December 2, 2020

A Voyage To Avoid

There is a scene early in Voyage Of The Dawn Treader—the third movie installment in the Chronicles of Narnia series—where Edmund has just arrived in Narnia to meet King Caspian sailing aboard the Dawn Treader. Edmund asks Caspian, “Why are we here?”

It’s a question I asked myself over and over while watching this disaster.

I am not really qualified to review movies. iMonk writer Adam Palmer is much more verse in what makes a great movie. He could tell you all about the director and what other movies he’s made. He could tell you about the actors and what other films they’ve been in. But Adam isn’t seeing the show until tomorrow, so I am taking it on myself to warn you: Don’t waste your money or time on this.

The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is my favorite of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia. There is a reason for Edmund, Lucy and Eustace to be in Narnia: Aslan has them on a journey to know him. The adventures they go through cause them to realize their dependence on Aslan. And as they leave Narnia to return to our world, they now have a desire to meet Aslan here.

At the end of the movie, Lucy asks Aslan if she will see him in her world. Aslan answers that she will. “But there I have another name,” he says. “You must learn to know me by that name.”

You have now heard just about the only thing the movie has in common with the book.

Disney distributed the first two movies—The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian—but passed on this one for cost reasons. Fox 2000 signed on, but gave orders to keep costs under control. I never thought $150 million could be called “low budget,” but this has all the feel of a low budget film. You would think there were more than two dozen residents of the Lone Islands, but that was apparently all the extras they could afford. And Dufflepuds? Six. A grand total of six. Other elements are equally as cheap.

I could live with these aspects. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me too much. There are two things that did bother me, and bother me so much I am writing now to vent.

First is the lack of integrity of the movie to the story in the book. C.S. Lewis created characters with depth. Caspian is on a voyage to find seven lords who had been faithful to his father. Edmund and Lucy are continuing to grow as king and queen. Eustace–well, Eustace needs to have his world turned upside-down. And Reepicheep is on his way to Aslan’s country. The movie version starts with Caspian seeking the seven lords, but it quickly changes to a search for seven magical swords that, once they are all placed together on Aslan’s table, will defeat an evil green mist.

That’s right—an evil green mist is threatening to take over the whole sea. Maybe all of Narnia. Ramandu’s daughter tells Caspian and crew that the evil mist is almost to a point where it can never be stopped. Character development? Who needs character development when you can fight an evil green mist. Most everyone in the movie is no better than a two-dimensional character. For instance, Reepicheep, who in the book is brave and valiant, is a mixture of Kung-Fu Panda and Mr. Rogers in the movie.

And the story itself is so different, if the movie and book didn’t share the same title, I would wonder if they were the same. There are elements of the book that show up in the movie, but out of order, in totally different settings (the pool that turns things to gold? It’s underground. And apparently it doesn’t affect the skin of the children, as they pick up things that have been in the water without their hands turning to gold.), and with different results. Other than the fact that this takes place on a boat, there is very little the movie has in common with the book.

But this complaint pales in comparison with the absolute travesty of what happens to the theology of the story.

Lewis did not set out to write books of deep theology. As a matter of fact, Aslan was not originally planned to be a part of the books. “He forced his way in,” said Lewis. In spite of this, the Narnia series contains some of the deepest and best-presented insights into God’s character and how we can be formed into the image of Jesus I have ever encountered. The word “theology” (which simply refers to how we think about God) scares many. Yet somehow Lewis is able to convey deep theological thoughts in a children’s book series. Unfortunately, those deep thoughts are not included in the movie.

Instead, we are treated to, well, not much. “Avoid temptation,” we are told. (What is there to tempt the sailors at sea, other than to throw Eustace overboard?)  There is a scene where we see Susan, Edmund and Peter with no Lucy. Lucy has spoken a spell to become as beautiful as Susan and in doing so has wished herself out of existence. Fortunately, it’s only a dream. But Lucy learns her lesson: Be yourself. Wow. That is some deep theology there.

