Prince of War

caspian-small.jpgPrince Caspian, a lesser-known entry in the Narnia series, is a book with not much substance. The recent movie actually streamlines the story, eliminating flashbacks and so forth. What fills the running time back up? Why, war of course.

Some of the warlike nature of the movie is directly from the book. The author, C.S. Lewis, never flinched from showing brutality and grim situations, especially when it was a fight between good and evil. What other mode would be appropriate when it’s the ultimate good versus the ultimate evil? No dilly-dalliers need apply.

To take a step back: Prince Caspian is the book Lewis wrote after The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (the filmmakers have been following the publication order for the series rather than the internal chronological order). It’s been a year for the four Pevensie children, heroes of the earlier trip to the magical realm of Narnia, but it’s been over a thousand years in Narnia. Aslan, the Christ-like talking lion, hasn’t been seen for centuries, and the evil human Telmarines have chased the proper Narnians – sentient trees, mythological creatures, and so forth – out of their own country.

Lewis wrote these “children’s” books with an explicitly Christian frame of reference, and in terms of the allegory so far, we got the resurrection of Christ last time around; this time, it’s the Christian church trying to survive (and thrive) millennia after the last time the big guy has been seen. I’m not as anti-allegory as some, but at least in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis told a cracking good yarn. Prince Caspian presents its allegorical roots, materializes its saviour, and then there’s a battle. Sum and total.

It’s a darker age too, which adds to the aforementioned grimness of the situation. At one point, a character says to the Pevensies, “You’ll find Narnia to be a more savage place now.” It’s true. In that sense, the addition of some battle scenes is perfectly suited to the tone of the story.

It’s unfortunate, then, that all the extra wartime scenes form part of the trend towards making Prince Caspian feel stereotypical and mostly stale. The battle scenes are very Peter Jacksonesque, and the visual elements of battles, particularly the ultrarealistic armour and weaponry for unrealistic creatures, feels lifted directly from the various Lord of the Rings movies. Strange how this has become a cliche so quickly.

caspian-big.jpgThe filmmakers add a taste of romance between Caspian, the rugged prince of the title, and Susan, the eldest of the two Pevensie sisters. A smile and a kind word, a rescue and a shared battle – it’s about as good as this stuff gets. The feuding between Peter, the former High King, and Caspian is also an addition, and it’s rather more tedious. The noble young men, squabbling like the kids they used to be just a few years before – neither actor can quite pull it off.

What else can the filmmakers do? The main addition is war. The battle at the end of the book is pumped up to about a third the length of the movie – lots more violence, fighting back and forth, and so on. There’s a scene of single combat that recreates the chapter from Lewis, then goes on much longer. The middle third of the movie is a whole new section with a raid on castle of Caspian’s evil uncle. I didn’t understand the rationale here; the heroes seemed extra foolish in this section.

A handful of the changes are fine: rather than just mentioning the seductive appeal of the
White Witch, the villain of the previous book/movie, we get a fabricated scene where she tempts our boys
directly.The movie starts with a streamlined version of the flashbacks to Caspian’s situation that bog the book down considerably.

I’m glad that I haven’t been in the habit lately of
reading a book right before watching a movie – I used to do it a lot,
but now I’ve tired of it. I’m not sure how productive it is. I mean, I
don’t want to be the passive consumer who sits back and shovels in
whatever pap the mindless machine has cranked out for me. On the other
hand: what do I get out of closely checking the differences between an
original and an adaptation? I realize that I probably have to hand in
my nerd credentials for even asking a question like that.

At least the filmmakers were trying to fill the hole. Filming the book directly would have made it about half the length. Then again, what’s the problem with that? If they were planning to fix up the flaws in Lewis’ text, why add a bunch of new material that unbalances the story? I guess a shortened version wouldn’t have been that standard epic fantasy; it would have been a lot more watchable.

7 replies »

  1. I’m with you: the battles went on a bit long. And yes, you nailed it exactly: the raid on the castle redounds to no one credit. Plot complication for no reason, except that they had to use up the budget somehow.
    What the movie did well was shade in more modern sensibilities. The Susan/Caspian romance was one; another was the difficulty the Pevensies had adjusting to life at home. No wonder Peter fought so much: imagine being High King – and a truly triumphant military hero – then being summarily turned back into a young teen (in the middle of a war). His sense of frustration (and Susan’s sense of loss) seem much more realistic than the Blyton-esque “we’ll- have- an- adventure- then- be- home- for- tea” emotional tenor that Lewis provided.
    Also, the boy who played Caspian? Very Pretty.


