Caspian Vs. Caspian: Reviewing a Book and a Movie with One Hand Tied Behind My Back
I had access to a special advance screening of the new Walden Media film Prince Caspian on Monday of this week. It was very nice. Free popcorn and pop (also called "soda" by the crazy people that live in this part of the country). No commercials. Audience members that gasp at all the right spots. The works.
Problem was I hadn’t read the book of Prince Caspian since I was a wee slip of a lass. And if you’d like me to be even more precise, I never got past Chapter Three. As a kid I had a real problem with sequels to fantasy novels that introduced new characters at the expense of the old. I felt this book was essentially betraying the characters we had all grown to know and love (though more on that later). I mean the second Wizard of Oz book did the same thing. And I was able to confirm just how far I actually got in Caspian recently when I was given a free Teacher’s Edition copy of the book at ALA Mid-Winter with the lovely David Wiesner cover. So for the first time in a while I saw a movie based on a work of children’s fiction that I had NOT, for all intents and purposes, read.
To deal with my reactions to both film and literature, what I am going to do here today is a kind of dual review. I have by now both seen the movie AND read my copy of the book. And since my brain cells fight and spit amongst themselves, it seems only fitting that I review these two formats in a style that best describes my state of mind at this time. I would like to point out right now a big old Spoiler Alert for everything that is about to follow because I’m going to nitpick everything I see. Be warned if you wish to be surprised.
IN THIS CORNER…
Weighing in at 138 pounds with spectacles upon her nose and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide in her fist stands Betsy Book Reviewer (BBR – My old initials before I got married, ironically).
AND IN THIS CORNER…
Weighing in at 138 pounds with oily popcorn stains and smears all down the front of her previously nice white shirt stands Betsy Movie Reviewer (BMR).
LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!
BBR: I think it would make the most sense to summarize a little of the book and movie’s plots right off the bat.
BMR: Sounds fair enough.
BBR: Great. So in this book our four heroes from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe instantaneously find themselves in Narnia right before they go off to separate boarding schools.
BMR: Uh.. okay. There weren’t any boarding schools mentioned in the movie, but that’s fine.
BBR: Huh. Well, maybe that’s because Tilda Swinton hates boarding schools, a fact that came out when she said she’d never be in a Harry Potter movie because they (according to her) romanticize the boarding school experience.
BMR: Shhh! We don’t want to give away that she’s in this film yet.
BBR: Oh, right. Sorry. Did yours start the same way?
BMR: Not quite. The film starts with the birth of the son of the evil King Miraz and Prince Caspian’s exciting escape into the woods.
BBR: Well that’s accurate, if getting ahead of the book. Anyway, after they come to Narnia the kids spend a lot of time trying to find enough food and water around the ruins of an old building that looks a lot like Cair Paravel and then, SURPRISE! It is Cair Paravel and they feel pretty weird about that.
BMR: Hm. No one worried about basic necessities onscreen. But they figure it out pretty quickly and in the meantime we keep seeing Caspian getting accepted by the Narnians as their new leader. Let’s not do a blow-by-blow look at the film, though. How was reading the book?
BBR: Uh…. well I feel that I should begin by confronting the issue of whether or not I even can review this book fairly after see the movie first.
BMR: A lot of people would say that you couldn’t.
BBR: Well that might be true, were it not for the fact that Lewis’s style is so distinct and different from the style of the moviemakers that reading the book is an entirely different experience altogether.
BMR: So you don’t imagine the faces of the characters as the ones in the films?
BBR: No, not at all.
BMR: Of course, it doesn’t hurt matters any that Caspian looks like he’s 18 in the film and he’s just a kid in the book.
BBR: Well, see now that’s perfectly fine, actually. The book never says how old the guy is. He could be 18 for all we know.
BMR: Uh-huh. And that explains why he’s tonguing Susan at the end of the movie does it? Actually, I was cool with the sudden Caspian/Susan romance angle (which never really goes anywhere) because I find the girl playing Susan to be a very normal looking teen. The sort of gal a kid could identify with. She’s not movie star gorgeous (though her lips do look as if a hive of bees recently went on the attack) and she ends up with Mr. Hubba Hubba by the end of the film.
BBR: Of course she was the only teenage human girl around for miles.
BMR: Check that. Actually the film had a very girl-friendly feel to it. Sure there was violence. LOADS of it, in fact (though never any blood, which I found odd). But Lucy and Susan are the ones who get to act like normal gals who just happen to be as capable as their brothers during the battle scenes. In fact, I recently heard from a Hollywood insidery source (read: illustrator) that the only point where the Director Andrew Adamson (significant last name, non?) and the heir of C.S. Lewis have differed is over the role of women in the books. Adamson is inclined to put them in fight scenes and the heir pointed out that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas clearly says that girls are not to fight.
