Friday, 3 October 2014

Prince Caspian

Let’s begin with the obvious: Andrew Adamson’s 2008 film adaptation of Prince Caspian is a work of literary vandalism of the very highest order. It distorts its source’s moral meaning, it loads it down with an inordinate surplus of violent spectacle, it displays an overt cynicism in its imitation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and just for good measure, it adds a teen soap-opera angle that C.S. Lewis would never in a million years have countenanced. And it’s all a joyous, brilliant experience to behold. I walked into this film with my teeth firmly gritted, having hated every minute of Adamson’s film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe three years before, but nonetheless masochistically wanting to keep up with the latest Hollywood fantasy spectacles. Imagine, then, my surprise at finding that the blockbuster success of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had evidently emboldened Weta and Disney to let Adamson try some new things second time around, and he in turn used this looser reign to make a very different movie than Lewis purists probably expected.

Prince Caspian begins being remarkable in its very first image, which is a sudden, intense zoom-in onto a woman screaming in the throes of childbirth. This is striking because the female, procreative aspect of Nature is one which Lewis always instinctively resisted. Certainly there was nothing like this in his original book, which glossed over the whole development with the phrase “there came a time when the Queen seemed to be ill and there was a great deal of bustle and pother about her in the castle and doctors came and courtiers whispered.” Anything more than this would have led Lewis places he wasn’t willing to go. The phrase “Mother Nature” is not a mere accident of idiom, but contains the inherent truth that it is woman, with her procreative function, who really embodies Nature and its fecundity and continuity. In the most blunt biological terms, we men are little more than sperm donors, with the potential additional uses of bodyguards and/or errand boys. As Camille Paglia once wrote, the invention of a patriarch creator-God was the male of the species’ “declaration of independence” from this state of irrelevance before Mother Nature. In other words, men had to invent a He who, in turn, had created the She of Mother Nature and all her workings. Paglia viewed this as a useful fiction because it has, over the course of human history, emboldened men to invent and organize a great deal of useful things that are surplus to the basic requirements of Mother Nature. Lewis, however, would have been repelled by this characterization of Christian monotheism as “a useful fiction,” because he genuinely believed in it. Thus, dwelling on the biological workings of Nature, in all its feminine procreative aspect, is verboten in his work. That Prince Caspian the film so blatantly contradicts this in its first sixty seconds gives one an initial sense that all bets are off, and that this film could go in any direction...
And so it proves. After this initial childbirth scene, we see a Telmarene soldier enter a throne room and tell Lord Miraz that he has a son, after which we introduced to our titular hero and his tutor, and a few shots later the film’s first action sequence – a big chase on horseback – has begun. What with all this, we’re almost ten minutes into the film before we cut to 1940s England and meet Susan, Lucy, Peter, and Edmund, and by this point it comes as something of a shock. In Hollywood cinema especially, the first few minutes are always the most crucial in establishing the terms of a film’s world and worldview, and Prince Caspian has here knowingly and deliberated violated the basic narrative structure of Lewis’s first four Narnia books: namely that we begin with the Penvensies/Eustache/Jill in the “real world” of wartime and post-war England, are then magically transported to Narnia for the book’s adventures, and are finally returned to the “real world” of England at the end. Prince Caspian’s refusing of this logic ties in with its emphasizing of female fertility.

Even though Lewis’s Narnia books never actually invoke the “it was all a dream” approach of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the film version of The Wizard of Oz, there is nonetheless a sense of hierarchy of reality at work, whereby Narnia is a sort of figuration of the realm of Faerie – accessible only to prelapsarian children for purposes of socialization, who must of necessity be banished from it as they mature. This theme would eventually be brought to a hideous culmination which I’ll discuss later on, but for now it’s sufficient to say that the unspoken-but-obvious corollary is that “mature” here means sexual maturation – or beginning to exist on the terms of the Mother Nature who Lewis cannot admit of. This gives the game away, insofar as Lewis isn’t wanting to depict Narnia as a literal “other world” in comic-book terms of “another dimension,” or Philip Pullman-style “another string in the multiverse,” or even Tolkien’s planet “Arda,” but as a sort of ur-reality that shows how the world should be, if only it didn’t have this damned fact of female-sexuality-cum-Nature in it. “Since the fairy-story deals with ‘marvels,’” Lewis’s friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion.” What with all the ideological baggage described above, Lewis’s Narnia stories still clear this requirement, but only just. By literalizing Narnia’s existence in such blunt “other dimension” terms, Prince Caspian the film simply obviates and dismisses all this tortuous logic. It’s another beautiful example of the film’s steak of creative vandalism.

