Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Prince Caspian

Thanks to a bargain bin at my local bookstore, Prince Caspian (along with The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew) is one of the three Narnia books I owned as a child, and which I’ve consequently read many more times than the remaining four books (though I had The Silver Chair on audiotape). So it holds a special place in my head-library of nostalgic childhood reads, even though it’s arguably the weakest book in the series.

The structure of the story is the most unusual element of the book: the Pevensie siblings are waiting for a train to take them to school when they're pulled out of their own world and onto a sandy shoreline. They explore, they find a ruined castle, and they realize that though this is Narnia, several hundred years have passed since their last visit. They have spent only a year in England, but (according to this time line) thirteen hundred years gone by since the Pevensies reigned in Cair Paravel. Everything drips with loss and nostalgia.

Having established this melancholy atmosphere, Lewis introduces the dwarf Trumpkin who goes on to share a multi-chapter retelling of how he got there. This includes a dash of Narnian history and background on Prince Caspian, the rightful king of Narnia who is currently holed up in Aslan’s How where his Evil Uncle Miraz and the rest of the Telmarines are battering his defences.

So far so good, but it’s at this point the story gets a bit stymied. The Pevensies and Trumpkin begin the arduous journey to Aslan’s Howe. They get lost, they argue, they get attacked by a bear, they tramp around the forest, and they finally meet up with Aslan. Though the entire sequence encompasses a test of faith for the older children (Lucy insists that Aslan is trying to lead them somewhere, but only she can see him), it’s also frustratingly reminiscent of a certain camping trip in another fantasy series that similarly slows the pacing to a crawl.

While Aslan and the girls take off to enjoy a Bacchanalian romp, waking the trees and rousting a Telmarine village, the boys creep into Aslan’s Howe, interrupt a séance, and decide to challenge Miraz in single combat (an idea that none of the Narnians were capable of coming up with on their own).

Oh, and can we all agree that Miraz is an astoundingly boring antagonist? Easily the weakest of the seven-book series, especially on the heels of the iconic White Witch.  The Evil Uncle trope has been a cliché since Richard III, and it's no more interesting here than it usually is. Lewis himself seems bored with the character, so much so that he never even bothers to explain what happened to Miraz’s wife Prunaprismia and his newborn son, whose birth is what puts Caspian in danger in the first place.

Then there’s Caspian himself. He’s a likable enough kid, and his boyhood longing for the magic and mystery of Old Narnia is well-realized, but in truth he doesn’t accomplish much. Though the book is named after him, he’s more of a McGuffin in the story itself, a figurehead that Old Narnia rallies behind. It’s Peter that wins his kingdom for him, and he’s helped along immensely by the treachery of two Telmarine lords.

Which means that the rest of the Pevensies come across as a little less important than they should be. With no prophesy to guide them, they take up Caspian’s cause as their own on principle, realizing without any prompting that their time is over and that another must take their place. As Peter tells Caspian: “I haven’t come to take your place but to put you into it.”

Personally I’d be more like: “Move aside kid, the High King is back.” If I found my way into a magical kingdom and was crowned its Queen, only to be abruptly shot back into my own world with no warning whatsoever and no indication that I could ever go back again, only to find myself unexpectedly return, albeit over the thousand years later – well, I might just be pretty pissed off.

I’ll admit, Narnia Time (yes, it’s so well-known that it’s the trope-namer) has always been a bit of a bugbear for me. If find it difficult to wrap my head around the idea that children could grow into adults and then be catapulted back into childhood with no mental or emotional side-effects whatsoever.

I would feel robbed and violated, and as a reader I feel as though I've missed out on the Golden Age of Narnia (yes, The Horse and His Boy rectifies this a little, but still...) and its immediate aftermath. Did the Narnians go looking for their monarchs? Did they grieve for them? Did the Pevensies feel cheated out of their adulthoods? Did they ever consider what would happen if they married or died or had children in Narnia? Did they ever try to claw their way back in through the wardrobe?

Based as it is on fairytale logical, it’s a device that Lewis simply isn’t interested in exploring. (As an aside, if you do want a story that’s based on the consequences of Narnia Time on a person’s psyche, then drop what you’re doing and immediately get a copy of Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland – you can thank me later).