  2. Hi James,
    Thanks for the piece. This made me laugh:
    what do I get out of closely checking the differences between an original and an adaptation?” In my experience? Disappointment. I’m totally with you on spending that time elsewhere.


  3. I re-read this series a few years back (when I decided to re-read some of the old books I used to love by Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, etc.) and I actually found this book, dare I say, TOO allegorical. In retrospect it was clear that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe had allegorical intent, but when I first read it I just found the whole sacrifice of Aslan to be confusing and upsetting and mysterious.
    But the end of Prince Caspian didn’t really make sense to me as a child. Though as an adult, it kind of made me roll my eyes. I am curious that they have added things to flesh out the movie, but I’m not surprised that it remains unsatisfying. Of the whole septology, I think Prince Caspian probably exhibits flaws most similar to those of George MacDonald, whose books C.S. Lewis found so inspiring as models for combining fantasy and allegorical messages.


  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone!
    Mr. Dave… the mention of George McDonald blew my mind for a minute there. I have fond memories of reading his books when I was a preteen, and seeing your point about his books, my brain said, “Of course George McDonald was heavy on the allegory.” I’m curious to go back and take a look, especially to see if the allegorical heritage is as strong as you say.
    As for Madeleine L’Engle, I never read her books when I was a kid, and I tried recently and didn’t make much headway. Say what you like about C.S. Lewis, too heavy-handed etc, at least at the narrative level the story generally flows smoothly. Not what I found for L’Engle, but maybe that’s just my judgment in the absence of nostalgia.


  5. I actually came at George MacDonald two different ways. I read The Princess and the Goblin and the sequel The Princess and Curdie in Puffin book editions before I knew “who he was” so to speak. I enjoyed those well enough.
    Then later, when I got his name from C.S. Lewis (who held MacDonald in such exceedingly high regard) I sought out some of his books. I read Phantastes and Lilith and a collection of short stories titled The Gray Wolf. I didn’t find any of these as appealing as C.S. Lewis, who I think is a much more engaging storyteller. Even when I discovered that he had also written those earlier “Princess” books, I never really warmed up to MacDonald.
    I found Phantastes difficult to engage with, but it was Lilith that really turned me off. Lilith is unrelentingly allegorical, at the expense of an engaging narrative – a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress exploration of evil in an imaginary setting. The only other book to which I can compare my experience of Lilith was in reading H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Perhaps this seems appealing or intriguing to you, but it was not to my taste.
    I did like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time very much. I remember being excited to read the rest of that series as a kid (quite young I think – maybe 9 years old?) but I admit that these books were not as engaging to me as an adult. I enjoyed re-reading the first book, but found the sequels to be less engaging (and again, too allegorical or even overtly Christian.) A quick browse on the internet also makes me realize that there are quite a few books by her, even among her “Kairos” and “Chronos” series, that I have not read. So maybe your opinion of her writing is actually better informed than mine.


  6. Ooh, A Wrinkle in Time! I loved that book when I was a kid. Wind in the Door was okay, but I also didn’t find any of the rest of that series very compelling. I remember there was one in which she had the younger brothers go back to hang out with Noah before the flood and, even as an adolescent, I found that heavy-handed. It also bothered me because it felt like she was going out of her way to have male protagonists, when part of what I found so neat about the earlier books was that the main character was a girl. A Swiftly Tilting Planet made a very deep impression on me, but not in a good way. In the story, someone gets trapped inside the mind of a mentally disabled person and can’t get out and can’t think right. That scared the crap out of me – really really messed me up contemplating that. By the time I read Flowers for Algernon in school, I’d already been numbed to that kind of horror.
    Anyway, I digress: A Wrinkle in Time is *Quality*, even from an older perspective.


  7. Upon reflection, I realized that I had mixed up the ending of Prince Caspian where Aslan sends the children and the defeated army through a magical door, with the end of The Last Battle where everyone passes through a special door the the country of Aslan. It was the end of The Last Battle that I found most confusing as a child.
    It’s interesting that I had mixed these two stories together, though. I guess there are a lot of similar themes in each of them. But of the two, I think I enjoyed the story of Prince Caspian better – it isn’t the one that made me roll my eyes as an adult! :^)


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