In the first few minutes of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it’s obvious that the film’s going to be taking some liberties with the book.That’s okay though.Thanks to Peter Jackson, I’ve been trained for this. I’ve even learned to appreciate and often enjoy the changes that screenwriters and directors make in adapting literature to the screen. So, though it’s not always an easy job, I determined early on to judge Dawn Treader for what it is instead of how closely it adheres to the book. Unfortunately, it doesn’t measure up very well that way either.
Make no mistake, the movie also skips too quickly past or entirely drops some of my favorite sections of the book, but even if we grant leeway to that, it still fails in capturing the point of the novel. And I could even perhaps forgive that if the movie was able to find an alternate point and make it well, but it doesn’t do that either.
The movie’s primary mistake is that it expects its audience to be more invested in the Pevensie kids than is healthy. Listen, I love Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy, but any fan of the Narnia books will warn you not to get too attached to them. It’s hard not to get attached, but as the series progresses, Lewis gently, but firmly moves us away from them. And Dawn Treader is where he does a lot of that work. He gives us one last adventure with Edmund and Lucy to ease the transition, but the hard work in the novel – all the growing and changing (you know, what the story’s about) – is done by the new character, Eustace Scrubb. Dawn Treader is Eustace’s story and the movie steals it from him in order to give it back to Ned, Lucy, and even Caspian.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the plot is simple. Ned and Lucy are having to spend a summer with their self-centered, bullying cousin Eustace when the three of them are transported to Narnia through a painting. They immediately hook up with now-King Caspian and learn that three years have passed in Narnia since the events of Prince Caspian (only one year’s gone by for Ned and Lucy). Having brought peace and stability to Narnia, Caspian is now able to turn his attention to searching for seven lost lords who were sent on an exploratory ocean voyage during the reign of Caspian’s uncle. Ned and Lucy are of course thrilled to join the adventure. Eustace is significantly less so and spends the early days of the voyage crying, complaining, and threatening.
As the ship travels to unexplored islands – meeting pirates, sea serpents, wizards, dragons, and merfolk in the process – Eustace gradually learns that he’s been acting poorly and is able to improve. He does this so much that by the end of the book readers aren’t as sorry as they might otherwise be to learn that this will be Ned and Lucy’s last adventure in Narnia. Eustace has faced so many threats and become so endearing and heroic in the process that even noble, chivalrous Reepicheep the Mouse considers him a kindred spirit. Because of this, you really can’t wait to begin the next book and see Eustace return to Narnia for another adventure. The biggest disappointment of the movie is that it fails to create this response.
Eustace does go through a transformation, but he has to share equal time with Ned, Lucy, and Caspian who have their own growing to do. Ned wants to become a man, Lucy wants to be beautiful like Susan (something that’s mentioned in the book, but far more quickly resolved and moved past), and Caspian is grieving for his father to the point of having a minor death-wish. Because the movie spends so much time resolving these fabricated flaws, Eustace’s story isn’t given enough time to be convincing. More pity: neither are any of the others. In trying to lend unnecessary weight to characters who are moving out of the story anyway, the film contrives defects for them that can’t be satisfactorily resolved by anything that happens in the plot. Ultimately, the character flaws have to disappear as quickly and awkwardly as they showed up. And in the meantime, Eustace – the only character with a real flaw to grow out of – has been sidelined.
Character flaws aren’t the only “improvement” the movie creates. The original story doesn’t have a real villain, so the movie gives it one. The antagonist in Lewis’ story is Caspian’s mission. It’s enough. There’s plenty of danger in the sea and on its islands without concocting an evil fog to control everything. Tony Scott’s Unstoppable lost not an ounce of energy or excitement by not having a bad guy. It’s too bad that Dawn Treader‘s screenwriters didn’t have as much faith in the story they were adapting.
But again, I could’ve gotten on board with a villain had they created a good one. The green fog has no motivation. It’s just evil because it’s evil. And the way the heroes are supposed to stop it is just as bland. Defeating an evil mist and freeing its captive slaves by collecting seven magical swords isn’t CS Lewis. It’s the plot of an ’80s swords-and-sorcery flick.
As much as I’ve complained, Dawn Treader isn’t a horrible movie. There are too many minotaur sailors and sea serpent battles and cool islands for that. Also, Simon Pegg makes an awesome Reepicheep and the other actors do great jobs as well. It’s a good-looking movie too. It’s just too bad the story isn’t up to the rest of it.