As it happens, Narnia Time not only means that however long a time you spend in Narnia, you’ll arrive back at the exact same time you left, but that however short a time you spend in England, thousands of years may go by in Narnia. Such is the case in Prince Caspian, and as a result, the story is permeated with sadness and loss.

It all seemed so forsake and long ago.

They thought they could recognise bits of it, but the woods, which had grown up since their time, made everything look very different.

[The Stone Table]: ages of wind and rain and snow had almost worn it away in old times when the Stone Table had stood on the hilltop, and the mound not yet been built above it.

They would have thought [the scene] very pretty if they had not remembered the time when it was open and breezy and full of merry friends.

“Look at those carvings on the walls. Don’t they look old. And yet we’re older than that. Last time we were here, they hadn’t been made.”

To not only lose your fairytale kingdom, but to return and find that it’s been lost to time and that you no longer have a place in it except as a figure from a legendary past feels like a strange and cruel trick, and it’s a wonder the Pevensies aren’t more bitter about it.

From a Doylist point-of-view, the lack of psychological examination possibly has to do with Lewis’s ever-shifting motivations of why various children are brought into Narnia at all: first it was to become kings and queens, then it was to establish a new dynasty of Adam’s line, and then (to quote Aslan in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader):

In your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by it. That was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.

By the time The Last Battle rolls around, Aslan (or rather Lewis) seems to have decided that cross-world emigration takes place whenever Narnia is in most need. In hindsight, that reason makes the most sense, yet in the case of Prince Caspian, this hypothesis doesn’t quite match the narrative. The Pevensies as a unit aren’t really a huge amount of help, for Edmund and Susan initially get to prove themselves to Trumpkin by establishing their prowess with sword and bow, ultimately the first is relegated to messenger duty and the second just complains a lot (foreshadowing ahoy).

For the most part Lucy is simply along for the ride (though she does get a lengthy sequence in which she leads the others in the direction Aslan wants them to take), which leaves Peter to do the heavy lifting in regards to the combat he stages against Miraz (and even that’s not a definitive victory, as it’s left rather ambiguous as to whether it’s Peter or Miraz’s councillors who finish him off once and for all). All the Narnians really needed was a halfway decent warrior to fight the Telmarine King and the Pevensies would have been entirely unnecessary.

And before you think I’m oversimplifying it, I actually think the film does a much better job of making all the Pevensies an intrinsic part of Miraz’s defeat, establishing them as elite warriors, natural leaders, and important moral-boosters – especially in comparison to the earnest but in-over-his-head qualities of Caspian – but I’ll have more to say on the film below.

And yet if the book has the weakest storyline, I also think it has some of the strongest themes and supporting characters. Trumpkin and Trufflehunter, Reepicheep and Pattertwig, Glenstorm and Cornelius – of all the other Narnian characters in the other six books, only Puddleglum the Marshwiggle comes close to the affection I have for the Prince Caspian crew. I even have a soft spot for Nikabrik, infinitely more interesting that Miraz, whose death always played on my mind as a child, particularly with Caspian’s final summation of his character: “I am sorry for Nikabrik. He had gone sour inside from long suffering and hating. If we had won quickly he might have become a good Dwarf in the days of peace." It’s that “what-if” quality that’s really haunting.

And then the conclusion comes, the characters are split into those remaining in Narnia, the Telmarines returning to the South Pacific (presumably) and the Pevensies returning to the train station in England. The mood is light and jokey (“my, we HAVE had a time,” says Peter before Edmund cracks a joke about leaving his torch behind), and once again I prefer the film’s take on the event, in which all four of them appear rather stunned and quietly awestruck (before Edmund...cracks a joke about leaving his torch behind).

