A Love-Hate Relationship
So we just got our own DVD copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and because Tommy's been sick these past few days we've watched it several times. The visuals are fantastic, and I've thoroughly enjoyed seeing how well the filmmakers brought the story to the silver screen. The Dawn Treader itself is a beautiful rendition of Lewis' description, the standing wave bordering Aslan's Country is incredible, and the Dufflepuds just flat-out rocked!
But the film is ill at a deeper level. Beneath the visual appeal and the fun action, Hollywood killed something at the soul of Lewis' story. Hollywood murdered Reepicheep.
Here's what I mean. Modern movie-making understands swordfighting, CGI magic effects, and saving the world through heroic acts of individual triumph. Hollywood does these things well. But it doesn't understand - genuinely, it has no blasted clue - how honor, nobility, authority, and selfless sacrifice work. Thus it has no way of understanding what CS Lewis was actually depicting in his novel. This cluelessness is evident everywhere in the film, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the interactions between the honorable mouse-knight Reepicheep and the monstrously irritating Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
Comparing one scene in the film with that of the novel makes this clear. At one point in the movie the selfish Eustace -- a snotty, self-centered brat who is swept into Narnia against his wishes -- steals food from the ship's galley. He's caught in the act by Reepicheep, who makes a casual reference to theft of rations being a capital offense at sea and then challenges Eustace to a duel. But not to worry: none of this is serious in the film. Hollywood's Reepicheep does not have capital punishment in mind, nor is he concerned with honor, or the difference between right and wrong. Rather, Hollywood Reepicheep simply wants to help Eustace learn to swordfight, so that he can eventually become a hero. The "duel" turns out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, it's a one-on-one lesson in swordplay (how this relates back to the stealing of rations is left unexplained).
Compare this scene with the same one in Lewis' book, which begins not with Eustace stealing food but rather with him grabbing Reepicheep's tail and swinging him around just to be mean. Despite being swept off his paws in this most undignified manner, the knight-mouse deftly draws his sword in mid air and manages to deliver two piercing stabs to Eustace's hand in quick succession causing (gasp!) real, actual injuries. Of course this forces the brat to drop the mouse, who then immediately challenges him to a duel to the death. Significantly, Eustace is flabbergasted at this demand and runs away, with the mouse in hot pursuit. When Eustace finally refuses to fight, it is (again significantly) Reepicheep's turn to be stunned. He's shocked that anyone would lack so much honor as to refuse a duel after issuing an insult. So to teach Eustace a lesson about honor, Reepicheep (in front of everyone else on board) turns the flat of his blade on Eustace and beats several welts into his skin, using his sword like a switch. Now Eustace, Lewis is careful to note, has never been spanked by anyone before, either parent or teacher, and in fact has been taught that such things are barbaric, so this is a new experience for him. All the others on board, however, approve of the beating and Eustace is forced to mumble apologies as the scene ends.
Two Completely Different Lessons
Do you see the depth of the difference? It's not just that the scene played out a little differently on screen than it did on page - that happens when books are turned into films and it's no big deal. The difference is one of honor, of authority, of principle. Of worldview. You see, Lewis is showing how Eustace has been transported into a world that operates by a completely different set of rules than those of his world (20th century England). In fact, I said earlier that Hollywood murdered Reepicheep but they actually murdered Eustace as well, because depicting 20th century England is exactly Lewis' purpose for Eustace in this story. Eustace is the ultimate Enlightenment-besotted 20th century secular rationalist: a smug young boy who arrogantly thinks we've outgrown all old superstitions. Consequently he builds his whole life simply on "scientific fact" and is thus "too smart" to believe in old magic tales (in other words, religion). In Lewis' book Eustace reflects the spirit of his (our) day, believing that chivalry is an insult to women, that pacifism is always an enlightened position, and that the Medieval belief in honor and codes of conduct is all hogwash. By bringing Eustace to Narnia, Lewis shows him (and through him, us) just how wrong he is, and how foolish all his "enlightened" modern sensibilities are.
The Transformation Of Eustace
The transformation of Eustace - depicted most clearly in the dragon episode - is one of the main lesson of the book. Eustace goes from a smug secular rationalist to a humble, honor-driven follower of Aslan the True King. And he only accomplishes this with Aslan's help (and a small assist from the flat of Reepicheep's blade). This is totally different than the transformation Eustace experiences in the film. There Eustace becomes "a great warrior" under Reepicheep's tutelage. And the lessons the mouse taught him don't consist of just swordplay, but rather of long-winded babbling about how Eustace is actually "an extraordinary person" deep down inside (despite a total lack of evidence). These drivelings sound like pages right out of a contemporary self-help book, or daytime psycho-therapeutic TV program.
Which of course, they are.
And that's how Hollywood murdered Reepicheep, and Eustace as well. In the film Eustace is a deprived little boy who just doesn't believe enough in himself, while in the book he's an empty modern secularist who, without realizing it, has denied everything that makes life worth living. In the film Reepicheep is a psychologist-tutor who helps Eustace discover all the "amazing potential" locked inside him, but in the book Reepicheep embodies everything modern man has scoffed at: the devoted follower of Aslan who is committed to principle and honor at all costs.
And perhaps most importantly, in the film salvation for Eustace comes through self-actualization under the guidance of a therapist, whereas in the book salvation for Eustace comes from realizing that he is wrong and Reepicheep is right; a lesson that began with the flat of Reepicheep's blade smacking his flesh and only ended when the razor tips of Aslans' own claws ripped into his very heart.
The same fundamental missing of Lewis' point is evident throughout the film at almost every turn. As the credits of the movie roll and I listen to the film's theme song waft through our family room ("We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe, it's written in the stars above...") I realize that Eustace learned far more from Reepicheep than Hollywood managed to.
A Love-Hate Relationship