Why Christian Critics Hated/Loved Prince Caspian
Reading all the reviews of Prince Caspian this weekend, especially the ones from fellow Christians, I began to wonder if my husband and I had seen the same movie that everybody else saw. I was particularly struck by the many reviews that argued that the movie had left out the book’s theme of faith versus skepticism. I’d thought the entire movie—even the battle scenes—illustrated the importance of faith in Aslan, albeit often through negative example.
(Just to throw down a little street cred, I should mention that I grew up engrossed in Narnia. The Chronicles were read to me while I was literally still in the womb—and many times thereafter. I still love the books and consider them to be one of the main influences in my spiritual formation. I’ve also been known to object vociferously to film adaptations of Christian fantasy; I’m usually the annoying purist that’s being told to “pipe down” as I grouse my way through a showing of any of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. So I thought that I’d naturally be among the crowd deploring the film version of Prince Caspian. Fortunately, one of the virtues I’ve learned from Narnia is to admit when I’ve been wrong—not that it’s one I find easy to practice, as anyone who knows me will attest.)
In an article we linked to from Christ and Pop Culture, Steven Greydanus, a critic whose opinions I very much respect, writes, “the filmmakers eviscerate the crucial theme of skepticism about the existence of Aslan and the Kings and Queens of Cair Paravel, as well as the whole world of Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, and spirits of wood and water.”
After seeing the film, I read that comment again and thought, “Huh?” My husband and I both thought faith and doubt were laced all through the film—and not just any vague faith, but faith specifically in Aslan. Maybe the bit about wood and water spirits doesn’t come up, but the film shows us that Caspian doesn’t believe in the Narnian creatures’ existence prior to meeting them. Moreover, Trumpkin may be more accepting of the Kings and Queens than in the book, but he certainly doesn’t seem to believe in Aslan.
It wasn’t until I read a very perceptive observation by Ken Brown that I really understood what Greydanus meant—and maybe I even started to understand why there are such divergent Christian responses to the film’s faith themes.
Ken first clarifies that the film’s Trumpkin “never really disbelieves that the old stories are true; he only doubts their present value.” Trumpkin wonders why the Kings and Queens—as well as Aslan—“abandoned” Narnia for 1300 years, and he seems less doubtful of Aslan’s existence than of his goodness or relevance to contemporary life in conquered Narnia.
But here’s what really brought things together for me: Ken goes on to say, “But, personally, I’m not as troubled by this as others have been, as I think real faith has a lot more to do with trust than with belief anyway. Thus Trumpkin’s (and others, including Peter’s and Caspian’s) lack of trust in Aslan is actually a more realistic, and troubling, form of doubt than his simple disbelief in the book. If the movie gives less ground than Lewis’ original for letting us cheer the comeuppance of the disbelieving materialists, it provides a more nuanced exploration of the danger of lack of trust – in each other and in Aslan – among the ‘faithful.’ To me, this seems of greater value in our postmodern context than the attack on modernism that Lewis intended.”
I see the film addressing issues of faith because my own faith struggles—and those of my peers—have been much more of the postmodern/trust variety than of the modernist/belief variety. I’ve never really questioned God’s existence, but I do struggle with trusting God. If things are going well for me, I may be tempted to think God is irrelevant; if things aren’t going well, I may doubt his goodness, but not really his existence.
This was not C.S. Lewis’s struggle. He was more plagued by Enlightenment (or modernist) rationalism that argued away the existence of God based on “fact.” Sure, we still have our Richard Dawkinses today, but by and large I think we in the prosperous West are less likely to disbelieve the existence of the supernatural than we were in the 1940s.
In the postmodern context especially, it makes sense to include Peter’s and Caspian’s temptation by the White Witch. The occult holds greater appeal in an age that doesn’t question the supernatural but does question God’s supremacy. (Not that there wasn’t a sort of thrill to the occult as the dark flipside of Enlightenment rationalism—the pre-conversion Lewis himself felt this appeal, even when he was denying the existence of God—but it was the appeal of that which has been repressed, rather than the appeal of a seemingly valid and equal alternative to Christian belief, which is where postmodernism places the occult.)
I don’t want to imply that I see the movie differently from many Christian critics because they’re “modern” and I’m “postmodern,” because I’m sure it’s not that simple. For starters, I think most of us are mixes of postmodern, modern, and even pre-modern qualities—just in different ratios. All I can say for sure is that the movie’s faith struggles are much closer to my own and those of my generation than the faith struggles in the book.
That’s not to say that I like the movie better than the book or that the movie is without flaws in its treatment of faith. Like other reviewers, I was bothered by the alteration of Aslan’s lines, though I’m not sure that the screenplay writers are aware that changing a few words has vast theological implications. I wish they could recognize the difference, but my guess is that it’s an issue only perceptible to those already on the “inside” of Christian language.
So what do you, our readers, think? Is your opinion of how well the Prince Caspian film addresses faith a reflection of your own struggles? If your obstacles to belief have been more of the “modernist” variety, can Prince Caspian help you to better understand the “postmodernists” around us, even if you dislike the film? And, postmodernists, does reading the book Prince Caspian help you to understand those who doubt God’s existence—or attempt to prove his existence—on the basis of reason and fact?