Two of my favorite parts of the book are absolutely destroyed in the movie. First is Eustace becoming a dragon. Sure, he turns into a dragon after putting the bracelet on his arm. And he stays a dragon long enough to fight the sea serpent. Ok, so they fudged that part to create some action. But when it comes time for Eustace to be “undragoned,” the book has Eustace try to scrape off his own skin. After three attempts, he sees he can’t do it, and he has to submit to Aslan’s claws—a very scary proposition. But in the movie, Eustace the dragon scratches his belly, Aslan paws at the ground, and Poof! Eustace is once again a boy.

(Let me illustrate the depth of the theology in the book. Early this year I was going through a terrific struggle in my soul. I met in our church’s prayer room with Adam Palmer. “Adam,” I said, “I’m surrendered to the Lord.” “Yes,” he said, “I know you’ve surrendered to the Lord’s will. Now, will you surrender to his claws?” We both knew what he was speaking of—the claws that tore at Eustace’s dragon skin were the claws I needed to surrender to.)

My other favorite scene in the book is when Lucy reads the magician’s book. There she encounters a story that delights her heart. Afterward she couldn’t remember the story other than it was magical and made her feel so good. When she turns the Dufflepuds visible again, Aslan also becomes visible and tells Lucy that he will be telling her that story for the rest of her life. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love that. I long for Jesus to be telling me that story the rest of my life as well.

In the movie? Lucy speaks a spell to make it snow inside. Why? To create some scene that could be made 3D in order to be able to charge an extra couple of bucks for the 3D version. (I saw it in 2D. There is no reason for this to be in 3D. None.)

As for Aslan, he barely has a cameo role here. At the end, Reepicheep requests to sail over the giant wave to Aslan’s country. Aslan responds, “My country is made for those with noble hearts.” Oh, so that’s who can enter the kingdom of God, huh? Those with noble hearts. Whatever happened to sick sinners?

Ok. You can tell I don’t like this movie. Not one bit. Not because of production values. Because they destroyed an incredible story. And more than that. They took a book with rich theology and turned it into self-help, if-you-try-hard-enough-you-can-destroy-evil crap. And that is as nice as I can put it.

Look. Our life is not about us becoming better people. About us “being ourselves.” Being ourselves is what got us into this shape we’re in. We are to become like Jesus. In the books, Aslan stands above all. We know that evil cannot overtake him, not even an evil green mist. If you want to go watch the movie, waste two hours and twenty bucks or so, fine. But don’t buy into what the movie is selling. Our salvation is in Aslan, not in our becoming better people.

I can only hope that this is the last of the Narnia movies. Read the books instead.


  1. I certainly agree with you that Voyage is my personal favorite of the series, if not my favorite book ever. And the dragon scene is what really made the book for me too, ever since I first read in in Jr. High.
    Why is it that tragedies like this consistently happen when profound books are made into movies? I ain’t gonna lie to you; I will probably still watch it. No matter how rotten it is done, out of loyalty to the book, and like an enormous train wreck, you know it’s awful but you can’t look away. I will, however, wait until it comes out on netflix.
    I have a somewhat duller sense of theological perception than the iMonk writers. Tell me, do you feel the first two movies were as dismal failures on an idealogical level as this one? I hardly remember watching them either…

    • A couple hours later and that illustration about the claws is still rattling around in my brain.
      Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, right? One way or another, it will involve the claws of a lion.

      • Miguel, it has been seven months now for me and the illustration comes to mind most every day. Yes, I am happy to surrender to his will. It’s surrendering to his teeth and claws that is so hard…

  2. This was by no means a great movie, but I think it was the best of the series so far As family entertainment goes, one could do much worse. It may encourage some to read the book.

    • MelissaTheRagamuffin says

      That is the only positive that can be said about the movie – it might encourage some to read the book.

  3. I think one has to approach a movie version of any fantasy novel as something entirely separate from the book.

    When we read fantasy our imagination supplements the written word. In a way it becomes our own private world. Movies are collaborative ventures. Every detail is orchestrated in this collaborative effort. But in collaboration it seems that often the very elements that make the story special get diluted or lost It almost becomes like an interpretive dance of the book. When executed really well, which rarely happens, it becomes something special in its own right, yet it never replaces the book. At least I cannot think of a single movie treatment that has.

    A long time ago I decided that if I compared the movie version to a favorite book, I would always be disappointed.True even with The Lord Of The Rings series. The books are still better.

