Good News For Narnia

The obvious good news is that the movie franchise will continue post-Prince Caspian, with Fox stepping in after Disney backed out. The not-so-obvious good news is this:

While it looks like both the film's principle cast and director will be clearing some time on their calendars this summer to shoot the picture, some sacrifices had to be made on the budget front to make the project viable. According to the Los Angeles Times, Disney spent some $215 million producing Prince Caspian, and another $175 million on marketing it (the film ended up grossing roughly $419 million worldwide). So, in order to lessen the risk on Dawn Treader, Walden Media and Fox have decided to go halfsies on the third film's slated budget of $140 million.

That sounds like bad news at first. But artistically speaking, at least, a smaller budget may be exactly what the Narnia movies need. I liked Caspian, in certain respects, but it felt like it was made more in self-conscious imitation of Peter Jackson's appropriately-humongous Lord of the Rings films than in the more intimate spirit of C.S. Lewis's novels. Or as I put it in my NR review:

The movie plays up ... every tension it finds in Lewis's novel, and invents several more, creating rivalries (between Peter and Caspian), generating romances (between Susan and Caspian), adding battles (particularly a long set piece in the movie's middle, in which the Old Narnians launch a raid on Miraz's castle), and doubling down on the political intrigue in the Telmarine court. For the most part, the additions serve their purpose, transmuting a somewhat slight children's adventure into a gripping medieval war picture: Braveheart with more magic, or Tolkien with talking squirrels.

But this achievement comes with a price-namely, the evisceration of Lewis's major theme. If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story about rebirth and renewal-Aslan resurrected, and spring cracking the ice of an enchanted winter-then Prince Caspian is fundamentally a story about re-enchantment, and the glorious return of the supernatural forces that the Telmarines have repressed. Little of this survives in Adamson's adaptation; it's been pruned away to make room for battles and arguments and longing glances and one-liners. The book's climax, in which the trees and rivers come to life and a wild pagan rout overruns the sterile secularism of Telmarine society, is reduced to a brief battlefield intervention that rips off not one but two scenes in Lord of the Rings. Aslan, too, is reduced to a walk-on role, sweeping in once the body count has climbed and the CGI budget been exhausted to roar a halt to the proceedings. He murmurs about faith, in the voice of Liam Neeson, but he feels less a Christ figure than a strikingly flimsy plot device: Leo ex machina.

The bad news for Narniaphiles is that this may be the only way that C. S. Lewis can plausibly be adapted, given the economics (and biases) of contemporary Hollywood-with the metaphysics downplayed and the Generic Epic elements accentuated, the better to justify the price tag that comes attached to any fantasy film ... But judging from Caspian's middling box-office showing to date, it might be worth considering something different for Voyage of the Dawn Treader and (one hopes) its sequels: half the budget, perhaps, and a little more fidelity to the elements of theme and plot that make Narnia something more than an entertaining but two-dimensional imitation of Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Spending $140 million instead of $215 million isn't quite halving the budget, but it's pretty close. With luck, the result will be richer storytelling, instead of just lousier special effects.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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