Perhaps I just miss the fairytale quality of The Lion, but I much prefer the stories set in Old Narnia, not the ones featuring these new-fangled Telmarines. Yet from Prince Caspian onward, The Chronicles of Narnia as a whole veer more into the “fantasy” genre than that of “fairytale”, with Lewis paying more attention to continuity, consistency and world-building. Here Narnia feels as though it’s just one small part of a much bigger world, with the first mention of Calormen (an empire that’s to play a much bigger part in later books) and Telmar, as well as names ascribed to planets and constellations, and even a throwaway mention of “the month of Greenroof”, suggesting a uniquely Narnian calendar.

Furthermore, with only two exceptions (The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy) the rest of the series takes place after the events of Prince Caspian, during the tail-end of Narnia’s history. Granted, Lewis never planned for seven books, and by setting Prince Caspian thirteen hundred years after the events of The Lion he may have felt “trapped” in this particular time period, but the massive time-leap always made me feel as though the series (as a whole) was a little lopsided.

Henceforth the focus is on the Caspian dynasty, not the Pevensie reign. The Golden Age feels as though it ended before it ever properly began – not only ended, but relegated to distant memory. The Beavers are extinct. Cair Paravel is in ruins. The new overshadows the old. This time around the Pevensies only spend about a week in Narnia – they come, they fix a problem, and they leave again. Throughout the Pevensies feel displaced, out of sync with the flow of time in Narnia. There’s absolutely no talk of re-establishing their reign, or even of staying for an extended length of time. In other words, Narnia is not theirs anymore, and as a result, it doesn’t feel like ours either.

But perhaps I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The bittersweet-ness that comes with the passage of time, the struggle to keep the faith, the concept of a “reverse King Arthur” story in which it’s the protagonists that emerge out of the depths of the past to set things right, and the inevitability of growing up – that’s where the power of Prince Caspian comes from. It may have the weakest story, but it has the strongest themes, and perhaps even the most poignancy – this is the last time all four siblings will journey to Narnia together, and even for Edmund and Lucy the time is fast-approaching to pass the torch to Eustace and Jill.

The Film:

Of the three filmic adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia, I honestly think that Prince Caspian is the strongest – not because it’s the most faithful to the corresponding book (none of them are particularly faithful) but because it isn’t afraid to expand on the source material in order to flesh out the characters and situations. This doesn’t make it perfect (as much as I like Peter Dinklage, there’s no way he captures the spirit of Trumpkin) but out of the current trilogy, I would definitely rank Prince Caspian as my favourite. It probably helps that I watched in whilst in the middle of writing my thesis, a time in which I was so deep in Narnia-related material that it was a relief to watch something that didn’t simply transpose the page to the screen.

I’ve already mentioned the odd pacing of the book: there are two somewhat stationary opening chapters in Narnia before Trumpkin shows up, followed by four chapters of Trumpkin’s backstory, followed by the tedious multi-chapter journey to Aslan’s Howe. This structure would have been a nightmare to film as it is, and I recall that the BBC’s 1980s version found the material so slight that it was conflated with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader just to make the requisite run-time.

I think it’s understandable that the writers would choose to a) begin with Caspian’s escape from the castle immediately after the birth of his cousin and b) draw the Pevensies into the story much earlier on, having them team up with Caspian before getting to Aslan’s How and spending much more time with him as a result. The Bacchanalia with Aslan has been omitted entirely, replaced with a siege of Miraz’s castle that ends badly for the Narnians – it’s a defensible choice, and it not only allows for a battle sequence that relies on strategy rather than two armies lining up and charging at one another, but also moments of amusement (the antics of the mice), suspense (the stalemate in Miraz’s bedroom) and sadness (the sacrifice of the minotaur at the gate).

In the third act, the battle between Narnians and Telmarines is built on two original plot-points: firstly an expansion of the scene in which the White Witch is nearly resurrected, providing Edmund with a heroic moment and Tilda Swinton with a cameo appearance, but (most importantly) a scene in which Lucy reminds her eldest brother that it was Aslan who defeated their enemies the last time around; and secondly, what can only be called a “weaponized leap of faith” in which Peter’s combat with Miraz is actually a diversionary tactic designed to draw attention away from Lucy heading into the woods to find Aslan and beseech him for help. It’s hugely different from what goes down in the books, but – dare I say it? – on some levels it actually works much better. 