Very intersting Carissa, I will have to keep this in mind as I go to see the film…since I haven’t yet. I’ll let you know what I think after I see it.
I think another answer to the wide and broad level of criticism against the film from Christian circles is this: Christians want desperately to find error in mass media presentations of “their stuff.” There’s a whole boatload of the psychology here that I could talk about but in the end it comes down to one simple thing: Christian commentators are nerds.
When The Lord of the Rings was filmed, Middle-Earth geeks were horrified that Peter Jackson discluded Tom Bombadil (a.k.a. The Most Important Thing Tolkein Did). When Daredevil hit screens, the fact that Wilson Fisk was black was a more egregious blow to the comic faithful than perhaps Ben Affleck’s inclusion in the work. When Keira Knightley essayed her own interpretation of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Austin fans winced because Ol’ Chiseljaw simply was not the Lizzie they knew and loved.
And when C.S. Lewis books get translated to film (a less cinematic fantasy series is hard to find), the Narnia nerds howl. As will the Christian nerds—those who are only so-so fans of the writing but are huge fans of Christian themes.
No matter how much a film gets right in its interpretation of its source, the geeks will become overwhelmed by what didn’t match up to their own vision of the source. A big part of this is their relationship with the source. While they can bear others loving the material truly, madly, and deeply, they cannot abide those who would love something the easy way. Loving LOTR the movie does not count as loving LOTR. One must love and be devoted to the books. A lover of the movie alone is a false lover because such a lover does not know and has not experienced the real thing.
Christian critics are almost necessarily geeks for their cause. So they need the Chronicles to fail, to be failures. They might talk about how they want there to be awesome Christian movies in theaters, but when films with vaguely overt Christian themes are made from intentionally Christian material, they cannot bear it and must find the flaws.
Of course, many of the same critics will bend over backwards, desperate to find redemptive themes in media like Evan Almighty and Harry Potter. Go figure.
Poor nerds. Life will always be rough on them because they wouldn’t have it any other way. Devotion bought without persecution is hardly devotion at all.
The Danes last blog post..20080505
Hmm . . . most Christians I’ve encountered seem to think Peter Jackson is the best thing since sliced bread.
The Dane wrote: “Christians want desperately to find error in mass media presentations of “their stuff. … Christian critics are almost necessarily geeks for their cause. So they need the Chronicles to fail, to be failures.”
Or maybe we just care about C.S. Lewis and his work, and we don’t want his name at the top of a movie that misrepresents his theology.
But you can sneer and put us down if you want.
What a gross, unfair generalization. I have yet to meet a Christian film critic that fits that description.
Why is it, do you suppose, that we celebrate when these films do things well?
Dane, I’m gratified by your positive comments about my work.
Like Jeffrey, I can only disavow the motive you ascribe to critics who are critical of the Narnia films. Perhaps there are snarky critics who find fault as a form of identity politics, who “need” the movies to fail. Such a mindset is, I firmly insist, the furthest thing from my own.
Nothing would please me more than to praise these films to the skies — and I’ve gone to significant lengths to make very clear that my objections are NOT those of an “annoying purist” (as you describe yourself, not me!) unwilling to countenance revision. I’m quite open to revision where appropriate and helpful; in fact, some of my most positive comments were precisely where the filmmakers diverged from the book.
I’m glad you found Ken Brown’s explanation illuminating… but a little puzzled that you found the sentence you quoted any clearer than my observation that “Worse, Trumpkin — in Lewis an archetypal lovable skeptic (compare to MacPhee in That Hideous Strength) whose heart knows better than his head — no longer shows any sign of disbelieving the old stories. This Trumpkin appears to believe that Aslan and the Pevensies were real in their day, but abandoned Narnia long ago, leaving the Narnians to fend for themselves.” Perhaps my review is simply too long, the analysis lost in too much verbiage? ;-)
At any rate, since I gave the film a B-plus / three stars, I can’t very well be accused of “hating” it.
Um, it seems like there may be some confusion here between my article and the Dane’s comments. I wrote the article; the Dane wrote the second comment here and nothing else (so far!).
Sorry for the confusion, which I think is all mine. You’re right, in scrolling back and forth between the post and the combox I lost track of who wrote what, and conflated responses to your post and the Dane’s comments.
So, if I’ve got it straight now, to you go my thanks for your kind comments, and my slight confusion about why most review puzzled you until you ran across Ken’s post.
And to the Dane go my and Jeff’s disavowals of the motives proposed for Christian critics’ resistance to the Narnia films.
Thanks for the insightful commentary. I, too, was struck by comments from fellow Christian critics. Most, I believe, liked the movie but others really had unrealistic expectations. If you have time, check my own comments at http://anamchara.blogs.com or the newspaper article at
Thanks for this intriguing thread and let’s hope the movie continues to do well.
Msgr. Eric R. Barrs last blog post..PRINCE CASPIAN: DOES THE FILM DO JUSTICE TO THE BOOK?
