Treading with Lewis

As someone who was more-than-a-little scarred by Walden Media’s attempts to adapt Prince Caspian, I had resolved to keep my distance from the recently-released Voyage of the Dawn Treader until I could see the reactions of two of my favorite “working critics:” Jeffrey Overstreet and Steven Greydanus.

Interestingly, both of them felt that the filmmakers might well have produced the best “pure” film to date — considering it simply on its own cinematic merits — but both were less than thrilled with the adaptive aspects of the work. Overstreet says that they “botched its themes badly, just as they bungled the first two. Either they don’t understand Lewis’s story, or they’re actively subverting ideas he illustrated beautifully.” And Greydanus says that “Lewis used imagery not primarily for readers who already understood its theological underpinnings, but precisely for those who didn’t. He wanted to “baptize the imagination,” to provide readers with an imaginative vocabulary that might someday help them make sense of the Christian worldview. Gresham’s suggestion that Lewis’ images might be dispensed with on the grounds that they wouldn’t be “understood” suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of Lewis’ whole program.”

I was particularly struck by their reaction to one of the book’s truly memorable lines, where Aslan tells Lucy that He is present in her own world, but that “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.” Greydanus cites it as an example of the “explicitly Christological” aspects of Lewis’ work that were retained this time around, in contrast with the first two films. Overstreet, on the other hand, mentions it as one of his greatest sources of frustration with Lewis’ original material:

For me, Aslan’s words to Lucy remain one of the most frustrating moments in the Narnia Chronicles. Profound as they might be, they violate the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle so fundamental to great storytelling. When Aslan starts pointing out direct correlations with Christ, his story is reduced to a Sunday School lesson.

I’ve always preferred Tolkien’s mythmaking. Middle-earth needs no justification or explanation. We don’t need Frodo or Aragorn to remark, “Golly, I’m Christ- like!” I wish Lewis had trusted his fairy tales to speak for themselves, trusting his readers’ intelligence.

I suppose I’m going to have to see it now; it’s generating too many interesting conversations for me to ignore. And as long as Walden leaves my personal favorite alone — anyone trying to adapt the last couple of chapters from “The Magician’s Nephew” is either insane or hopelessly short-sighted — I’ll probably be able to stomach another Lewis mangling for the sake of further illumination.


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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