Sunday, December 19, 2010

One Great Adventure

It's been seven years now since my family first heard whisperings of a potential Narnia movie. While we waited, we filmed our own version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--twelve cousins working 18 months to produce a faithful, creative, hilarious family treasure that will ever tie us together ... and ever bore viewers whose surname isn't De Vries.

Now, Walden has completed their final Narnia film.* It certainly isn't a poorly-made adaption, but our post-theater spirits were rather low. The film fluctuates between didactic, in an ambiguously moral sort of way, and Typical Fantasy Movie. It is an okay production; but when a film is just okay, there's no need for Hollywood to dip their fingers into any more of the series.

The Dawn Treader is faithful to the structure of its source, and the human-Eustace scenes are very good, the glue that holds the film together. But Lewis' stories emanate a certain thrill that this movie lacks in all but a few moments. Notice I said Lewis' stories. It's not just an issue of book vs. movie. It's story vs. story.

I realize that certain elements are required when a story is transferred onto the big screen: a driving motivation, for one, and discernible growth among the cast. But when a character's flaws are reduced to one besetting sin, and a seat-of-the-pants adventure is structured to provide a seven-point goal, the film's story becomes commonplace. The audience knows what is going to happen next, not because they've read the book, but because they've seen this movie a dozen times.

I recently read something that got me thinking:

If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summon up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him." (Tim Keller)

There is an essential difference between moralistic and Christ-centered storytelling. Every Hollywood film, no matter its source, preaches some degree of morality. Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes the filmmakers are more subtle, and create a desire within the viewers to emulate the hero. But either way, it's about us summoning up the faith and courage to fight the giants in our lives.

In this film's story, Eustace is pulled into Narnia so that he can overcome certain character defects, to help complete a mission and save hapless lives. Just like Frodo. Just like Harry. Just like Dorothy and Luke Skywalker. In the original story, however, Eustace is drawn into Narnia for one great adventure: Aslan saving him.

The men and women behind
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader focus on good deeds and green mist and summoning strength because that's the way storytelling works within their worldview.

But for a tale to be more than okay, you must replace the moralistic center. Heroic deeds flow naturally and painlessly, even poetically, from a cast that is anchored by the character of Aslan. Such a story is only possible when the artist's work is Christ-centered. That doesn't mean Christ dominates the story. On the contrary, such a center frees the story from being overwhelmed by its quest, balances the twin engines of plot and character. In the novel, Aslan only appears a few times. But his presence under-girds and motivates everything.

Thank God for the nonpareil awesomeness of Focus on the Family's Radio Theatre. If you haven't listened to one of their broadcasts lately, dust off
The Dawn Treader today. Right now. And enjoy.

*Seriously? You still think they're going to keep going?


Cathy Gohlke said...

I don't know if they'll keep going, Noel, but your post inspired me to keep going--to again this morning lay my writing at the feet of Jesus and pray for all my writing, all my life to be Christ centered, to be a free-flowing channel for the Holy Spirit to bless others. The writings of C. S. Lewis have blessed me in more ways than I can count. If those of us who write can follow that example, what a legacy we, too, might leave this world! Thank you for pointing out the difference between telling a good, moral story and revealing the wonder and love of the Salvation Jesus died to provide us! Merry, Merry Christmas!

Gina Holmes said...

I love love love your posts, Noel. They're always thought-provoking. On one hand, I'm please that Hollywood still cares enough to show moralistic movies at all. Consider the other alternatives. I think all in all they, so far, have done a wonderful job with the Narnia movies. The first one was perfect I thought. However, you're right of course in everything you said as well.

Christian productions get it right on the theme but generally, perhaps even unanimously, get it not quite right on the wow factor, and I'm sure that has to do with money. They do the best they can with the resources they have.

Too bad we can't combine the two. Still, I'm glad Hollywood has taken on the Narnia books.

PS I didn't know aboout the FOF theatre. We'll check it out! You always direct me to something worth checking out. Thanks :)

Marcia said...

Spot on, Noel. Thanks for this. Marcia

Sibella Giorello said...

Noel, you've pinned the tail on the donkey again -- only I don't think you're ever wearing a blindfold. On the contrary, it's your open-eyed view of culture, and in particular storytelling, that makes these posts so very worthwhile.

Until now, I couldn't put my finger on precisely what bothered me about this film. But now I see: it's that the moralistic replaced the truly heroic -- something that Lewis avoided strenuously. One of the most charming aspects of the Narnia books is that they refuse to state morals, or wag a finger in the faces of children. As you said, "In the novel, Aslan only appears a few times. But his presence under-girds and motivates everything."
Lovely. Lovely point.

Thanks again. We greatly appreciate your words so much.


sally apokedak said...

Noel, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

And my name is not DeVries, but your little film did not bore me. I watched the whole thing and laughed uproariously.

This is a wonderful post, as usual.

This movie disappointed me, I'll admit. I liked Prince Caspian the best so far, even though they strayed from the book horribly. But this movie was boring, I thought, most of the way through, with a poorly defined quest and no urgency. I didn't have a character to root for. I didn't care about the man and his wife. I didn't understand who the god of the green mist was or what kind of threat he posed. If they would have just focused on Eustace and Reep the movie might have been better. I don't know, I'm not a movie-maker. What I do know is that I wasn't engaged until the battle with the sea serpent.

I do hope that movie makers will continue to make Narnia movies because I, like Gina, want movies with characters that aren't fueled by greed and hatred and revenge.

I will continue to see the Narnia movies, good or not, hoping with each one that I'll find something to love. In this one I loved Eustace as a boy and as a dragon. He was worth the price of admission. Watching him in the beginning I thought, "There is no way they will be able to make this nasty child likable when the time comes. But that kid was incredible. What a wonderful actor. Oh, I can't wait for The Silver Chair so I can see Eustace again, and I want to see me some marshwiggle, too. :)