In keeping with this idea of Narnia as a realm of moral socialization, moreover, one of the things I’ve always found most distasteful things about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both book and film, is the way that while Lewis pays lip service to the idea that there’s always room in Heaven for a repentant sinner – what with Edmund being redeemed and forgiven after being inveigled by the White Witch – there’s always seemed to be a deep undercurrent of smugness to the whole business. Lewis loads all of the sinful fallibility onto Edmund’s character, while keeping Peter and Susan’s consciences spotlessly clear, and making Lucy the cherubic angel of the bunch. This one-dimensionality is too much even for a children’s story, or perhaps especially for one. Of course you’re forgiven, the story seems to say, but the rest of us children have never been bad – never done anything we need to be forgiven for, have we? Excuse us while we smirk and snigger superiorly at you behind your back… Prince Caspian the film is brilliant because it seems to sense this same logic, and takes drastic steps to neutralize it. The film moves aggressively to knock Peter off his high horse. Our first sight of him in England has him brawling with some other schoolboys in the tube. After meeting Caspian, the film turns into a fiesta of clashing egos between the two kings. And then, at the climax of the second act, the film offers perhaps its most mind-boggling scene. We see, through a magic mirror/screen, the avatar of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, just a single touch away from reviving and living again. She begins seducing Peter with promises that he can recapture his former glory. Peter is obviously amenable. She reaches out… He’s almost about to seal the deal with his touch… When suddenly the screen shatters and collapses, taking her out again. We see that Edmund has stabbed it from behind. “Yeah I know, you had it sorted,” he quips, fixing Peter with a very knowing look. It’s one of the most brilliant moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, in how it fluently reverses Lewis’s moral logic.

The points of outrageousness continue. In Lewis’s books, Father Christmas gives Susan a bow and a quiver of arrows, but also declares that “I do not mean for you to fight in the battle,” and “battles are ugly when women fight,” and we accordingly never see the weapon really used. Not so in this film. After first seeing it in the theatre, it was one of my bigger points of joyous incredulity that “you’d need a huge scorecard to keep track of how many people Susan kills.” Indeed, keep a sharp eye out at the 1:16:08 mark of the film, and you’ll actually see her dispatch one Telmarene soldier at close range by stabbing him in the groin with an arrow! Likewise, Edmund gets to be a great deal more kick-ass as well. In Lewis’s book, the fact that he is the one to fight an initial sword duel with the dwarf Trumpkin – by way of proving that although they seem to be children, they’re still warrior-king material – is tortuously legitimized with “No, let me do it. If will be more of a sucks for him if I win, and less of a let-down for all of us if I fail.” In the film, Peter simply declares “Not me. Him,” and Edmund then duly hands Trumpkin his ass on a platter. We’re left with the suggestion that Edmund is actually the more skillful swordsman, an impression strengthened during the later sequence of the abortive storming of Miraz’s castle. Among other bits of business, we see Edmund almost casually kill three Telmarene soldiers in quick succession, barely breaking stride as he dashes across a castle turret. Even Lucy’s character is made slightly sharper and harsher for the film. In the books, the dirk that Father Christmas gives her is never used. Here, keep an eye out for the 1:29:56 mark, and you’ll see her with it out and genuinely poised to slit Nikabrik’s throat. Moreover, when they finally meet, Aslan says to Lucy that “if you were any braver you would be a lioness” – a deliciously subversive line, in that it abruptly imaginatively cues us to wonder about Aslan’s sex life, something emphatically not gestured towards in Lewis’s books.