BBR: I don’t remember that from the film.
BMR: That’s because the Director was able to argue it out. He persuaded the heir to let the girls use their weapons (which they really are given anyway) by pointing out that when Lewis got married he gave the women in his books a little more leeway and spunk. That spunk was merely being moved up a couple notches/books here.
BBR: Clever boy. That was something about the book I found interesting, actually. In the movie Susan shoots an arrow at some Telmarine soldiers to save a dwarf. In the book, to my surprise, she did the same, though a very big deal was made about the fact that she missed. Actually, the Susan in the book was a bit of a pill. Very whiny and forever doubting Lucy at every step of the way. It’s as if Lewis is setting you up for the inevitable Susan-doesn’t-get-to-go-to-heaven reveal at the end of The Last Battle. I wonder if they’ll keep that in the movie version…
BMR: My husband just suggested that maybe they’ll make Voyage of the Dawn Treader and then The Last Battle and then go back and do all the prequels, once it doesn’t matter that the kids are aging.
BBR: Uh… yeah. Probably not so much.
BMR: Shall we do a Christianity update?
BBR: I don’t see why not.
BMR: Let me present to you an interesting critique that came from that same screenwriter of a husband.
BBR: They let your husband in?
BMR: They are very nice to me. What can I say? He likes this stuff.
BBR: Go on.
BMR: Anyway, he’s an atheist and he felt that there wasn’t enough Christianity in the film.
BBR: Come again?
BMR: Well, think about it from his perspective. He likes a film’s theme to be complete and whole. The point of the movie seemed to be that no one was calling on Aslan to come and help them. Instead they doubted him. Except for Lucy, of course, and she waits a bloody long time before finally setting out and helping. But back in the real world, none of that is apparent. There’s a big fight at the beginning between Peter and some other boys because they refused to treat him like the adult he used to be. Matt suggested that a better way to go about it would have been to have Lucy talking to other kids about Narnia, getting laughed at, and her brother defending her and getting into the fight that way.
BBR: Hm. Maybe.
BMR: And what’s the Christianity look like in the book?
BBR: Oh, pretty similar to the movie, really. Though Lewis is forever throwing in random characters from mythology. Bacchus makes an appearance, you know.
BMR: I take it there were lots of orgies then.
BBR: Laugh all you want, bucko, but you’re not far off. When Susan says, "I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan," you know exactly what she’s talking about.
BBR: Is he in the film? Bacchus?
BMR: I should think not.
BBR: You understand that I had to wonder since things I wouldn’t have expected to be in the movie cropped up in the book over and over.
BMR: So can we talk changes? I would love to know what wasn’t in the book after I saw the film.
BBR: Is there something in particular you’re thinking of that comes to mind?
BMR: Er, uh… does The White Witch really almost come back in the book? And do the trees really fight at the end and kill a bunch of soldiers that way? I mean it felt like the filmmakers had said to themselves, "You know the fighting trees in The Lord of the Rings? That is TOTALLY not how trees would fight. Let’s show ’em how it’s done!" Was that in there?
BBR: Kinda sorta. Look at it this way. Do they get as far as calling The White Witch? Not really, but they discuss it and you’re pretty sure that hag had a plan up her sleeve.
BMR: Up her nasty smelly sleeve.
BBR: And as for the trees, they do fight. Not with flailing roots, but by sort of plunging onward. Very LOTR, even then. And since the movie versions of the books always get rid of the giants (would they make a battle too hard to film?) the trees are the biggest guys on the field. The thing I found completely different about the film was that they had a huge sequence where they attack Miraz’s castle. That was new.
BMR: I loved that Caspian suddenly got to do his best Inigo Montoya imitation. Think about it. Dark castle. Sword at the throat of the goateed villain. And then Caspian starts talking about his dead dad in what sounds like a Spanish accent. Very Princess Bride.
BBR: Woah. This totally was a girl flick.
BMR: I’m just saying.
BBR: How were the actors? Good?
BMR: Oh yeah. Well, I mean, the casting all around was superb. The kids are getting better than they were in the first movie. Lucy in particular seemed to be a kind of standout. And newcomer Ben Barnes was good with what little he had to work with. But of course Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage stole the film. Yes folks, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering, "Could Peter Dinklage take Warwick Davis in a fight?” this movie provides the answer. Plus Davis played Reepicheep in the BBC production of Caspian, so what goes around comes around. Of course, I could have lived without the copious short jokes hurled Dinklage’s way.
