novelty of the Star Wars universe meant that viewers could bear witness to its adventures without any extant literature as a reference—nobody knew what the next installment would be like because there was none yet. The indelible opening crawl provides each film with the context it needs to stake out its place in the overall struggle of the Rebellion against the Empire, but in each case the focus falls on the same handful of characters whose struggles, placed within the overall narrative, the viewer can follow from film to film. Nowadays Star Wars, like Star Trek before it, is grappling with the uncertainty of revival. The franchise is currently an experiment on a grand scale, testing just how much a fictional universe can survive absent a central narrative or the cast of characters that originally propelled it to cultural immortality. Will it become so fragmented that audiences lose their investment? Early indicators seem to say no; Disney will most likely still be cranking out new Star Wars products when your great-grandchildren are packing their children off to college.
Harry Potter represents perhaps the most straightforward storytelling structure of all: a single protagonist seeking to unravel, with help from friends and brushes with enemies, a mystery that has plagued him his entire life. Many readers of the books grew up in tandem with Harry; audiences literally watched Daniel Radcliffe go through adolescence. But suppose for a moment that Harry Potter had no Harry—and also no Dumbledore, no Voldemort, and so on. Or rather, suppose that they had populated only two or three of the seven tomes of the series, never to be seen or heard from again. Would the film series (or indeed the books themselves) have met with nearly the same level of success had Rowling composed a hodgepodge of tenuously-connected stories about life in the wizarding world, without a central ensemble of characters or driving narrative? I suggest that the answer might be that, at best, it’s doubtful.
So, in retrospect, the Chronicles wasn’t ever going to be a license to print money for Disney. About Prince Caspian, though.
I saw, as I mentioned in my re-view, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (hereafter, LWW) having vaguely recalled the books and perhaps a little curious about what the film adaptation would do. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking ten years ago about how literary structure could have commercial implications for film. Informed by that experience, I think I saw Prince Caspian in the spirit of giving Disney a chance to improve its Chronicles fortunes, like a TV show that has a rocky first season but begins to gel in the second.
Prince Caspian is what happens when you don’t have a great first or second season.
Caspian shares all the same problems that plagued LWW: middling performances, stilted writing, shit treatment of the female characters, and a none-too-subtle religious message. In fact, this movie has exactly three sorts of good things in it, and their names are Sergio Castellitto, Peter Dinklage, and Eddie Izzard. Three good things are not, however, enough to help Caspian shed the albatross of the basic structural weakness of the Chronicles.
The whole movie feels desultory, like the last minute of a sportsball game in which the team that’s been walloped is still expected to play as if they could win—indeed, as if there’s any point to finishing at all. As 10YA’s resident musicologist, I would typically say a few words about the score, but it’s almost entirely regurgitated from LWW, down to which bits go with which scenes. What one would presume to be major events pack little punch; even the plot feels as though it’s just going through the motions, and the motions are these:
Caspian is heir to the throne of Telmar, a country bordering Narnia. The movie opens with Caspian’s mentor warning him that his uncle, Lord Miraz, has sired a son and intends to murder Caspian for the throne. In his flight from Telmar, Caspian blows Susan’s horn, given to him by his mentor, setting in motion the Pevensies’ return to Narnia, via the spectacularly abrupt disintegration of a Tube station into a beach beside the ruins of Cair Paravel. The Pevensies discover where they are clue by obvious clue, as if they hadn’t spent years and years there, but I suppose if they’d figured it out immediately there would be no dramatic reveal—a recurring theme in this movie. Caspian engages in an extraordinary amount of navel-gazing, moving from one slow-motion reveal of a place or thing from LWW to another.
We discover that what for the Pevensies was a one-year absence in England turned out to be the passage of more than a millennium in Narnia, and everything is fucking terrible. Understandably upset, the Pevensies go off to find out what happened; what they get is Caspian and the ragtag band of Narnians harboring him. They all agree that they must help Caspian overthrow his uncle so that Telmar will no longer present a threat to Narnia, and they decide to ambush Miraz in his castle to avoid an all-out war. The Narnians attempt to storm the Telmarine keep, but Caspian goes off script and ends up fucking over the ambush, which results in a rather unpleasant massacre of the Narnians trapped behind the gate. Recriminations ensue, at which point Caspian, idiot interloper that he is, nearly resurrects the White Witch as the looming battle with the Telmarines approaches, tempted by the potential for the Witch’s power to defeat his uncle. Edmund intervenes, and then summons them to see Miraz’s army assembled on the battlefield outside. Desperate, Peter sends Susan and Lucy off to find Aslan—because there’s no help like a god-beast who’s been asleep at the wheel for 1300 years whilst the kingdom he’s supposed to protect is pillaged and plundered—and stalls for time by challenging Miraz to a duel. He wins, wounding Miraz in the shoulder; Peter then offers his sword to Caspian to finish off Miraz. Caspian spares his life (why is it that these purportedly noble moments that are supposed to make a statement about humanity and forgiveness rarely ever do?), but Miraz’s right-hand general and rival Sopespian betrays Miraz to his death by sticking him with one of Susan’s arrows.