So structurally, I have no complaints about the changes made from book-to-screen. In terms of characterization, I think the films have always struggled a little with Aslan. Aslan may not be the protagonist of the seven Narnia books, but he is their most important character, one who commands all attention (and all power) the moment he shows up in any given situation. I’ve always felt that the film-makers felt a bit uncomfortable with this, for movie-logic usually requires the protagonists (in this case, the Pevensies) to be the movers and shakers of the plot.

As such, Aslan is reduced to little more than a cameo here, whilst the children and their heroism get fleshed out more. It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the films were never really going to successfully capture the power and majesty of Aslan – and sadly they make little effort to portray the awestruck, numinous effect he has on other characters. CGI will never be able to do Aslan justice, and Liam Neeson’s voice is too soft, too recognisable as Qui-Gonn Jinn for my tastes.

But the film actually takes the opportunity to explore what I’d term the “temporal whiplash” that the Pevensie siblings go through in a way that Lewis never bothered with – not only depicting how it must feel to go from a monarch to a school kid, but in giving Peter and Susan a greater sense of closure when it comes to passing the torch to Caspian. Though Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes get some good moments, the film very much showcases William Mosely and Anna Popplewell (which seems only fair given this is their last excursion into Narnia).

When we’re reintroduced to the Pevensies, Peter is getting into fights and Susan is getting unwanted attention from boys, each one struggling with their burgeoning maturity and their memories of adulthood in Narnia. Peter in particular feels the sting of disempowerment (“aren’t you tired of being treated like a kid?”) and later lines suggest that the two of them have confused ideas about what exactly the future has in store for them (Peter says: “How long does [Aslan] expect us to wait?” whilst Susan later confides to Lucy that: “I finally got used to the idea of being in England.”)

In discovering their old treasure chamber, there are a few jokes made as to their strange age difference (“you were older then”/“as opposed to hundreds of years later – when you’re younger”), but also a deep sense of poignancy and loss: Peter stares into the mature face of his older self’s statue, while Lucy mourns the long-since departed Beavers and Mr Tumnus (both in the treasure chamber and at Aslan’s How).

When the siblings meet up with Caspian, sparks begin to fly – the inevitable dick-measuring with Peter and the just-as-inevitable chemistry with Susan. Both make perfect sense to me. The tension between Peter and Caspian over who’s in charge makes for a nice comparison between the two characters; whereas Peter is a natural leader who has stepped out of the past in order to re-establish justice in Narnia, Caspian finds it more of a struggle. He hangs back when the Pevensies confidently approach the How, he makes an impulsive and devastating mistake during the siege that costs the Narnians many lives, and he’s easily tempted when Nikabrik suggests resurrecting the White Witch. It feels right that authority is ceded to Peter, and that it’s with Peter’s blessing that Caspian inherits the kingdom.

(The only thing that disrupts this reading is the rather strange casting of a twenty-six year old in the role of Caspian – yeah, Ben Barnes is gorgeous, but he’s visibly older than William Mosely, thus rendering his naivety and lack of confidence a little hard to swallow. A younger actor would have made much more sense, and they always could have brought in Ben Barnes for Dawn Treader).

Inevitably (there’s that word again) the Token Romance between Caspian/Susan was met with much more derision than the competiveness between Caspian/Peter, but it only takes up three scenes and sheds an interesting light on Susan’s sexuality, something that’s of utmost importance in The Last Battle. Initially Susan is quite cold toward Caspian, only for her to gradually soften and eventually give him a goodbye kiss. Yet the film doesn’t punish or ridicule her for any romantic feelings, or overplay the couple as "star-crossed lovers". In fact, the entire subplot suggests that Susan’s heart isn’t broken in leaving Narnia, but instead has become more ready and receptive towards pursuing a relationship in her own world.

By the end, the two of them seem at peace with the idea of leaving Narnia for good and of living out their lives as ordinary children in our own world. It gives each character a sense of closure that they were never allowed in the books (simply because Lewis skims over it so thoroughly) and though the build-up of their characters arcs don’t quite match the pay-off (as in the books, Aslan’s discussion with Peter and Susan occurs off-screen, something that probably should have been depicted properly in the film) there’s a greater sense here that their anger and confusion at being pulled out of Narnia (and their misplacement at being pushed back in at the wrong time) has been resolved.