Steven (if I may),
Do I get credit for being the “annoying purist,” too? :) I am a terribly inconsistent one, though . . . really just about LOTR.
Anyway, I wasn’t confused by your words, but rather puzzled by the differences in my perceptions and yours (and many other Christian critics’) in regard to the presence of faith themes in the movie. Ken’s comment helped me put a label on what I had seen in the movie–I probably respond especially well to labels like “modernism” and “postmodernism” because I’m an academic and tend to think in terms of periods and movements . . . probably also because I’ve just spent several weeks discussing modernism and postmodernism with my literary theory students! Anyway, rest assured that my puzzlement had nothing to do with your writing.
Hey all. Sorry to be tardy with the response to all your fine reactions. Been a bit indisposed. Anyway…
@Carissa – I wasn’t saying that most Christians were perturbed by the Jackson films, but only the Middle-Earth geeks. When Fellowship came out, I heard several complaints about the exclusion of Tom Bombadil. When Two Towers came out, I heard from certain nerdy quarters ill-feeling regarding the fact that Shelob would be put off until the third movie. When Return came out, even I (being a Tolkein nerd-lite) was saddened that there would be no scouring of the Shire (a.k.a. The Best Thing Tolkein ever Wrote). So yeah, not a Christian-nerd thing but a Tolkein-nerd thing.
@Jeffrey and SDG – Be assured, there was no sneering going on. Just an attempt to look at the reason that such unhappiness with Disney’s Prince Caspian could be entirely expected.
There are other possible explanations for why one would care so deeply that a movie based on C.S. Lewis’s work should represent so accurately his theology, but by far the most common I think is that such a one is a nerd for Christian themes. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that kind of fanaticism, but anytime one has such a personal investment in an aspect of a work, he or she risks losing perspective where their investment is concerned.
Rather than take the movie as a movie and evaluate it as simply that, the Lewis nerds and the Christian theme-nerds are bound by their need for the movie to be as exact a reproduction as possible (or perhaps even more exact than possible). I’m not saying that they are wrong to do so. But I think life would be kinder to them if they were able to simply view the films for what they must be rather than what they imagine them to be (i.e. faithful renditions of their beloved sources).
In the end, if it were that these two Chronicles films were created in a world in which there had been no C.S. Lewis, if they were simply their own thing, I imagine Christians would be far more receptive to the themes the films present. And might even be enamoured with them. After all, we’ve seen similar praise heaped upon the Potter franchise – which is not half as Christian as The Chronicles.
The Danes last blog post..20080505
Ok I think I’m caught up now. This is a group blog of different people. :O) Great articles. I wonder what your tea thinks about this review by a 17 year old Christian girl?
Sisterlisas last blog post..The Daily Newsroom: Interviews with EXPELLED Expellers Round 2
Carissa: Thanks. FWIW, I never said I’m not an annoying purist. :) Just that my objections as a critic aren’t those of an annoying purist. As a critic I take seriously my responsibility to evaluate the movie the filmmakers made rather than the movie I wish they had made. That doesn’t mean I’m not capable of being as annoying as any purist when it comes to stories I love. But I’m also capable of being flexible too, and contrary to the Dane’s proposal I would always rather love an adaptation of something I love than not love it. (The adaptation, I mean.)
Dane: FWIW, I think my modus operandi on adaptations generally falls within a reasonably consistent range, whether I’m deeply devoted to the source material or not. I generally try to judge the film for what it is, with commentary on the fidelity or deviations from the source material as a supplementary exercise.
In another forum, I recently enumerated the questions I may consider in evaluating an adaptation:
* Is the movie any good as a movie, without reference to the source material?
* Is the movie any good as an adaptation? Does it honor the source material?
* Is the source material any good? Is it worth honoring?
* Where the movie deviates from the book, do the deviations honor the source material, subvert it, or neither?
* Is the choice to honor, subvert or otherwise depart from the source material a good choice or a bad choice?
* When and where the movie deviates from the book, whether honoring or subverting, does it make the movie better, worse, or just different than not deviating would have done?
My thinking here is, for evaluative criticism, the first question overshadows all the rest, and a critic evaluating and rating a film ought to lay emphasis on that question.
@SDG – I think those criteria for evaluating adaptations as well as the way in which you propose to weight them are probably pretty good, since the primary aim of a movie should probably be to succeed on its own terms. I also think that the evaluation of good and bad choices is probably to greater degree the purview of the reviewer than it is of the critic, but that most of your questions regarding the relationship between an adaptation and its source (e.g. where and how a film honours or subverts or ignores its source) are well within the boundaries of those interested in film criticism. And such discussions can be both interesting and enlightening—while having little to do with the actual quality of a film.
Also, you probably shouldn’t take too personally any remarks I made about those who do find themselves perhaps over-invested in the question of the film’s representation of either its source or Lewis’ theology. After all, if the shoe doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. There are others for whom it probably does.
The Danes last blog post..20080505
the makers of Prince Caspian kept to the original story in some ways and strayed in others… i heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case
patricks last blog post..The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
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