Thursday, December 16, 2010

NARNIA: THE DAWN TREADER - Without a clear hero and villain how successful will it be?


Directed by: Michael Apted
Writers: Christoper Markus, Stephen McFeely et al based on the writings of C.S. Lewis

Georgie Henley - LUCY PEVENSIE
Skandar Keynes - EDMUND PEVENSIE
Ben Barnes - CASPIAN

Storyline: Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace where they meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarfs, monsters, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.

I must first say that I have a great fondness for the Narnia tales and C.S. Lewis in particular. We read the Chronicles to our children several times as the grew up. I have read much of Lewis' theological material and have always recommended it. Although he is at times deep and hard to understand in a single sitting. My favorite of his  tales is his Space Triology, which may someday find its way to the screen.

Before I get to the heart of the problem with the VDT story, here's a sidebar about the difference between allegory and myth, and why didactic presentations rarely work.  (See also: Why Story's Work, Part 1.)

The Narnia movies have left me underwhelmed. And only when I saw the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT) did it occur to me perhaps why. I had originally thought it was the presence of Aslan, showing up at the end almost like Billy Graham at the end of his association's movies, giving an invitation to become a Christian, in so many other words. At the end of VDT Aslan says to the kids on the beach who are lamenting having to return to the real world (Earth, I guess) and never seeing Aslan again. (quoting from the book, which is in the movie):
ASLAN: But you shall meet me, dear one.
EDMUND: Are--you there too, Sir?
ASLAN: I am. But 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.
This ruined the movie for me.  It was Billy Graham. It was like plastering the "moral premise statement" on the screen in type: "Attention audience, this is what the movie is about... pay attention and go to church."  BTW: Bible devotees notice the Old Testament reference to Yahweh with Aslan's utterance, "I AM."

What occurred immediately in my mind is how J.R.R. Tolkien disliked Jack's stories because they were like poster allegories for Christianity and not myths (like Lord of the Rings) that could exist on their own merit. (see second comment below)

So, it is perhaps upon that foundation that I became aware of the real story structure problem that at least exists in VDT, and which explains why the movie is not doing what it could be doing had they fixed the structural issues. This all has to do with the audience connecting with the characters. Or, to utter it in other words: identifying with and becoming a part of the story symptomatically - imbued - being "in the scene" emotionally.

Stan Williams, Rumer Godden, Trudy Williams (1985, NY)
Narnia VDT will be popular, but mostly by virtue of the capital it has created as a series of children story books, which are far different than a mainstream movie. Indeed I am still working on a script based on famous Scottish author Rumer Godden's THE STORY OF HOLLY AND IVY (SOHI). Back in 1985 I owned the theatrical rights to the story for a year or so, met Rumer with my daughter Trudy (who was instrumental in getting Godden to pay attention to our petition), also took a meeting with Kermit Love (the puppet master of Sesame Street after which Kermit the Frog is named - that's Trudy with Kermit and his creation SNUGGLES  in his NY studio), and with Bill Wiitala and James Leach wrote a screenplay. We even got as far as pitching it to Disney.

Trudy with Kermit Love (d. 2008)
Trudy with the SNUGGLES.
A day after watching Narnia: VDT with my story students, I happened to be reviewing Kermit's notes on our then current SOHI screenplay, and juxtaposed his comments next to a couple of letters I had received from Mrs. Godden. Both had their opinion of what the movie version of SOHI should be in terms of characters. Ms. Godden was begging that the story be told straight ahead like a good children story without all the plotting so evident in movies. That was the "charm of children stories, they're not complex," she argued. But Kermit, being in the movie and television business for some time, saw it differently. His notes points out that SOHI has no over arching antagonist that prevents from Holly finding her "Grandmother's" home.  Yes, there is Abracadabra the Toy Store owl. But he only operates in the toy store, at night, and then only ineffectively -- i.e. small role. Kermit was right. And that is something that must be fixed if we're ever going to make a movie of SOHI. Kermit also points out that the main character is a little girl, the clear protagonist, but that there is not a leading starring role that can pre-load the project to attack financing.

Kermit's concern over the the SOHI are similar to what I see is the problem with VDT, AT LEAST IN THE MOVIE VERSION.  But my prediction is that word of mouth promotion will be moderate. The reasons are here: (forgive me for not elaborating)

Edmund wants the power, but Caspian the better swordman.
PROTAGONST? There is no clear or single imperfect but striving protagonist that dominates the screen time, passion for the goal, or is a person we're deeply attracted to. And the stakes for not reaching the goal are uninspiring, if they are mentioned at all.  King Caspian wants to find the seven swords and the seven Lords, but it's never a do or die mission for him. Indeed Narnia is at peace and everything seems to be going fine. This voyage is a last campaign promise but with no clear urgency. Lucy and Edmund show up, but they're not sure, for some time, why they were brought back to Narnia, and they never have the goal that Caspian owns. Indeed what Lucy and Edmund's goal seems to be (from fade up and black) is to go to and live in Narnia. But while there, Lucy and Edmund are support players to Caspian who has to live with what happens. Lucy and Edmund do not have anything invested long term. They are there for a holiday, almost. Then there's Eustace. Now, Eustace has an arc (perhaps the only one)
Reepicheep and Eustace working together at last.
from being bratty and mean to being respectful and friendly. Eustace also has a clear Moment of Grace when his greed turns him into a dragon and he changes his attitude. But Eustace does nothing until 2/3 through the movie to endear us to him, he does not dominate the story, he makes no moral decision at critical turning points, and and he has nothing invested in achieving the end goal. He is the only one, however, that has a clear, passionate goal -- to go back home. But no one is driving the story, except the author. Caspian, Lucy, Reepiceep, Edmund, and Eustace are, in some regard, co-protagonists, but the classic structure of a story that engages an audience is missing. And then there is this...

