Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Cinematic Failures: Dawn Treader and The Road

Since I vocally anticipated both in the past, I thought it might be appropriate to offer reviews of the two book-to-film adaptations that I saw this week. Surprise surprise, neither Cormac McCarthy's The Road nor C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have been given a good rendering in the cinematic medium.

We have talked about the difficulties and requirements of such adaptations here in the past, so I'm not going to go over much old ground in that regard. One thing I've said before bears repeating, however: In both cases "the novel did a better job of being a book than the movie did of being a film."

The Road

Even the book was risky. Who needs another tale of post-apocalyptic survival? But McCarthy pulled it off with an incredible balance of terror and tenderness. He took a plot that he could have exploited for the sake of gore and cheap scares, but instead he frightened me without once being overly lurid. Furthermore, he had two characters and he gave them both realness and depth that touched me to the core of my humanity without being merely sentimental. The Coens did a great job with McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, but I doubted anyone could accomplish in film what he did with this novel. And I was right.

Don't get me wrong, the film wasn't actually that bad (I gave it 5/10). I expected worse. Viggo Mortensen is alright and the film is not horribly overdone. But The Road is just not the movie that it could have been. To capture what McCarthy accomplished with his novel you'd have to do more than film everything in sepia.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This, on the other hand, is a travesty of Disney-esque proportions. Ever since the Pevensies left the beaver dam in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this film series has plundered Lewis's novels for CGI-driven plotlines and discarded any attempt to actually make Narnia special to anyone not already invested in that world via the printed page. Prince Caspian actually seemed to be on the right track, but then it turned into a PG battle-film more at home in the Karate Kid genre than the fantasy genre. In either case, whenever the characters cry "For Narnia!" and plunge into adventure it has all the meaning of a depthless nationalism and none of the magic and the myth of the place and the creatures whose lives and goodness are at stake.

With Dawn Treader however, I found some reasons to be optimistic. Lucy and Edmund had been the better of the Pevensie children, and this book is most certainly near the top of everyone's list of favourites. Furthermore, it would be hard to go wrong with a sea adventure as far as I'm concerned. But here again the main characters are lifeless, the sea is boring, and the plot is quickened and reduced to something resembling a Saturday morning cartoon with a budget. We don't care when they get to the end of the world. We're kind of relieved, actually, because we need to visit the loo.

Incredibly, there was no point where I felt the wonder and excitement of being at sea and not knowing what was beyond the horizon. The painting on Eustace's wall captures more of that feeling than the entire film. We'd have been better sitting in the room reading the book and staring at that painting than actually being swallowed up into the motion picture that Disney has coughed up for us.

Which is probably the problem. This film just lacks the imagination required to translate the children's book (that adults love to read) into a children's movie (that adults love to take their children to and people who grew up with the book are pleased to see). One example is the dark island. A film with a lesser budget would have found creative ways to capture the fear of that part of the adventure, but the special effects employed here just turn it into something else altogether. And the use of green smoke to represent evil is just dreadful on every level. Kid's movie or not.

But let me end on a positive note. I actually think they got Eustace and Reepicheep about right. In fact, if the rest of the film around them were better, I might have even found their storyline gripping. So there is some reason for optimism, even after three disappointing movies. If they make Silver Chair and Last Battle next, we may see Eustace shine. Or, I suppose we could look back and see that this was his finest moment. Only time will tell. I'm sure curiousity will keep me going back, but next time I might wait until DVD (or like I did with Caspian, until TV). And I take some consolation in the fact that I still have the books on my shelf and some kids left who haven't read it yet. Lewis's Narnia is still alive, despite Disney's tarnishings.

I'll say this: The more Narnia movies I see the more I appreciate Peter Jackson's accomplishment with The Lord of the Rings.


Geordie said...

movie starts in 90 minutes - i'll let you know what i think. Thanks for the inspiration. Maybe i'll like it now that my expectations have been dashed...

Tony Tanti said...

I love negative reviews from you, not that your positive ones aren't a good read too but there's something about the joy of reading someones utter disgust.

Disney has disappointed me with these movies too, I wanted to like LW&W so badly but with repeated viewings it just gets worse and worse. It's like you said, the opening is great and it's like they ran out of money or desire at the beaver dam scene and just mailed it in after that.

And Caspian betrayed the book more even though it was a better movie.

Sounds like Dawn Treader is the biggest disappointment yet.

Narnia lovers should file a class action suit against Disney, I'm thinking of orgainizing one against Michael Bay for wrecking Transformers.

Dave M said...

I also enjoyed these reviews.

Maybe Tanti should revive his own movie blog, good times were had there.

I haven't seen the Narnia movies since the first one and probably never will, thanks for reassuring me in that decision.

I did watch the Road a couple of months ago and I think I see what you are getting at. I hadn't read the book but the whole time I was guessing at what it would be like to read the story instead of watch it. The film always felt like it was the shadow of an idea that was slightly beyond it. Like many other adaptations, all it really achieves is a good pointer to towards the original source. The film always seemed self conscious of it's imitation, for me I take that as a kind of reverence towards it's source material. So there is something to be said for it, but not as an original expression.

ErinOrtlund said...

I really liked Reepicheep and Eustace, and their growing friendship. Also Reepicheep's constant optimism and encouragement of others. I think you're right on the rest of the movie though. Also, it was a lot scarier than I thought it would be when I decided to bring my kids.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Ya, I forsook the Narnia films after the first one, and haven't looked back. If at some point I'm trapped on a desert island with a TV and DVD player and only Prince Caspian or Dawn Treader, I might watch them, or I might try to find creative ways to turn the discs into fishing lures. That's the kind of decision you can only make when you find yourself on just such a desert island.

As for the Road, I will reiterate my FB comment: I judged a book by its cover, and don't feel remotely bad about that. With the Road the form the story takes in the novel, right down to the semi-stream of consciousness style and the lack of standard punctuation, contributes greatly to the story being what it is. I'm not sure it's adaptable at all, and I'm quite sure the only reason somebody tried is because adaptations from McCarthy novels make money at the box office.

Jon Coutts said...

I could see liking the Road if I hadn't read the book. I'll give it this, at least it tried.

Disney's treatment of Narnia is just a metaphor for the way its hedonistic hands are spoiling the world.

I asked my boys if they were scared by Dawn Treader and they denied it. Then they said, "but we did jump a few times."

It saddens me that they have been exposed so early to such horrible film making. Thank goodness for Pixar!

My kids said they liked the Narnia movies. But they wouldn't have said otherwise. The real test is this: They will ask to watch Pixar movies again and again. I'm willing to bet they will never ask to see these Narnia movies again, and if given the opportunity will likely opt instead for an episode of Arthur. Kids know. Give them a chance and they know.