Prince Caspian, BBC Adaptation
So we're finished with Prince Caspian the book, and we're two posts away from starting up Dawn Treader. ARE YOU EXCITED? I know I am; Dawn Treader was definitely my favorite book in the series when I was a child, and I'm interested in seeing how it holds up as an adult. (And a little concerned because I'm not sure what we'll find.) But as excited as I am to be moving past Prince Caspian and towards Dawn Treader and as excited as you may be, no one is more excited than the BBC adaptation department! Because it's clear watching their Prince Capsian adaptation that they were in a hurry to get past this sloggy slog of a book and into the real meat of the Caspian story -- the Dawn Treader -- as quickly as possible.
You may think I'm exaggerating in my usual lovable manner, but I'm actually not. Whereas LWW had a whole six 30-minute episodes devoted to it, PC has two. Huge swaths of the book are cut out, not so much because there's anything objectionable about those pieces as because (as we've already observed) not much happens in them. Lewis may have been able to squeeze four or five chapters out of aimless walking in the woods, but adaptationers faced with this task are going to throw up their hands in defeat because audiences aren't going to watch that. Peter Jackson was able to keep the action going by skipping over all the Tom Bombadil stuff and going straight to summoning up Ring Wraiths, but the BBC adaptation department in the 1980s didn't have that luxury. There are no Ring Wraiths in Prince Caspian, so instead they have to make do with belabored exposition and child actors.
In light of that, therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that not only is this adaptation packaged with Dawn Treader -- the full title for the disc is "Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader" -- but the opening sequence sets the stage for Dawn Treader with the children on the train station to go to live with the Scrubbs (or in the case of Peter and Susan, to be put on a bus never to be seen again until the Book 7 bus crash), and the second episode ends with Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace being sucked into the Dawn Treader painting. So if you're taking notes, this means that about 10 minutes of this 60-minute-long Prince Caspian adaptation is actually taken from the following book in the series. So of the remaining 50 minutes, what remains of the 15 chapters for Prince Caspian?
Not a lot, and yet somehow ... all of it.
I mentioned in my post for the BBC adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe that I watched these obsessively when I was a child, but rewatching Prince Caspian has made me question that memory somewhat. As starved as I was for entertainment of any kind -- as I recall, cable was a waste of good money, video rentals were a scam, and books needed to be on the church-approved reading list -- I find it hard to imagine that I could have watched the first two episodes of this adaptation with any kind of regularity, because they are awful. But now I've done that thing where I've hurled down the gauntlet and have to back up and justify that subjective thing I just said. So here we go!
Episode 1 opens with the Pevensie children racing across the train platform to grab the last available bench, and Lucy the Valiant hip-checks a little girl off the bench while shouting an obviously insincere "SORRY!" This was so abrupt I had to back it up and make sure that was what I had seen, and I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand: Dude! Not cool. On the other hand, it's sort of ... nice, I guess? ... to see the Pevensie girls allowed to show a little spirit and verve. It's a realistic detail, even if not an entirely appealing one. I guess we'll chalk that up to Not Perfect, Just Forgiven, and move on.
Anyway! Susan teases Lucy (with a good-natured twinkle in her eye) that her behavior isn't very queenly. And Edmund -- who never got any kind of character memos on how Redeemed!Edmund is supposed to be different from Sinner!Edmund (since Lewis never really bothered to write any) and who will therefore spend most of the movie in a quiet funk that seems to oscillate between sulking and self-flagellation -- tucks his chin down and says "I hardly ever think of those days now." Peter pipes up quickly and says, "Talk about something else."
I find this interesting. We've never really come to a consensus on how much the children remember Narnia and on whether or not they're missing it at this point. The book doesn't give us a lot of clues; Susan breaks down crying when she finds the golden chess piece, but the other children seem pretty blase about everything. There's even confusion about how much they remember: when Edmund starts treating Narnia like it's something out of Robinson Crusoe rather than, you know, his actual literal past, it's worth asking if maybe some memory alteration has occurred.
