In The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde wrote that "there is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true." When it comes to creating art, one can lose the spirit of a work by focusing too much on fact.
In their first collaborative attempt to bring C.S. Lewis' beloved Chronicles of Narnia to life on screen, Walden Media and Disney seemed to suffer something along the same lines; 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was technically good-the effects were first-rate, the cast (both the long-time Oscar favorites and the fresh-faced newcomers) inhabited their parts admirably, and (as the filmmakers repeatedly pointed out when it was first released) the movie stuck to the book scene for scene.
But the result was something less than the sum of its parts. Rather than transferring the magic Lewis created to a new medium, the film felt like a stiff, self-conscious copy. It was moderately enjoyable as an echo of something that was immensely enjoyable, but it captured little of its source's spark.
With his second foray into Lewis' magical world, director Andrew Adamson took a different tack. Feeling less shackled by audience expectation to see the events of Prince Caspian, a less popular book than the first in the series, play out exactly as they remembered them, he made several bold and many subtle changes.
Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Caspian as written contained plenty of amusing dialogue, but this time out the characters don't repeat it verbatim. Adamson is perhaps best known for writing and directing the first two Shrek films, and he says that he based the popular Puss-in-Boots character on the pompous mouse Reepicheep.
His comfort creating that kind of personality is clear as he manages to infuse Reepicheep's scenes with the same silly, swashbuckling feeling the novel achieved-without stopping the action every few minutes to paste in one of Lewis' jokes. Adamson's adept handling of the rodent, along with Peter Dinklage's deadpan delivery as the red dwarf Trumpkin, generates genuine rather than polite laughs.
But if Caspian presents a lighter Narnia than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it also at times presents a darker one. Adamson's Peter isn't the stalwart leader readers will remember. Instead the eldest Pevensie struggles with issues of pride and control. His inability to wait patiently for Aslan has devastating consequences that are reminiscent of everyone from Moses to Saul to another well-known Peter.
It's a rare thing for a film populated by fantastical creatures to elicit genuine emotion. But when several of Narnia's most exotic citizens are sacrificed on the altar of Peter's self-importance, the moment is truly heart-wrenching, serving as a strong reminder to viewers both old and young that failings usually have a wider impact than imagined. The battle the High King leads for his own (rather than Aslan's) glory isn't bloody, and the film's PG rating is never in question, but certainly the stakes for the action are intense.
Thankfully, as Adamson has grown in his ability to realize a more engaging Narnia, so have his performers. As Trumpkin, Peter Dinklage gives us a Narnian who doesn't feel nearly as cloying nor as rigidly literary as James McEvoy's Mr. Tumnus. And notwithstanding a Spanish-style accent that waxes and wanes, Ben Barnes as Caspian brings off moments that could have come off as clichéd (and unfortunately did in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).
To be fair, not every change will necessarily be welcomed by Christian audiences (see the cover story on the Susan controversy as an example). But the majority contribute to something that feels much closer in heart if not in detail to the original.
It's unlikely any but the most dedicated Lewis purists will be disappointed with where Adamson is taking the franchise. No doubt he will leave most moviegoers eager to return to the theater for the already-in-production Voyage of the Dawn Treader.