Is this a book we should be reading?
ANTAGONIST? There is no clear personified antagonist. Yes, there are obstacles, but they are not always the result of a single force that is obstructing their goal. Yes, there is the Green Mist that influences the crew with thoughts of envy, pride, greed, power, and other evil things, and yes each temptation does slow down or threaten to throw the mission into chaos. But each of these, until the final battle, is dispatched with barely a struggle, albeit Eustace struggles more than most although being a dragon does have it's virtues. We also have no clear idea WHY the evil mist does what it does. "Good" antagonists possess a motivation that they believe is virtuous; there's a logic to their deeds. But not in VDT -- the evil is just there.  And finally, we have the sea monster for the closing act. It's a mighty fight, requires everyone to work together, but from whence did this monster come morally? What is its goal? Is it just confused and wanting attention?

On the beach before the effects crew arrives.
Those are the serious problems with VDT as a stand-alone movie. I think it works okay as a childrens' story and as a chapter in the larger Narnia epic. But the problem of adapting a novel and making it work for the big screen is clearly evident here. What's the solution. right now, I don't know. But if Doug Gresham and Walden want to hire me for the next episode I'm available. The problem is that there is a need for both Gresham and Walden to stay true to the source material. That is their goal. And as long as they keep true to that goal, the movies may be less than fully realized. To fully realize The Chronicles as mainstream movies, with on-going success, requires that the basics of movie stories be observed. Adaption means adapting it to the medium, not just making pictures and recording sound, but changing the structure of the story as well.

BTW: the acting, photography, and effects are terrific.

I am at a loss on this. It seems everything is in play. Edmund wants power, but quickly understands his place under King Caspian. Lucy wants to be beautiful like Susan, but quickly burns the spell that allows it.  Eustace is greedy, and at a MOG becomes a dragon, which changes his attitude. (This had the most potential, also because the story is told by Eustace. But the movie's goal and Eustace's goal are not aligned until way too late.  Caspian and Reepicheep seemingly have no vice (although in the book Caspian struggles with pride and selfishness -- and adventures of his own with little thought of his kingdom). There is a moral story going on between Eustace and Reepicheep -- as Reepicheep helps Eustace understand friendship, loyalty, and what it means to be valiant. But their tag team match has little to do with the major spine of the movie -- to find the lost Lords and swords -- although their teamwork at the end helps the Treader accomplish the goal -- and it is Eustace that finds the last sword and places it on the table.

The net result is a lack of focus. As I illustrate many times in my book,  THE MORAL PREMISE, unless the movie is about one true thing at a psychological or moral level, and unless that one thing is consistently portrayed in every one of the main character arcs, the movie will never do well at the box office. Narnia VDT fits that bill, unfortunately.  It fails to connect. The business it does do will be spending the capital purchased by the popularity of the books. But as a movie, it falls flat.  See any number of other posts herein, on other movies, where this isn't true.


Myra Johnson said...

Very interesting commentary, Stan. I haven't seen this movie yet, but I have to say that with the first two Narnia movies I wasn't nearly as impressed as I'd hoped to be. Maybe I was expecting something more grand and epic like the Lord of the Rings movies. Those I can watch over and over and over ...

I do remember that in the book version of VDT, my very favorite part was Eustace's dragon experience. Those images have stayed with me.

Stan Williams said...

Myra, you remind me.

Compare my comments above about the protagonist, antagonist, and goal, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS; but what I have to say here is NOT about the difference between allegory and myth.) In LOTR we have a very clear protagonist, and a reluctant, imperfect one, FRODO, whose very clear goal is to return the Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, where it was forged. The very clear antagonist is SAURON who tries to prevent Frodo from accomplishing his mission. ALL the other characters are there to help Frodo or Sauron accomplish this singular mission or prevent it. That describes the physical story. The motivation for the physical story is the moral motivations (at odds) between those two groups and the one goal. THESE then are the fundamental basics of story telling that grip the audience. Yes, everything else is necessary, but without this core fundamental of physical goal (with two parties that battle over it's achievement) and the opposite moral motivations, no "story" will achieve its goal fully. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this, Lewis did well.

Myra Johnson said...

Makes perfect sense. I didn't realize until you pointed it out how much the Narnia movies are affected by the absence of a distinct hero and antagonist with strong, clear, and opposing goals. Obviously the stories are much more enjoyable in book form. I almost hate having the movies mess with my personal interpretation.