Compared to this, Edmund and Lucy seem like supporting characters (to be fair, they got the limelight in The Lion, and they’ll be back for the Dawn Treader), but each one feels like a natural extension of their characterization in the previous film. Lucy is still the faithful one, with the deepest relationship to Aslan and an ever-cheerful disposition, and Edmund is content and stable in his role as The Younger Brother to the Ostensibly More Important Older One. He dives into fights that Peter starts, he accepts and follows his brother’s orders, he’s by Peter’s side in combat – he even makes a point of explaining to Miraz that though he’s a king of Narnia, it’s Peter who is the High King. He’s not second best, but he is secondary, and his acceptance of this is where his heroism and maturity lie.

Finally, Caspian – who despite being the title character, more aptly fits the role of Deuteragonist – is given the fairly trite You Killed My Father story-arc when Doctor Cornelius informs him that Miraz murdered his father (again, Lewis glossed over any feelings Caspian might have had on this issue in the book) and an equally predictable If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him decision when Peter hands over his sword and leaves Miraz at Caspian’s mercy. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either, and though the film knows that it has to give a good reason as to why the Narnians would follow Caspian (he saves Trufflehunter’s life, he’s recognised as a Son of Adam), it doesn’t really pull it off. Of course, Lewis doesn’t really bother with this either – when Caspian is introduced to the Narnians that live in hiding, many of them accept him as sovereign for no more reason than that they hate Miraz more.

Um, what else? Well, for my absolute favourite Narnian supporting cast, I was rather disappointed with the portrayal of Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, Cornelius, and the like. Again, it’s not that they’re bad, but they bear little resemblance to their portrayal in the book. Trumpkin is too introverted, Reepicheep too sarcastic, and Trufflehunter and Cornelius don’t have enough screen-time to make much of an impact. Warwick Davis as Nikabrik is fine, but doesn’t quite have that seething resentment and bitterness that I’ve always associated with him.

Yet ironically, the film does a much better job at portraying the Telmarines. There are several council scenes that give weight and context to Telmarine politics, and though Sergio Castellitto has the utterly thankless task of playing Lewis’s most boring antagonist, he at least manages to pose a legitimate physical threat.

A new take on General Glozelle

But it’s in the characters of Queen Prunaprismia and General Glozelle that the film really manages to surprise. Nothing more than an off-screen Wicked Stepmother in the book whose fate goes entirely unmentioned, here the unfortunately-named Queen is allowed to arm herself with a crossbow and partake in a suspenseful stalemate between her husband and nephew, whilst Glozelle is depicted as a reluctant follower of Miraz who ultimately choses to spare Caspian’s life when the latter is at his mercy. Ultimately the two of them are shown as the first ones to accept Aslan’s offer to return to the island from whence their ancestors first came.

Say what you will about the rest of the film, but that’s an undisputed improvement on what Lewis wrote. 

In short, I deeply enjoyed the adaptation of Prince Caspian, and though it misses a few fundamental points of what Lewis was trying to convey in regards to scepticism and faith, not to mention mangling a few of Aslan’s most important lines, it still does plenty of interesting things with the source material. Of all the books, Prince Caspian feels like the one most ripe for change, development and expansion, and when adapting books onto the big screen, that’s exactly what films are for.

Miscellaneous Observations:

If I’ve read Prince Caspian more than any of the other books in the Narnian series, then I’ve certainly read “The People That Lived in Hiding” more than any other chapter in the book. As a child it simply delighted me, the discovery and gathering of all these secretive creatures, culminating in the fauns celebrating on the Dancing Lawn. It begins with: “Now began the happiest times that Caspian had ever known,” and that sentence still sends a thrill through me.