BBR: Actually, I’d like to point out that that was only partly the movie’s fault. You know how they keep calling Trumpkin the D.L.F. or Dear Little Friend?
BBR: That’s supposed to be a callback. When he first meets them Trumpkin refuses to believe that the Pevensies (awful last name for a fantasy novel, by the way) are the kings and queens of old and he patronizingly calls them his "dear little friends". Calling him that is supposed to be their revenge.
BMR: Oh! That must have just gotten cut out of the film. And I think the filmmakers should get some points for casting Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep.
BBR: Yeah. He comes this close to redeeming himself after doing the voice of the Psammead in that straight to video version of Five Children and It. Almost.
BMR: Almost. As for the minorities in this film, basically if you had dark skin you ended up a heroic centaur. That beats being an evil dwarf as in the last film, but I guess the pickings were slim. Had the Telmarines been anything but white (with universal Spanish/Czech accents no less) there would have been hell to pay. Plus, look at that recent version of The Golden Compass. Have you ever seen a film more white in your life? Hey, that reminds me, can I ask you something about the book?
BBR: Hit me, baby. One more time.
BMR: . . . .
BBR: Seriously, go ahead.
BMR: Oooookay. Uh… This was kind of bugging me. Does… does the book ever explain how other humans came to Narnia?
BBR: Oh, I totally know what you mean. When I was a kid another thing that bugged me about Prince Caspian was the fact that there were humans in Narnia. Tons of them, in fact. And where in the world had they come from? I know that in the Oz books humans could sometimes come to Oz from this other fantasy lands that bordered Oz, but to do that in Narnia seemed cheap. After all the White Witch makes such a big deal about the fact that Edmund is a son of Adam, and all that. So why would Lewis fudge it all by saying, "Oh. And there were other humans too, but they were sort of living elsewhere for a while until the kids went home through the wardrobe and then they attacked Narnia"? Except that at the end of the book (which nine-year-old me never read) there really is an explanation. And it’s the same as the one in the film (if a little more detailed). The Telmarines are sailors from our world that accidentally found a way into a land that bordered Narnia. And then they attacked Narnia when they were strong. Makes sense, even if the Pevensies should have also wondered where all the humans came from.
BMR: Excellent. The movie did the same thing.
BBR: All right. Now we come down to it. Was either of these any good? I’ll let you go first since the movie’s the new item here, not the book.
BMR: Much obliged. In some ways, the film was too long. Certain scenes could have come right out with very little problems. The filmmakers chose to make Caspian’s first failed battle in Miraz’s castle, and that was all well and good, but the subplot of Caspian trying to deal with his father’s death never took on the weight and depth the filmmakers hoped for. But the changes made to the book corrected, and forgive me if I’m putting words in your mouth here, many of the plot’s structural problems. Girls kick butt without hitting the audience over the head with some kind of sketchy girl power message incongruous with the film. The CGI was mostly spot on with an exception here and there, but that’s to be expected. My husband pointed out that the Bulgy Bear resembled nothing so much as Bear from Harvey Birdman. And the music was good, except for right at the end when a HORRIBLE horrible horrible song comes on as the kids are leaving Narnia. I thought for a second that I’d stumbled into a Lifetime film at that point. Those quibbles aside, it’s a fun, thoroughly enjoyable film and I think it does Lewis’s novel proud.
BBR: And, of course, we have to wonder if this is a novel that even deserves to BE made proud. I’m not the only kid I know who didn’t finish it. Lots of people my age started it and stopped midway through when things weren’t going the way they liked. Having seen the film first, the book was far more palatable a read. I still think that it was a big mistake on Lewis’s part to have such blatant exposition come out of Trumpkin’s mouth. At the very least he should have talked and walked with the kids as they made their way to Caspian’s camp. I’ve no problem with the heavy religious messages because that’s the kind of book you’re reading. If it wasn’t in there at all then it would have felt far weirder. Lewis still had the kids bicker, which was oddly refreshing, and though Caspian hasn’t much of a personality (hence the film’s whole dead daddy angle) he does well enough as a stock character. It was a nice book, but I can’t see it as anyone’s favorite.
BMR: You know that by saying that twenty people are going to write you and say that when they were ten Prince Caspian was the bestest book of them all.
BBR: I am aware of the risks, yes.
And so, here is the final tally as I see it:
Prince Caspian the Movie: Four out of five stars.
Prince Caspian the Book: Three out of five stars.
Prince Caspian opens today in theaters across the country.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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