Sunday, February 19, 2012

Treading Lightly

Poster for the 2010 film.

How do people feel about film adaptations of iconic genre novels or other properties?  I'm normally fairly immune to the nerd rage that seems to prevent those who have on some level waited their entire lives for the things they loved since they were kids to become massive film properties - furiously avoiding the 'Captain America' movie because the costume is the wrong shade of blue, or because some story or character detail or other was changed.

I'm not even particularly bothered when things are changed wholesale if the spirit of the original is retained.  Obviously, this works better when you're dealing with ongoing serialized properties - like 'Captain America' again, where there's no single canon or author.  It gets a bit thornier when properties are adapted that are the work of a single creative team - 'V for Vendetta' or 'Watchmen' for example, or the recent 'Tintin' movie.  I'm not enough of an expert on Hergé to say whether or not the latter was  successful as an adaptation, but on the former two, I think 'Watchmen' was a hollow son et lumière as an adaptation, while 'V' actually improved upon the source material.

I've thought long and hard about it, and realized that while I don't mind changes to a story, I really don't like changes to theme or meaning that end up completely bowdlerizing authorial intent.

The Book as I knew it, 70's style
The film that really started this train of thought for me was 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' which I finally watched last night.  The Narnia books are pretty sacred to me and 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' was such a misjudged misfire of a movie that I didn't even bother with the second film, 'Prince Caspian.'  But 'Dawn Treader' is among my favorite books of all time, and I pretty much had to see the film - dreading in advance that it would just be another bad adaptation along the lines of 'Lion,' which stuck very close to the story but was so off in tone and intent that it just depressed me.

The main thing that was wrong with 'Lion' was in the tweaking of the spirituality of the stories to move it away from Lewis' personal faith to a bigger, louder American version.  Lewis saw in Christianity the need for the good to act to protect the world from evil, yes, but he also saw in it light, love and joy - actual goodness, in other words.  For the film version, being Christian means just to fight evil, and that's it.  No fun, no happiness, no joy.

Santa Claus does show up in the film, but instead of providing a joyful feast for a long-delayed Christmas as in the book, they edit that out and move right on to him giving the kids their Christian Soldier weapons and solemnly instructing them to do their duty.  Ditto, the central scene of Aslan's sacrifice.  In the book, he is resurrected in front of the two young Pevensie girls, and he romps with them in joy 'like a kitten' at returning to life before he instructs them to climb on his back and they race across the countryside to turn the tide in the battle with the forces of the evil White Witch.  In the film?  Fuck the joy, just get to the battle.  So damn dour.

Again, no changes to affect the story, but the theme of the story is completely eviscerated.

'Dawn Treader,' on the other hand, futzed the story eight ways to Sunday and still managed to work for me, which surprised me, because my personal stakes were higher.  Certainly, part of it is just having a more competent director at the helm (Michael Apted, this time around), but they actually managed to capture much more of Lewis' spirit and faith than the sad first film.  There's joy!  There's (holy shit) fun!  So now I find myself hoping they manage to continue to make the series.

Lord knows what the seven-year-old in me would make of this.  I didn't even know that my favorite books were Christian allegories at that age.  Heck, I didn't even know what 'theme' was, then.  So I'd probably have loved it all.  That's the real pain of growing up and having your generation's taste dominate the market - you can get the films you wanted all along, only it turns out that the popcorn tastes funny.


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