So it's natural that the BBC adaptation department will have to weigh in on this unanswered question, and they seem to have fallen on the side of memory alteration on the grounds that it's at least superficially less traumatic. None of this business with Susan sobbing into the grass of ruined Cair Paravel, since that will upset the children. Fair enough; I can roll with it. But it's interesting that it's Peter the Eldest who changes the subject abruptly here. I do like the actor for BBC!Peter, and I think he brings a lot of needed vulnerability to a role that could otherwise easily edge into smart-aleky territory. (And I like that BBC!Peter is shorter than BBC!Susan, which makes some sense considering the ages we're dealing with, if these two are on the cusp of puberty.) It almost seems like BBC!Peter here is conveying a sense of woundedness here, like he's changing the subject because it's painful for him. Given that this is a fan-theory for Peter's OH LOOK FRUIT! subject change in The Last Battle when the others are harping on about Susan, it lends a continuity of character that I like.
And yet that means we're already back in Confusing Land with the Fairies of Perpetually Cocked Eyebrows because INCONSISTENCIES! Why would they make Narnia nothing more than an teasing in-joke to the girls, a mere half-remembered dream to Edmund, and a matter of intense pain for Peter? And why strip out Susan's soul-aching sobs only to add this detail in here? My theory is that the BBC adaptation folks were so anxious to get through this slog that they let the children go with whatever character interpretations made sense to them: which is why Susan is quiet and thoughtful rather than The Worst (a blessed change), why Edmund is sulky and sad rather than a Fell Warrior (a confusing change), and why Prince Caspian over-acts in every scene he's in (a terrible change).
With that reference to Caspian's child-actor, we'll smoothly segue from the train station to young Prince Caspian.
OMG THIS KID IS AWFUL. That is a direct quote from my notes, I'll have you know. I don't know exactly why this kid is awful -- I'm not a professional actor, I couldn't do better myself, and I don't usually harbor dislike for child-actors -- but this particular child-actor is dreadful. Every face he makes looks contrived and unnatural, and it's impossible to look at him and not think this person is acting and he is acting badly.
But on reflection, I really don't know how much of this is Bad Acting and how much is Bad Writing; Caspian doesn't really have much of an established personality in the book, nor even an established age. Possibly our young actor is simply doing the best he can with the source material, but it's not pretty to watch. (Out of curiosity, I looked him up; his name is Samuel West and he's actually been in a number of respectable things as an adult, including a quick role in Van Helsing as Dr. Frankenstein. So on the very slight chance that Mr. West is reading this, I want it on record that I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here and assuming the source text is to blame. Update: Whoops! The child-actor in question is actually Jean Marc Perret; see Maddie's comment below.)
Anyway! Caspian is nine-ish, by my guesstimation, and his aunt waltzes on stage to be unnecessarily shrill and evil because I guess the BBC adaptation department felt like there wasn't enough misogyny in the series? Or maybe this is just to really super-duper underscore how harsh it is to be born a prince in a land where your people have genocided the inhabitants out of the picture: sure, you have a silver spoon in your mouth, but on the flip side your aunt is constantly nagging you for not being grateful enough. Harsh. And then Caspian is howlingly foolish because he keeps on telling Miraz about his nurse and her stories even after it's very clear that Miraz is frothingly furious. After which we cut to Caspian asking his tutor about the old stories and being super-oblivious to the fact that, dude, this conversation is not a safe one. You'd think this kind of behavior would make Cornelius hesitate about confiding in his impulsive young charge, but oh well.
They nip up to the abandoned tower for star-gazing and exposition, and it's noteworthy that the BBC -- who like to keep dialogue lines in-tact when they re-enact a conversation -- have yanked out the bit about Caspian being right to be scared of dwarves because non-Cornelius dwarves are totes awful people. And Caspian offers up another made-for-television tie-in to Dawn Treader by musing that he'd like to see "the eastern end of the world", which I thought was a nice touch.
BABY! ESCAPE! RIDING! BANDAGES!
And Trufflehunter is a girl! Oh my gosh, you guys! I am so excited about this, and I don't even really like Trufflehunter. But do you know how rare it is to take a semi-major character and say, "You know what? We need more women in this cast. Let's change this character to be female." Thank you, BBC. I almost forgive you for the random evilification of Aunt Prunaprismia. But then Caspian goes and ruins the moment by telling the Narnians that "Some of us in Narnia still believe in you." UGH. Dude, could you be any less sensitive to the whole invasion-and-genocide thing? Calling your people "some of us in Narnia" to actual marginalized Narnians is hella privileged.
