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NEW YORK-When producer Mark Johnson, director Andrew Adamson, and the rest of the team responsible for bringing C.S. Lewis' classic series, The Chronicles of Narnia, to the big screen last met with journalists, talk centered mostly on how closely the film version of the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, mirrored the book. Anxious to assure the novel's legions of fans that Disney's version of that story would not include any of the strange interpretations other studios had considered over the years, the filmmakers maintained an insistent, if sincere talking point in front of the press: We have remained as faithful as possible to the original.
The biggest reason they gave for their fealty to Lewis' work was pure affection for it. And certainly it's impossible to believe that anyone familiar with the adventures of Narnia wouldn't love them. But it probably also helped that two other major fantasy franchises-The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter-had made a mint by sticking painstakingly close to their source material.
By following their lead Disney went on to reap similar rewards. Fans turned out, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe grossed $745 million in its worldwide theatrical release. Given these kinds of earnings, few would expect Johnson, Adamson, and company to alter their game plan for the rest of the books.
And yet, at the May 3 prescreening for Prince Caspian, the filmmakers weren't highlighting how well this movie duplicates Lewis' novel as much as explaining why it departs from it.
"With The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe we were really careful about not making any changes," says Johnson. "Because it was so revered by so many people, you sort of got the sense that if you tampered with it you would be putting it at great risk. And I think that we kept the integrity of the book so much that the number one thing people would say to me about it was, 'I loved the fact that it was so close to the book.'"
However, when it came to adapting Caspian, which opens in theaters nationwide May 16, Johnson says that kind of scene-for-scene adaptation was impossible: "When we first went back and read this book, we all thought it was going to be really tough. Not that it wasn't filmable, but we did wonder, 'How are we going to tackle this one?' We weren't even sure if there was a complete movie there and we toyed with the idea of combining Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader like the BBC did a few years back."
Eventually they abandoned that idea and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, along with director Andrew Adamson, were tasked with finding a way to overcome the greatest hurdle the novel presented-its retrospective format.
Explains McFeely: "Structurally the book does not lend itself to becoming a movie, so we couldn't just transcribe it. Essentially the novel goes like this: The four Pevensie siblings return to Narnia, and they meet a dwarf named Trumpkin who tells them a 50-page flashback they're not involved in about a kid they've never met or heard of named Prince Caspian. And then when Trumpkin's finished telling the story they go, 'Oh it sounds like he's in trouble. We ought to go and help.' Well that just wouldn't work visually. So one of the first things we did when we started working on the script was agree that the action would have to start much earlier."
Not only does the action start earlier, but it occurs much more often than it did in the book. Battle plans that were only considered in the novel are carried out in the film, leading many critics, and McFeely himself, to note that Caspian presents a somewhat "darker" Narnia. Darker, yet also more emotionally moving.
But the differences between Lewis' Caspian and Disney's go far beyond reordering events, amping up the action, or trimming the story to fit it into a two-hour format. Entirely new plot lines are introduced and two primary characters are significantly altered. One of these alterations could actually make the story more meaningful to Christian audiences. The other will likely have some fans questioning whether the filmmakers respect Lewis' vision as much as they claim.
Readers may remember that when eldest sister Susan Pevensie was given her gift of bow and arrows by Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she was instructed not to use them for battle. The pronouncement wasn't an anti-war sentiment, but rather one of gender defining-the old bearded man went on to tell Susan that war is an ugly thing when women are involved. In Lewis' world, queens were not meant for combat.
In the first film Adamson neatly sidestepped this issue by having Father Christmas tell Susan not to use her bow in combat because all war is ugly. In Caspian, the line between the Susan of the book and that of the movie is a bit more stark. Whereas she was "Susan the gentle" in print, on screen she is a warrior princess, leading the charge and commanding men (or at least male Narnians) on the battlefield.
Asked about his decision to deviate from Lewis' description, Adamson doesn't equivocate: "When the issue of Susan not participating in the fight for Narnia was introduced in the first film, I rejected it then. I was like, 'Well, if she's just gonna make sandwiches then give her a plate and a knife.' It's something that I don't agree with so I wasn't going to make a movie like that."
But Adamson doesn't necessarily feel that his depiction of Susan does Lewis' work a disservice. "You have to remember," he argues, "these books were written in a different time and place by somebody who I think evolved in his views over the years. By the time he wrote The Horse and His Boy, he had a very strong female character. But in the beginning of his stories, although Lucy was strong as a character, the women didn't tend to be assertive."
Adamson said he had long discussions with Doug Gresham (Lewis' stepson and one of the film's co-producers) about it: "Because when you start going away from an author's viewpoint, you do wonder, 'Is this the correct thing to do?' And the way I justified it to him was that I think C.S. Lewis evolved after meeting his mother, and that's why you start to see stronger female characters in his later books."
Markus adds that he believes Anna Popplewell's strength as a performer would have made a Susan who sits on the sidelines feel inauthentic: "In Anna you have an actress with such authority, that person is not sitting back and going, OK, you guys fight."
Whether they meant to or not, the filmmakers' other major shift away from Lewis' depiction of a character could cause many Christian moviegoers to find stronger spiritual connections with the film. Rather than happily arriving in Narnia and turning over his kingship to Prince Caspian, Peter Pevensie struggles with his own pride and control. His unwillingness to yield to Aslan's plan for his life results in dire consequences for loved ones around him.
Peter's internal struggle isn't part of the novel, but Adamson says his idea for it grew out of the situation Lewis created for Peter. "One of the things I wondered about when I read the book initially was how Peter would respond to being a king and then having to go back and do homework. He's not going to adjust well to that," laughs Adamson. "So I thought that Peter coming back to Narnia might mean a chance to prove himself, to reassert himself again. He wouldn't really want Aslan's help because that would mean that he needed help. And he wanted to prove that he was the High King."
While working on the script, Christopher Markus saw the same potential for conflict with Peter. "I don't know about theological themes," he says, "but I know that as a character Peter would be dealing with pride. He'd be asking himself, who am I and how do I prove it? And that raises a huge failing on his part. And we really wanted to give him a failing because he can come across [in the books] as sort of stiffly heroic. So we really wanted to test his mettle and break him a little bit so that we could build him back up into a real person."
The themes resonated strongly enough that William Mosely, the young actor playing Peter, seemed to pick up on them readily. "I think my character learns a very important lesson about humility," Mosely says. "He learns that leadership at the end of the day is about serving other people-serving a place or a country and not serving yourself. And Peter had to reinstate his trust in Aslan to learn that lesson."
In fact, Johnson feels that changing the character of Peter allowed them to stay more true to the heart and spirit of the novels than if they had filmed the oldest brother as written. "Much more so than an event or dialogue, the themes are the most important thing to maintain," Johnson says, "so we had to continually ask: What is this movie about? If the first one was about discovering faith, then this one was about losing faith and regaining it. And with the character of Peter and what his hubris does, I think we captured that."
About how Lewis' millions of fans-particularly his Christian fans-will react to the other differences between the film and the book, Johnson says he isn't worried. "I don't think we necessarily have the same strengths we did in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I think we make up for that with other characters."
He also says that while he hasn't worried about offending Lewis fans, he does want to make sure their expectations are met: "We've been very aware of the readership. And I hope that now the audience trusts us a little more. I think with the first one it was like, 'OK show me-will you be true to what I remember with these books?' And I think people by and large emphatically said yes. So I think that's why we felt a little comfortable with making some changes. But we are very much aware of what these books have meant to so many people and we want to stay true to each one of them."