Cornelius is a walking plot-bunny. Seriously. He’s a half-dwarf (so which one of his parents was the dwarf and which one was human?) who has been forced to live in hiding from both sides of his lineage (“many dwarfs escaped in the great battles and lived on, shaving their beards and wearing high-heeled shoes and pretending to be men; if any of my kindred, the true dwarfs, are still alive anywhere in the world, doubtless they would despise me and call me a traitor”), but longs for his own people (“I have been looking for traces of them all my life. Sometimes I have thought I heard a Dwarf drum in the mountains. Sometimes at night, in the woods, I thought I had caught a glimpse of Fauns and Satyrs dancing a long way off, but when I came to the place, there was never anything there”), describes Caspian's mother as "the only Telmarine who was ever kind to me" (do I detect a strain of unrequited love?) and is in possession of Queen Susan’s horn (“many terrors did I endure, many spells did I utter, to find it when I was still young.”)

I mean, damn – where’s the Cornelius fan-fiction?

Although the film keeps the beautiful sequence in which Reepicheep loses his tail, only for Aslan to grow it back after the demonstration of love and loyalty from the other mice when they prepare to cut off their own tails, the omission of Caspian’s old nurse and their reunion years later at the Bridge of Beruna is a sad loss. I read it at school when I was ten years old, and was so moved that I ran to tell my teacher about it.

Another interesting expansion is that of the resurrection scene, in which Nikabrik tries to talk Caspian and Trufflehunter into resurrecting the White Witch, citing her as a much better ally than Aslan. The werewolf in particular (“I’m hunger. I’m thirst. Where I bite, I hold till I die, and even after death they must cut out my mouthful from my enemy’s body and bury it with me”) scared the crap out of me when I was young, certainly leaving a greater impression on me than any other villain in the series.

Here, they actually get quite far into the resurrection process, allowing for Tilda Swinton to make a short cameo, and further exploring the idea of misplaced faith that’s more prevalent in the film than the book (the books make more of scepticism and doubt, whilst the film opts for everyone believing in Aslan and the Pevensies, but acting somewhat resentful that they all disappeared). Here the White Witch needs a drop of Adam’s blood in order to return to the land of the living, and both Caspian and Peter are temporarily put in her thrall before Edmund shatters the icy mirror from behind. It’s a great moment for him, not only exemplifying his casual, understated bravery, but also giving him the chance to vanquish his foe from the first book. And of course, the visual of the ice shattering to reveal a carving of Aslan behind it was a nice touch.

Since the book establishes that Edmund’s torch came with him into Narnia, the film does one better by having him actually use it as a signalling device during the siege. Furthermore, the film remembers something that Lewis doesn’t – that along with her healing cordial Lucy also received a dagger from Father Christmas. Here she uses it to cut Trumpkin’s bonds, but in the books it’s never mentioned after The Lion.

In an ensemble cast this big, it can be difficult to decide what relationships to focus on, and the film makes a valiant attempt to make sure nearly all the characters interact with each other. Peter and Susan have a lovely silent bond of solidarity and trust, captured predominantly in meaningful gazes. No longer the nagging doubter in Peter’s ear as she was in the first film, here she seems to be an ever-watchful presence in the background of his struggles, someone who can step in and stop arguments when required, and even someone who gives him a little hug before combat.

Susan the ... Gentle? 

Then there’s Peter and Edmund’s brotherly affection (especially in how nonchalant Edmund is about it), Peter’s protectiveness of Lucy, and Susan and Lucy’s sisterly rapport, particularly in Susan pulling off a pretty cool You Shall Not Pass to allow for Lucy’s escape. Mercifully they kept Edmund’s decision to stick up for Lucy when it comes to her assertion that she saw Aslan, and it's only Edmund/Susan that don’t get a lot of interaction (though that’s true enough in the books as well).

I’ve already mentioned Peter/Susan’s interaction with Caspian (Edmund and Lucy will get their turn with him in Dawn Treader) and other than that, there is a slim but valiant attempt to convey the rapport between Caspian/Cornelius (I liked when Cornelius called him a “noble contradiction”) and Trumpkin/Lucy (interesting idea to have Trumpkin kill Nikabrik in the defence of Lucy, but be visibly grief-stricken over it afterwards).

It’s in these little interactions that a film derives its emotional resonance, and though Prince Caspian had a lot to juggle, it does much better than you might have expected.

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