The Dangers and Delights of Re-telling Great Stories (Narnian ones and otherwise)

UncategorizedJared KennedyComment

Between services on Sunday afternoon, Rachael, our five year-old daughter, and I went to see Walden Media's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There are definitely spoilers here, so turn back now if you want to avoid them.  Oh, and, yes, I took my 5 year-old girl to see this movie.  In spite of the PG rating, there was nothing in the movie that I thought she shouldn't see.  The previews, however, were another story altogether. Next time, we'll spend more time getting popcorn before the movie starts. Surprisingly (maybe because of the snow forecast), the theater was nearly empty.  It was a good thing, because Rachael was full of questions, and she talked throughout.  She was trying to put together what she was seeing in the movie with what we've read in the books and seen in the earlier movies.   Rachael was as critical and acclaiming as any movie-goer.  "Oh, I remember that part now!"  rang out when Eustace turned into a dragon.  When the green mist was introduced (see below), she said accusingly, "That wasn't in the book."  I laughed out loud.

Rachael's accusation got me thinking about what happens when a literary work is adapted from one genre to another, or, as in this case, from the printed word to the medium of the big screen.  Whenever this happens, the second work functions both on its own as a new work and also functions derivatively as an interpretation of or artistic reflection upon the earlier work.   There are biblical examples.

One of my favorites is Asaph's musical, poetic reflection on biblical history up to his time in Psalm 78.  The "re-telling" of Deuteronomy 6 in verses 5-7 is particularly striking.  On the one hand, Asaph summarizes major themes from Deuteronomy with just a few words. For example, "not forget the works of God" in verse 7 specifically references God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt.  You wouldn't catch this if you didn't have Deuteronomy 6 in mind, but it is clear when you compare the passage to Deuteronomy 6:20-25.  On the other hand, Asaph states explicitly things that Moses only implies.  Psalm 78:7 also tells us that the goal of teaching children to remember God's works and observe His commands is that they might put their hope and confidence in God.  Remembering and obeying are not ends in themselves.  They are the means by which our children come to know, love, and trust in the Lord.  This is implied in Deuteronomy, but it is made explicit in the Psalm for a new generation.

Asaph's song and other "re-tellings" of great stories stand on their own as works of literature (in Asaph's case, a divinely inspired one), and they gain depth when they are understood as re-capitulations or commentaries on earlier stories.

Like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe movie, the Dawn Treader contains a number of summaries, like Eustace's inability to undragon himself without Aslan's help from chapter 7, and exact quotations from the book that can not be fully appreciated without more time to reflect upon and marinate in their meaning.  Perhaps the most famous is the following from chapter 16:

“Are are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund. “I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

The adaptation to theater doesn't really do these themes justice.  Many will see the movie and leave without really "getting it."  But, for those who have reflected on the first telling, these quotes function like Asaph's summary statements.  In this way, I think that the Dawn Treader movie will be appreciated most by those (like Rachael) who are already steeped in the book.  The summaries serve as wonder-filled reminders of Narnia's deep magic.  If the reviews I've read speak the truth, this is what Walden Media is counting on.  They need the Christian audience that knows Lewis' Narnia to make the movie sell, and this is why The Dawn Treader is decidedly more true to the book than its predecessor, Prince Caspian.

Having said this, The Dawn Treader movie isn't totally dependent on the book.  It makes its own unique contribution. Some may say that it goes astray.  When Douglas Wilson took time to review Dawn Treader earlier this week, he explained one of the major book-to-movie transformations, the focusing of Dawn Treader's plot-line on dispelling the mysterious green mist:

The book is more episodic than the movie. The book does have a basic quest running through it, but the movie wants more cohesion, darn it, and so they have the quest be the necessity of placing on Aslan's Table all seven swords from the lost lords. This will dispel the threatening green miasma that proceeds from the Dark Island, and which Sauron-like, poses a danger to the whole world. Dealing with the Dark Island becomes a global battle, instead of being what it was in the book -- a battle with every man's Midnight Fantods, and the rescue of Rhoop.

I'm not all that critical of this change, because, like Psalm 78 with Deuteronomy, I would argue that this adaptation draws on a theme that is genuinely Narnian.  The movie makes explicit for new viewers what Lewis only implied--specifically that behind the dangers that haunt the adventurers throughout their journey--injustice (The Lone Islands), vanity (Duffer's Island), greed (Dragon Island), power (Deathwater Island), gluttony (Ramandu's Island), and fear (Dark Island), lies a truly global evil that must be defeated.  And deliverance from this evil only happens by grace.  Sadly, Lewis' solution for awakening the lords and ending the Treader's quest was left out of the movie.  Perhaps the thought of sacrificing one member of the crew at the end of the world, and letting him pass into Aslan's Country as a representative was too explicitly Christian.  The quest for the seven swords certainly made Reepicheep's trip up the far water-wall a bit anti-climactic.  But it did not destroy Lewis' emphasis on grace.  The movie gives a larger role to Eustace's un-dragoning conversion--making it the resolution for the story as a whole.  As Wilson observes, "It was redemption in big, block letters, as opposed the understated way that Lewis described the aftermath of Eustace's change."  Lewis communicates final redemption from temptation and death more subtly.  The movie communicates it boldly.  This is not a bad thing for an adaptation (or reflection piece) to do.

As a pastor and a Christian, I'm in the business of re-telling great stories, the gospel story in particular.  The Chronicles of Narnia movies are good reminders about the dangers and delights of this task.  Whenever a story is told again, there is always the danger that the point will be missed (as I would argue happened with the Prince Caspian flick).  Sermons and Sunday School lessons that teach the Scriptures must be more faithful to their source than a cinematic reflection piece like this one.  Re-telling should be creative, but it should also be faithful.  Nevertheless, creativity is necessary.  For those who already know a story, telling it again helps with remembering and provides depth and confidence in the most important truths.  Re-telling a great story with boldness and in new forms is also important for drawing a new generation into old truths they may have never encountered otherwise.  In this way, creative faithfulness is the stuff of missions (and children's ministry), and I pray that a work like this one inspires more of it.