As in LWW, we are treated to a battle between a band of vastly outnumbered Narnians and their enemies, in which Aslan reappears at precisely the last possible moment, after which everything goes swimmingly for the Narnians, showcasing Lewis’ unfortunate penchant for deus ex machina. Under attack from Aslan’s summoned treefolk (an homage to Tolkien’s Ents, or is this just Lewis, as the saying goes, stealing outright?), the Telmarine army flees to the bridge over the river whence they crossed into Narnia, and are met there by Lucy and Aslan. Aslan conjures a river god, which drowns the traitorous Sopespian and convinces the Telmarines to lay down arms.
At this point the movie is pretty much over: Caspian becomes king, Peter and Susan learn that they will never again return to Narnia, the Pevensies head back to England through Aslan’s tree portal, and that, dear viewers, is that.
There are so many things to criticize about this movie it’s hardly worth even trying. The disappointment of Caspian, much like the disappointment of LWW, lies in the fact that the filmmakers could have used the act of adaptation and interpretation to reshape both stories into parts of a more substantive whole. They feel unfinished, as if they’re aware that five more movies would, in theory, follow them and tie up any stray bits. What all the parties—the director, producers, writers, and studio—needed to do was sit around a table and go: we can’t turn the whole of the Chronicles into seven movies, but we can take the first two stories, adapt them, embellish them a little, make them cohesive on their own, and put out a product that will capitalize on the current cultural moment that the fantasy genre’s having.
Needless to say, reader, this didn’t happen. Thanks to Lewis’ stop-and-go method of expanding the Chronicles literature, Caspian makes clear that we’ll never get to know the Pevensies beyond the archetypes they embodied in LWW. Hell, we’ll never get to know anything in any detail. The Pevensies’ mother and father? Absent. Professor Kirke? Absent. Any hint of their life in postwar England? Ignored. Literally all the Narnians introduced in LWW? Dead. Cair Paravel? Destroyed. Nothing, not even their time spent in Narnia, sticks around long enough in the Chronicles to become truly consequential in the lives of the Pevensies, who are the very sorts of characters a multipartite franchise depends upon to sustain interest.
Of course, to have sustained audience interest from film to film, the Pevensies desperately needed more developmental treatment. The writers chose to highlight the tension between Peter and Caspian as they vie for control, but rather than wasting time on yet another male power trip, they could have focused instead on making Susan a serious leader, one who doesn’t put up with Peter’s attempts to silence her. They could have focused on making Lucy less willfully naïve. And even granted the obvious, overwhelmingly male-centered, well, everything about these movies and Caspian in particular, I would have liked the writers to have spent more effort fleshing out a real sibling relationship between Peter and Edmund, instead of saying, welp, boys will be boys and we’re not interested in their emotions. That shit don’t fly no more. Speaking of feelings, whoever proposed the Susan-Caspian romance should be shot, because truly, friends, this piece of the movie is veritable bovine excrement.
Finally, I mentioned in my LWW re-view that the “paradise lost” ending ranks among my least favorite tropes in escapist fantasy. Sometimes, the narrative rightly demands it, as in Lord of the Rings. But there’s little reason for it in the Chronicles. The Pevensies losing Narnia a second time puts the nail in the coffin of what could have been. Most especially, a standalone two-part Narnia artifact could have explored questions of identity and belonging, of power and destiny, as the siblings grapple with whether or not to remain in Narnia forever, and what they would give up in doing so. This would have depended of course on there being something at stake in the decisions the Pevensies make—real relationships, real risks, and real rewards—but the filmmakers didn’t take up the mantle of authorship to the point of filling in what Lewis left vacant.
So, ten years later The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is still a mediocre movie. LWW fares better only because it was first up and the film team had to show Disney what it intended to do with the rest of the Chronicles. If the theme of the aughts was all-in on the multipartite sagas, the theme of the teens looks to be Reboot and Extend. But Caspian foreshadows what I think will eventually become clear, after many more Star Wars and Abrams-timeline Star Trek movies and a Wagner-length Silmarillion and perhaps even Harry Potter: The Next Generation—accio Wesley Crusher!—when it comes to epic sagas, more is not always better.