Not just another hobbit movie
In Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) the Pevensie children (Lucy (Georgie Henley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes)) come back to Narnia, only it isn't Narnia, at least not the one they know: no one they know is there, the landscape and coastline are unfamiliar, and just what are these ruins overgrown with vines and undergrowth doing here?
Turns out that during the year they'd been attending school in England over a millennia has passed in Narnia--and here is where Lewis' classic fantasy departs radically from the better-known, more popular Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our world is linked to Lewis' (we first see the Pevensies on a railway station about to go back to school before they're whisked away by some magical wind) but it's not a simple correlation: time passes at a different rate between the worlds (at about a thousand-to-one ratio, it seems), a rather sophisticated concept for a 'mere' fantasy--and in fact Lewis didn't rely solely on traditional mythology for inspiration: he was familiar with science-fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon (whose imaginations he admired, even if he deplored their unChristian morality). Lewis (who also wrote science fiction--Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; That Hideous Strength) would be familiar with Einstein's theories; oddly enough, while his grasp of time and space is flexible enough to encompass chronological relativity and spatial paradoxes (Tolkien's is more the straightforward type: big is big, little is little, and time moves in a strict straight line), his notions of good and evil stand firm, whether on another planet or another universe entirely (the real moral challenge is in the practice--the ethics of a particular situation, and their many nuances and ramifications).
Lewis wasn't content with throwing yet another supernatural menace at our heroes; this time the threat is strictly human--an entire nation in fact. Narnia has been conquered and populated by the Telmarines; Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is the youngest descendant of the ruling line, and was to be heir to the throne until a son is born to Caspian's uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who consequently makes an attempt on Caspian's life. Lucy, Susan, Edmund and Peter's mission is to restore Caspian to his rightful place on the throne, allowing Narnians and Telmarines to live together in peace.
It's great fun on the printed page, with a small puzzler posed towards the reader: why is Aslan so coy about making an appearance in the story, and why only to Lucy and not the others? This little subplot bears much of the novel's ethical and theological weight (let's not pretend--as Lewis himself put it, the Narnian stories are a re-imagining of the Christ story in a fantasy setting), and is actually the key conflict: not the struggle between usurper and rightful ruler, but between belief and disbelief in the existence of a long-absent, long-awaited Aslan.
But that's the book, the second in the series (which--hope I've made it clear by now--I much prefer to Tolkien's trilogy); how does the movie fare? Not as successfully as I would have liked; director Andrew Adamson is no Peter Jackson, even if I did think Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien for the big screen was too reverential. Opening with Caspian's kidnapping is a mistake; it starts the movie on a note of action and suspense, but loses the crucial transition from the quotidian (the Pevensies, sitting in a '40s train station) to the fantastic (a beach, a cliff, the remains of a long-dead castle), and diminishes the contrast between our world and Narnia.
Lewis himself was never able to top the series of images that introduce readers to Narnia--the mysterious wardrobe (which (and I'm willing to bet money on this) inspired Dr. Who writers to create the TARDIS (a police box with a cavernous time-and-space spanning ship hidden inside)); the lamppost standing in the heart of a snowy forest; the fawn with an umbrella. But Lewis does follow the Pevensie's return to Narnia with a scene almost as strong, if not stronger: the gradual realization that the abandoned building the children are exploring is in fact what's left of their beloved castle Cair Paravel, and that momentous changes have occurred during their time away. To his credit, Adamson rises to the occasion, filming the scene with sufficient gravitas and a becoming simplicity; would that he had tried harder to resist updating the children's dialogue (heard between Susan and Caspian, who is visibly smitten: "We would never have worked anyway" "Why not?" "Well, I am thirteen hundred years older than you") to the point that they sound more like modern-day brats than '40s youths; or eschew any and all digital and visual similarities to the Lord of the Rings movies instead of playing them up--the battling trees, for example, or the raging river digitally animated to resemble some Neptune lookalike. Narnia has its own unique charms, and needn't pander to the hobbit crowd.
Still, Adamson does get a few things right: medieval castle architecture, for example, and its means of defense (the castle's gatehouse, the structure's supposed 'weak point,' lures invaders into the courtyard--which with the shutting of the portcullis is quickly turned into a killing field by archers in the upper galleries); the Telmarines' extraordinary wooden log bridge, which looks to be modeled on the bridge Julius Caesar built across the Rhine; and tactics (i.e. the extensive network of underground catacombs, and how they're exploited in battle) not quite seen before, even in the Jackson pictures. Adamson also does well by the Pevensies, who are shown to be as flawed and fragile as in the previous picture, Peter most of all (Peter's strategy of pre-empting Miraz by attacking his castle (a scene invented for the movie) doesn't make sense by any standard, let alone the military's). One might call the picture a children's fantasy version of Henry V, with Peter standing in for Henry, a study in leadership virtue and vice. Actually every Pevensie has his or her moments--Lucy insisting (despite the others' disbelief) that she had seen Aslan (and quietly weeping when she's voted down); Susan quietly flirting with Prince Caspian; Edmund confronting the White Witch (Tilda Swinton in a magnificent, too-brief cameo), knowing all too well of the seductive spells she can cast on a young man.
Even Miraz manages to develop into a nicely rounded character, with strong motivations (he's determined to protect his newborn heir), not inconsiderable flaws (aside from being ruthless and cruel, he's also sarcastic), and even moments of comic vulnerability (challenged to a duel by Peter, he's goaded by his fellow generals into accepting). Only Caspian remains stubbornly wooden; the way Barnes plays him, one can see why Susan is attracted (he's handsome, with a perfect cleft chin), the same time one can see why she'd ultimately refuse (after all is said and done he's a dull boy-toy).
All in all a decent second effort, with much of its appeal coming from the greatly underrated source material, in many ways a darker, more sophisticated effort than its children's literature-oriented predecessor. One looks forward to the third movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; where Prince Caspian emphasized the disparities in time flow between our world and Narnia, Dawn Treader goes in yet another direction--the very edge of the world, which looks entirely different from what we know exists in our universe (yet another feature Lewis' fantasies have that Tolkien's lacked). To be directed, it's said, by Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) the Up documentaries (1970-2005)), Apted isn't known for special-effect extravaganzas, but he does well enough if not better with films strong on character and human relationships. We shall see; we shall hope for the best.
(First published in Businessworld, 6.6.08)