The big question you’re bringing to this review, I’m pretty sure, is, “Is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader worthy of its source? Is it more like the first movie, which we loved, or the second movie, which we didn’t even bother to see?”
I’m happy to report that for one C. S. Lewis geek at least, the movie was very satisfying and provided an extremely good time at the movies. (I saw it in 3D. I don’t know if that matters or not; you’re on your own on whether to spend the money. Personally, I’m a sucker for flashy magic.)
It should always be borne in mind that books and movies are different species of story. What works for one may not work for the other (though it’s nice when they do). I ask just three things of a film adaptation of a beloved novel. First, it should make some effort to follow the general outline of the original (extra points for dialogue faithfully carried over). Second, it should hit most of the dramatic high points. And third, it should deliver something like the same emotional impact.
For this particular viewer, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader succeeded. Very well. I’m not sure yet, but I might even like it better than the first movie.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the novel) begins with perhaps Lewis’ greatest opening line; possibly one of the best opening lines in all literature: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (A line full of resonance for an author who’d himself been christened Clive Staples Lewis.) This film offers an extremely satisfactory Eustace in the person of actor Will Poulter. His maturation is the primary character arc in the story, just as in the original. It pleased me in particular, as an amateur swordsman, that he enjoys his first fleeting taste of the pleasures of manliness after a fencing match with the incomparable talking mouse, Reepicheep (played by a very talented bunch of pixels and voiced by Simon Pegg).
As in the book, Peter and Susan are out of the story (except for dreams and flashbacks), having grown too old to return to Narnia. But Edward and Lucy, along with their insufferable cousin Eustace, are drawn into Narnia, and onto the deck of The Dawn Treader, a vessel of exploration commanded by their old friend Prince Caspian.
The major narrative problem with any sea voyage story is that it must be, by its nature, episodic. (I speak from experience, as my own latest novel is about a sea voyage, and it’s episodic as all get-out.) Lewis tied the island stops together with a quest to discover the fates of seven Narnian lords who sailed away in Caspian’s father’s time. That’s a thin thread to carry a movie, so the film writers punch it up. Instead of a puzzle to solve, the new main challenge is a strange green mist into which people disappear, carried off to an unknown fate. The goal now is to liberate these people (a goal well consistent with the story’s Christian themes).
It would be misleading to call this adaptation “faithful” to the book. This movie is more like the fruit of the book. Some elements of the story are minimized or skipped over; other elements, minor in the original, are magnified and dramatized for cinematic effect. The result is bigger, more spectacular, faster moving, and more unified in narrative. It’s stirring, thrilling, and suitable for all but the youngest viewers. My own manly eyes teared up a bit in places.
I don’t think The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been doing the business it deserves. I urge you not to wait for the DVD.
Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which is West Oversea.