Moving on! Not getting bogged down in details! Caspian meets Glenstorm the Centaur who can ... do magic. And provides a magical costume change for Caspian. And serves as Caspian's private pony. Whatever! And because you will not get any Bacchanal dancing later, you may have some now. Along with more over-acting from Caspian, who has started to order everyone about in an imperially bossy manner that I personally wouldn't expect would go down well from a 9-year-old boy to a group of hardened survivors who have spent their entire lives on the run from his people. But what do I know?
Cornelius shows up! They travel to Aslan's How! Miraz's troops block the way to the How, which seems surprisingly presentient of them? There is a battle! Trufflehunter coddles young Caspian and in the most soothing voice ever says "You've fought enough, sire. Go on, go inside. Hurry." If there is not cookies and milk waiting for Caspian inside, he is going to be really disappointed, because that is what that voice says to expect. And then there is the VERY GRIPPING HORN ARGUMENT, which BBC has apparently thoughtfully preserved in full for us. Thank you, BBC!
Another one of Lewis' Theologies gets tampered with here: the Pevensies go willingly. "We are wanted! We are called!" someone yells -- I think it's Peter -- and they all hop up from the bench, join hands, and disappear into the ether. None of this no-stop-it-no business from Susan. And then the kids are in Narnia. They pretty much immediately decide that the ruins of Cair Paravel look like a ruinous version of Cair Paravel, and Edmund offers that a year of England time is probably centuries in Narnia time and then ... we're done. We will never speak of this again. That's pretty much how the book treats it, too, but seeing it on-screen is almost surreal and underscores (to me) again that we're going with the Barely Remembers Narnia option, because it's the only thing that I feel fits the action.
And this is underscored again when we get to the Gifts.
Adaptation is a tricky thing, especially when you have a narrator who likes to address the reader directly. In the book, Lewis turned to the reader and explained that Edmund didn't have a Gift because he was off faffing about when Santa was handing out goodies. In order to preserve that here, though, the BBC adaptation team has to work that into the dialogue somehow. So Lucy asks Edmund directly where his gift is, and Edmund ducks his head and says "I didn't have any gifts." There's really only two ways to take this: either the Pevensies regularly ritually humiliated Edmund before heading out on trips ("Where is your gift again, Edmund?" would have been the joke, followed by peals of cruel laughter) or they've forgotten what they should have known very well already. The Gifts are the greatest treasures of their kingdom, and are practically symbols of their divine right to rule (despite coming from Santa and not Aslan); there's no way that Good!Pevensies wouldn't have been deeply sensitized to the whole Edmund-hasn't-got-one situation. So I'm going with this attempt to work narration into dialogue as another point in the Barely Remembers Narnia column.
Anyway! Trumpkin arrives! I'm pretty sure Susan kills a guy, but I could be wrong! Trumpkin is terribly amused that the great Kings and Queens have come back as children, which I have to admit is kind of funny in a laugh-lest-we-cry kind of way. (Not that the Pevensies aren't capable enough, just that they're so very much not what was expected. Imagine finding Strider in the Prancing Pony, but Strider is a 12-year-old boy, basically.) And Edmund grouses that Trumpkin doesn't give them proper credit for killing the White Witch, which strikes me as taking credit for something the kids didn't have that much to do with. I mean, they led the army and all, but Aslan gathered the army and Aslan did the killing of the Witch, and didn't they have a whole lot of other victories that could be mentioned here? Oh well, moving on.
Tromping! Lucy sees ... a picture of Aslan's face superimposed over some honking big cliffs, which is a bit odd. Edmund doesn't speak up in Lucy's favor, and we brush through this very quickly with very little of the OMG SUSAN AWFUL that pervades these scenes in the book. Amusingly, when Peter isn't quite sure of the way to go because the terrain has changed, Susan asks very gently "Are you sure?" and Lucy snottily interjects "No, he isn't." Ha. Again it's realistic and it's nice to see Lucy isn't a saint, but it's interesting to see BBC!Lucy able to get away with snark when book!Susan is raked over the coals for making logical and reasonable points.
