It was disappointing that the movie version of C. S. Lewis's second chronicle of Narnia, Prince Caspian, did not stick as close to the story as that of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There may not have been more scenes made up out of whole cloth and gratuitously inserted, but the ones which were had a greater impact on plot and theme. A pointless fight involving Peter in the train station and a whole extra battle, the futile attack on Miraz's castle, were not just there for love of spectacle. They flow from subtle alterations to Peter's character that have not so subtle effects on the story's meaning.
First, the good parts. The film is visually stunning, and, more to the point, is a believable recreation of Lewis's descriptions of Narnian landscapes and creatures. The soundtrack is gorgeous. Enough of the original plot survives so that the spiritual message of the book is not entirely lost, though it is unfortunately somewhat diluted, as we shall see.
Next, some relatively minor irritations (comparatively). In slow-motion shots of flying arrows or crossbow bolts, the projectiles are not spinning as they should be-which makes the next part even less believable. Susan as archer and warrior turns into a female version of Legolas from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. It is one thing to downplay Lewis's view of traditional gender roles out of fear that they will not go down well with modern audiences; this flatly contradicts it. Finally, the River God can not destroy the bridge himself! O. K., it is a very impressive bit of special effects, but it has no place in Lewis's story. The very existence of the bridge puts the River God in chains until Aslan, through Bacchus, releases him. One can imagine Lewis shaking his head in disbelief. Do these people know nothing about the Roman mythology that was one of his sources?
The most significant change to the story is the degrading of Peter's character. Lewis's Peter fails to follow Aslan when only Lucy can see him, but he does not get into a childish fist fight at the train station, he does not indulge in adolescent male rivalry with Caspian, and he does not say, almost as cynically as Nikabrik, "I think we've waited for Aslan long enough!" High King Peter would never have done or said such things, even at his worst moment. Unlike the boy we see on the screen, Peter Pevensie has been High King of Narnia, and it has changed him forever. In the book, Peter's commission is to "hasten into the Mound [Aslan's Howe] and deal with what you find there." In the book, he is part of the solution to that problem; in the movie, he is just as much part of the problem. The fight in the train station and the gratuitous extra battle at Miraz's castle are just further outward incarnations of this unfaithfulness (yes, the word must be used) to Lewis's vision. What is going on here?
I have heard some say that the theme of faith in Aslan was undercut to the point of being lost altogether. In fairness, we must say that it is still there; but it was weakened. It was diluted by the creation of pointless spectacle and a relative neglect of character development (at least, the character development that was actually in the book). The conversation in which Aslan tells Lucy that she should have followed him even without the others appears, but condensed and in a less prominent place, with the effect that Aslan seems more absent from most of the movie than he is from most of the book. A good bit of the most spiritually significant dialog disappears altogether, replaced by cute one-liners apparently added for cheap laughs. I especially missed "You come of the Lord Aslan and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content."
What was done to Lewis's Peter has been compared to Peter Jackson's corruption of Tolkien's Faramir, and not without reason. They flow from the very same failure of postmodern imagination, the inability to conceive of real un-ironic heroes, along with the inability to imagine that anyone else can conceive of them either. Hence the heroes of authors who did not share this failure of imagination have to be recast into terms acceptable to those who suffer from it. Thus Peter Jackson's Aragorn has to be more "complicated" than Tolkien's, his Faramir is unrecognizable, and the movie Peter Pevensie suffers a version of the same fate.
This particular failure of moral imagination is very, very sad as a commentary on our culture, and even sadder in those to whom Lewis's legacy has been so foolishly entrusted. For Lewis knew better. He knew with Sir Philip Sidney in The Defense of Poesy that it is precisely at those times when real virtue is hard to believe in that positive literary images of it are most needed. As Lewis put it, "Since it is likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage." They will hear of such things much more clearly in the books than in the movies.
One can hope that the movies will motivate people to read the books. This one could have done so while being more faithful to their message and spirit.
The quotations from Lewis are found on pp. 164 and 233 of Prince Caspian (1951: rpt. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1979) and p. 31 of "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," in Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper. (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1964: 22-34).