  4. I first must admit that i havent seen the film – it doesn’t get released here in England quite yet. However, when I do get to see it, I will be judging it on its merit as a film, not as a theological book or how it relates to the story. With a story as disparate and unfocused (this is not a bad thing) as Voyage, it would be difficult to transcribe it into the cinematic form, and certain changes are inevitable.

    Secondly, this is art, not theology, and its primary function is to work as a film. The theology, philosophy, social commentary is all secondary.

    However, i hope that there is some more character development in the film than you have described, because character development is essential for a film

    • Sadly, not really. I thought the kid that played Eustace was just right.

    • I could have review this as “art.” In that case, I would simply say this is the worst of the three Narnia films by far. The script bounces all over the place. When the Dawn Treader is in the dark mist, Lucy calls for Aslan’s help. We see, very briefly, a large winged bird in the sky. Then we don’t see it again. What was it there for? (Remember, I’m just going on the movie.) When Eustace is “undragoned,” he scratches his belly, Aslan paws at the ground, and Eustace becomes a boy again. How did that happen?

      There is no character growth. There is no reconciling why Edmund, Lucy and Eustace are called into Narnia in the first place. There is no explanation of who the magician is or why he is on the side of good. Eustace does grow and change, but we really don’t see the how and why of it.

      Production values are very poor. The sea serpent scene is hardly suspenseful or believable. Neither is the green mist. Set design is poor at best.

      If they had been true to the story, I would have given them a pass on all this. As to theology in a movie, I wouldn’t get too worked up about it except this is Lewis and Narnia we are talking about. It is too near and dear to me to let it ride.

  5. Thanks for the review; it certainly saved me some money and confirmed my fears about my 3rd favorite book of the series (The Last Battle is 1st and The Horse and His Boy is 2nd). From a film-making standpoint The Dawn Treader has probably the most potential of the series. I’m disappointed, though certainly not surprised, that they butchered the story as badly as they did. Frankly I kind of hope that they don’t make any more films after this; I’m afraid what they’ll do to my favorite two.

  6. Thanks for this review. After what they did to Caspian, I’ve been afraid to hope they might get Dawn Treader right. I’m not understanding how they could be so spot on with Wardrobe – I love the movie version – but so off on the sequels. Maybe I’ll watch it on Netflix, but only if I work myself up to the disappointment likely to result.

  7. Thanks Jeff. Good grief. Fox and Disney. No wonder it’s Lewis in 21st C guise. Excellent advice – read the books instead – and, use your own imagination.

  8. I just read a review of this movie in the newspaper by Colin Covert and part of what he wrote is, “a potentially syruppy allegory becomes razzle-dazzle children’s entertainment, with the religious dimenions gracefully conveyed.” And he calls is “undeniably fun.”

  9. I totally agree. I did not state this as well on my blog . . . maybe because I was too lazy, but the things you point out are totally on target.

  10. Au contraire.

    The undragoning scene is there, and Eustace later explains when they’re on the little boat to Aslan’s country, that he had to take off his dragon self but couldn’t. Aslan had to do it. Doug Gresham was emphatic about that, that his undragoning was of grace. The director wanted to make it that Eustace had earned it due to his battle with the sea serpent, but Gresham, the stepson of Lewis, held his ground.

    It is true that this book doesn’t translate well to film. But then, Lewis didn’t do a direct allegory, either. He didn’t have Billy Graham do an invitation and Eustace pray the ‘sinner’s prayer.’ He gave the mystery in it in a way that it gets past the ‘watchful dragons’ that would reject a direct allegory.

    I saw it and understood. And many others will as well.

  11. The Horse and His Boy was always my favorite. Followed by the Silver Chair. I haven’t seen any of the Narnia movies. As with LOTR, I waited for the reviews before watching the films. I ended up watching all the LOTR movies because they were reasonably faithful to the books. I haven’t seen Narnia, and never will. Sad.

  12. As a mom who was dragged to far too many “family entertainment” movies that I found anything but family-friendly or entertaining, I just don’t think this movie was as bad as the rest of you found it.

    No, it is not a great movie. Nor is it close to the book. Still, the pace was much better than the first and likely to keep a child’s interest. And you won’t be forced to deal with questions about tasteless dialog as you’re walking out of the theater.