We're nine chapters into a fifteen chapter book, so obviously it's time to step on the gas. Remember that this mini-movie will be over all of 25 minutes from now, after which Dawn Treader takes the reins.
Lucy meets Aslan in the forest at night, and he doesn't growl at her. Yay for Ronald Pickup's smooth tones and the BBC adaptation team feeling like an allegory for Jesus should maybe not be a tone-policing jackwagon. Then we entirely skip the Waking Up Everyone scene, and everyone just quietly follows Lucy without grumbling. Susan smiles a lot and keeps her mouth shut, and when she sees Aslan at the end of the road, she races forward crying "I see him! I see him now!" which is all kinds of sweet. SUSAN BLUB.
And Aslan feels like he'll never have a better opportunity to bully a dwarf, so he levitates Trumpkin and spins him around in the air because picking on people smaller than you is totes hilarious and the BBC weren't going to let 1980s technology keep them from having Aslan traumatize a perfectly innocent dwarf.
Then Aslan sends the boys off to foil the Nikabrik sub-plot, and BBC!Lucy -- who is all kinds of awesome for this -- complains, "Can't we come too? We can fight just as well as any boys."
Aslan chastises Lucy, saying very sternly: "You are not to fight. And they are not boys." And this is a really jerk move on his part, because he's basically using equivocation to win an argument against a 9-year-old. (Or however old Lucy is supposed to be at this point.) Aslan is saying that Peter and Edmund aren't boys because they're effectively Men with a capital-M: they're brave and strong and sure and true and capable regardless of how old they may appear. But that wasn't Lucy's point; she wasn't saying that she and Susan can fight as well as Peter and Edmund because of some arbitrary child/adult divide based on age and experience. Lucy was saying -- and Lucy is very probably right, given that Susan is a crack shot and Lucy has extensive battlefield experience a la The Horse and His Boy -- that she and Susan can fight just as well as anyone else in the area and should not be excluded because of their gender.
So Lucy is using "boys" as shorthand for gender, and Aslan is using "boys" as shorthand for experience, and in doing so he effectively obscures the fact that Susan and Lucy have the exact same experiences. If Peter and Edmund are "not boys" -- i.e., adults -- then neither are Susan and Lucy who are just as much adults as their male siblings. So basically Aslan is being a specious asshat in order to exclude Susan and Lucy from all the action, and Lucy can't call him on his equivocation fallacy because they haven't gotten to that in school yet. Nice.
This exchange, of course, isn't in the book because book!Lucy doesn't question being excluded from the fighting. But if she had questioned it, I suppose this argument might well have been used.
Nikabrik! I'm amused to note that Barbara Kellerman -- previously the White Witch -- reappears here as the cringing-yet-polite Hag. Probably this was casting economy, but it's nice to have her back just the same. And yet the realization that you really only need one woman if you want to make a Narnia movie is kind of saddening to me: outside of Kellerman as the Hag, the only other women in this movie is Prunaprismia and the woman voicing Trufflehunter, neither of whom are plot-critical characters.
No time to dwell on gender ratios! Caspian pulls his sword first, true to the book, and then chaos and fighting, and then Peter's "I have a plan". Edmund stomps out to read the challenge to Miraz, which is very awesome because Edmund does not look like a "fell warrior" by any stretch of the imagination. Miraz reasonably asks why Caspian isn't making the challenge, and Edmund blithely offers up that the prince is wounded, which is not something I think I would volunteer in this situation. Then Peter and Miraz fight and trash the camp because nobody bothered to rope off the duel area, and there is none of this time-out nonsense because we're burning daylight.
Peter wounds Miraz, and one of Miraz's generals hops in and completes the kill, and then there is a BIG BRAWL. And we cut to Aslan and the girls watching on a nearby hill, and then they stroll up, and um... the Narnians have won. Aslan and the girls were just observers. And so by cutting out all the ridiculous Bacchanal dancing, the BBC adaptation team have accomplished the impossible by making Aslan even less useful. LOL FOREVER.