All of this is mere prelude, however, to the film’s greatest coup, and most invaluable vandalism of its source material. The most unacceptable part of C.S. Lewis’s book series, for me, comes at the end of the twelfth chapter of The Last Battle, where we learn that Susan “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” She is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on growing up.” In other words, she’s grown from a sweet little girl, tractable to the Christian harness, into an actual grown woman, with all the amoral trappings of sex that Christianity has never been able to control or accept. She’s no longer a “daughter of Eve,” to use Lewis’s terminology, but a daughter of Mother Nature, showing up Christianity’s fictiveness and inadequacy. Lewis’s only answer to this is “banish the bitch,” so as to keep his imaginative Christian playground-utopia intact.

I’ve never been the hugest fan of films such as The Notebook, Mamma Mia, The Vow, or Eat, Pray, Love, or TV shows such Sex and the City, Girls, or Desperate Housewives, but I consider that more a failing in my own education than a reflection on the worth of these things. I find their very existence reassuring, as well as the fact that their fans take them very seriously indeed, because these facts in and of themselves constitute a stinging rebuke to Lewis’s hysterical attempt to deny the reality and legitimacy of adult womanhood. Thus, it was with enormous glee that I saw a great part of Prince Caspian seeming to have been made in exactly this spirit. 
Near the ten minute mark, when we finally cut back to England, the first Pevensie that we see is Susan, and our immediate impression is that actress Anna Popplewell – now pushing twenty in real life – is looking very grown-up indeed, with pillowy, lipstick-covered lips almost evoking Angelina Jolie. And occupying the frame thus, she is standing at a kiosk, reading a magazine – no doubt some gloriously frivolous teen thing which is feeding her love of nylons and invitations – before having to beguilingly and toyingly fob off some gormlessly awkward boy who’s trying to hit on her. Soon enough, she finds herself back in Narnia – evidently still a friend of it after all, in spite of everything – but nonetheless confesses to a certain ambivalence about the fact, having spent the last year of her life getting used to being back in England. In other words, Adamson & Co. have accepted and inverted Lewis’s moralism, the better to deflect The Last Battle’s monstrosity, an astonishing five books in advance! It’s almost a shame The Last Battle will never get made, just so we can see what would ultimately have been done with it when the time came…

In the event, Susan’s new, more grown-up characterization is soon used to generate a romantic subplot with Caspian, played by the swoon-inducingly swarthy Ben Barnes. They don’t conclusively end up together, because, as Susan says after their (very striking) good-bye kiss, “we would never have worked anyway … I’m 1300 years older than you.” To say that all this was not in Lewis’s novel would be an understatement of the century. Any cyclones in the vicinity of Headington Quarry’s Holy Trinity Church can henceforth be explained by the intensity with which Lewis is spinning in his grave. And yet, even beyond its specific application in this case, this is exactly the kind of literary adaptation that I most appreciate – the kind that is unafraid of making big, shameless bowdlerisations to its subject matter simply in the interests of cinema. As well-done as a film like Atonement was, that kind of filmmaking’s abject servility to its source material always exasperates me. How much more fascinating would it have been to simply – in an impishly contrarian spirit of mischief – rewrite Ian McEwan totally? For instance, having Briony be deployed across the channel as a nurse and redeem herself by finding and rescuing Robbie? Or having the library-tryst scene result in Cecilia becoming pregnant, and her daughter then vengefully stalking Briony in later life?

One of my favourite examples of this kind of adaptation – one of the few that approaches what Adamson does with Prince Caspian – is the 1994 version of The Jungle Book, which rewrites Kipling to make Shere Khan into a benign and noble guardian-figure. Listening to the DVD commentary for the film, one hears director Stephen Sommers blithely declaring, with a total lack of self-consciousness, that the tigers they hired to play Shere Khan just looked so majestic that demonizing them as villains just didn’t seem cool, so they rewrote the story accordingly. One can readily image Kipling purists’ reaction to this approximating Calvin’s at left, but I always sympathize more with Hobbes’s look of jubilation at his own chutzpah. It’s my firm belief that, fundamentally, this is how art really advances, rather than though the dignified refraining from “taking liberties.” And as such, I’d rate Prince Caspian a very great piece of film art indeed.

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