    I am saying this for the sake of parents who may be looking for a movie suitable for the whole family. You could do far worse. I also think there is enough in the movie to encourage some kids to read the book, which would be the best possible outcome.

  13. david carlson says

    havent seen it, but my daughter saw it Wed (thur?) night at Taylor, said it was good. But she probably hasnt read the books

  14. Eddie Scizzard says

    Fair enough review, but if the chief problem with this movie is that it fails to accurately reflect a theology that many people don’t accept, does that make it a “bad movie”?

    I mean, I have no desire to go to a movie and be “witnessed to”. If I know a film is going to try and convert me, I won’t go.

    So does the movie fail on its merits? Or simply because you don’t like it’s message?

  15. I kept wondering how they would navigate the um, controversial, political waters of The Horse and His Boy. At this rate, it doesn’t sound like they’ll get there. Maybe that’s okay, because I don’t think I could handle seeing The Last Battle butchered.

  16. Saw the film yesterday with several friends from local CS Lewis Society, plan to see it again. No, it’s not as good as the book, some parts are disappointing, some things don’t translate well, but it’s still worth seeing, IMHO.

    • Yeah, I agree with you. It wasn’t as good as the book, BUT, it really is worth seeing. (In fact, it is definitely worth seeing again).

  17. Beelzebub's Grandson says

    If it wasn’t for all the evangelicals, they wouldn’t have bothered making this.

    Or “Cats and Dogs 2.”

    • hey you can’ t pin cats and dogs 2 on us, next you’ll be trying to pin all the Police Academy sequels on us too

  18. Bit off-topic, but the image of the book cover in the article says ‘unabridged.’ Does this imply that there are abridged versions of Narnia? What would be the point of that? It’s not exactly Les Miserables we’re dealing with.

    Anyways, I find it interesting how people have such differing preferences when it come to Narnia. Everyone has different favorites, as you can even see in these comments, and yet no-one insults other people’s favorites. Generally, a consensus forms in fandom about which installments are better or worse; sometimes factions develop. But with Narnia, it’s seen as being largely a matter of preference. The only pattern I’ve seen is that The Magician’s Nephew seems to be mentioned less than others. Maybe somewhat Prince Caspian as well.
    I think it’s because, in the Narniad, the difference between each book – in tone, themes, imagery – is so different. They aren’t continuations of each other so much as they are different visions.
    Personally, I believe with Michael Ward that this is because Lewis had a specific theme in each book he was trying to convey, based upon Medieval philosophy. But I’ve mentioned this idea here before to slightly chilly reception, so I won’t belabor it here.

    Anyways, sorry to be off-topic. I just find the unique way people tend to react to the Narniad mighty interesting.

  19. Here’s another interesting view of the film that seems to make some counterpoints to Jeff’s review:

  20. sir , you do a great disservice to discourage people from seeing this decent and enjoyable film. we need to support these films because they are going to continue cranking out gory, sexfest bloodbaths and we need an alternative. please consider my story: I wandered into the 1st narnia at the dollar theatre. never read the book. was blown away, delved into CS Lewis, the books analyzing cs lewis. Learned so much about faith, new insights, deepened my relationship with God, have been strengthened in my difficult life by keeping the “Narnian” attitude of courage in the face of overwheming odds through rock solid faith. became a naria fanatic at 45yrs old. took the enjoyable parts of the movies and filled in the blanks with the books. Narnia and cs lewis are a huge part of my life now and give me a deeper relationship with God. I am so grateful they help me bear my circumstances with a better attitude. You don’t know who else will miss out on this if you are inflexible and discourage people. Let them see it and make up their own minds, At the very least , it’s a lovely alternative to the raunch out there. Hollywood is watching closely at what we will support. You vote with your dollars. Support good!

  21. @Michele, I love the books and have loved C. S. Lewis’ works for years. I wanted to find Narnia in the back of the deep closets in my great-aunt’s old house in Maine. I have truly enjoyed the movies too. I am so glad you’ve discovered Lewis! I really enjoyed reading your post! I thought this blog post made some good points – I too noticed that Aslan said his land was for noble hearts, instead of as a gracious gift – but I still enjoyed the movie. I know no movie is ever going to accurately convey everything. This movie had enough for me. For Narnia!!!!!