Literary adaptations are always a tricky thing, especially for those of us who love the source material. Beloved books can be ruined forever by a film version gone wrong. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wasn’t even all that bad of a movie in and of itself, but it was obviously nothing as good as the book, and ever since, my warm memories of the book (which I read several times as a teen and listened to in the BBC radio version many times more) have been discolored by the movie.
And that’s hardly the worst literary adaptation there has been. When things look especially unpromising, I make it a point not to see even the trailer.
But when everything goes perfectly, from casting to art direction to all the important details of story and theme—very rarely, in other words—a film version can equal and even in some ways exceed the book. Such is the case with this third in the Chronicles of Narnia series, a breathtakingly beautiful and thrilling envisioning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley return as Edmund and Lucy, and Keynes in particular has grown into his own as the courageous and clear-eyed warrior king. Ben Barnes is even hunkier than before, as Prince-turned-King Caspian should be. He makes a puffy shirt look desirable, and that isn’t easy.
Liam Neeson voices an Aslan whose CGI being is incredibly convincing and impressive, down to the mane rustling in the wind and the mysterious, majestic eyes. Tilda Swinton must have put in all of four hours on set, as she appears for a total of 45 seconds, and that only as a misty green vision in the green mist. Simon Pegg takes over from Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep, the valiant little mouse who will be a clear favorite for the under-13 crowd.
Dawn Treader is the last of the Pevensie Trilogy, featuring the Pevensie siblings Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy, and it will be up to Eustace and Caspian to provide continuity to the next film, The Silver Chair, due to be released late 2011 or early 2012. So it’s a good thing that Will Poulter as Eustace gradually grew on me. I’m still not fond of his evil eyebrows, but he effected a quite believable change from thoroughly odious sniveling squirt to genuinely enlightened boy.
But the clear star of Dawn Treader is the filmmaking, helmed by the hugely talented Michael Apted. What a breakout project for Apted, who is revered among us documentary geeks for his Up! series but is best known in the mainstream for the 1999 Pierce Brosnan James Bond film The World Is Not Enough (which I think of as the one with Denise Richards in it). Anyway, it’s great to see what Apted can do with a big story and huge budget, and the answer is amazing.
The art direction is also a treat, especially the spectacular Dawn Treader itself, as handsome a ship as you would expect in Narnia. The sweeping vistas, from the opening shot in Oxford to the views over the Dawn Treader as it sails the open seas, are magnificent (locations were shot in Queensland, Australia). Sets are incredible, and the CGI is often seamless, especially on the characters—Reepicheep, the bulls, and Eustace-as-dragon.
I sometimes found the swirling green mist more silly than sinister, but it’s not a big complaint. Oh, and the sea flooding the bedroom from the painting of the Dawn Treader is an incredible special effect. I have no idea how they did it, but it’s totally believable and cool. When C.S. Lewis hesitated to grant cinema rights back in the day, he was very right, but technology has caught up to his imagination. At no time did I feel it was not able to portray the full magic of the book.
As for the story itself, it’s successfully handled as a swashbuckling adventure with heart, treating the emotional arcs of the Pevensies, Eustace and Prince Caspian with respect and understanding of this book’s place in the series. There is also plenty of allegorical material and wholesomeness for the faith-based audience.
A note on the 3D release: I saw a thirty minute preview in 2D and then the entire film in 3D, and in my opinion, while the 3D added some nice depth at times, it’s hardly a must. In fact, I found myself lowering my 3D glasses during scenic parts, just to be able to see them in all their luminous splendor (the glasses darken the image).
But 3D or 2D, do go see the Dawn Treader. Aside from being the rare successful literary adaptation, it’s something almost as rare—an epic full of wonder and thrill that’s suitable for the whole family.