And then we get a long conversation in which Reepicheep convinces Aslan to give him his tail back through logic rather than through the loyalty of the other mice, probably because adding that many extra actors wouldn't have been cheap. And I note here that BBC!Reepicheep is played by Warwick Davis, who went on to play Disney!Nikabrik, and is therefore probably the only actor on earth to appear in both adaptations of Prince Caspian. I wonder what Mr. Davis thought about his experiences on each set, and what his thoughts might be on wounded Mice and marginalized Black Dwarves.
There is absolutely no mention whatsoever of the Telmarine emigration -- instead, Aslan just sort of points out that there's an opening to England over yonder. And Peter takes the hint and says, "Goodbye, Aslan. We're not coming back into Narnia again, are we?"
"You are not and Susan is not.
You are getting too old.
Edmund and Lucy may come, perhaps."
And that's it. You are getting too old. At least, and I cannot believe I am saying this, but at least the Disney version has Aslan affirm that Peter and Susan have done good things for Narnia and this banishment is in no way intended as a punishment. But here, now, Peter and Susan are "getting too old" and this natural state of affairs is presented as almost a crime. Because, let's face it, being permanently banished from a wonderful magical fantasy world that you love -- and Peter and Susan do seem to love it, based on their actions in the text and their willingness to fight and die for Narnia and her people -- is a Bad Thing, a Hard Thing, even if it's for a good reason. Yet I think this reason is the worst of reasons, a sort of backhanded acknowledgement that Peter Pan was right and that we should never grow up because growing up means "getting too old" for the things we love.
Peter is whisked off to school, Susan is whisked off to America, and Edmund and Lucy are whisked off to stay at the Scrubbs, where they and Eustace will be yanked back into Narnia via a painting on the wall. The trip to the Scrubbs can't have been more than a few days travel at most, I would think, but we all know that by the end of the Dawn Treader adaptation, Edmund and Lucy will also be "getting too old".
Aslan likes them young, I guess.
Surprisingly, I don't really have a lot to say about the BBC adaptation of Prince Caspian. I actually have a lot to say about the Disney version, but I think this is partly because the Disney version pretty much rewrote the entire story. The BBC clearly tried to stick closer to the original, and while this approach can result in some lovely adaptations of truly good works, I think this is a rare example of a backfire.
If we were to outline Prince Caspian chapter-by-chapter, we would essentially get this:
- In which the Pevensies explore Narnia.
- In which the Pevensies explore Cair Paravel.
- In which the Pevensies save a dwarf.
- In which Caspian is a very little boy.
- In which Caspian leaves the castle.
- In which Caspian meets Narnians.
- In which Caspian blows the horn.
- In which the Pevensies leave the island.
- In which the Pevensies walk through the forest.
- In which the Pevensies walk through the forest.
- In which the Pevensies walk through the forest.
- In which the Nikabrik subplot is introduced and solved with violence.
- In which a duel is planned.
- In which a duel occurs.
- In which the Pevensies leave.
Every single one of those points occurs in this mini-movie. Every single one of those points -- along with a good deal of the pertinent conversation -- is covered in 50 minutes and it still seems like a slog to the finish. This is not an interesting movie. (I don't, for the record, recommend it.) It's a faithful movie, but it's not (imho) a particularly interesting movie, because there's not a whole lot that actually happens.
The funny thing is, I think this is a story that could easily work. But I think that in the absence of a compelling plot, we would need compelling characters. The Disney movie works well (imho), because the adaptationers decided to embrace the characters of Susan and Peter and treat them as respectably complex, and the result is a character-driven movie that works. But there are a plethora of other options that could also be explored.
Imagine this story from the point of view of someone like, say, Trumpkin -- caught between the misery you've known all your life and a fierce, burning, tiny hope that maybe things could be better. We've seen Trumpkin's character before, the dyed-in-the-wool rationalist who is trying not to get his hopes up, but who can't help but nurture a fragile belief that maybe there's a brighter tomorrow on the horizon. Maybe these Pevensie kids really are who they say they are, and really can work miracles. Maybe this Aslan god really does exist and could roll in to save the day. Maybe this Caspian guy really will turn out to be better than his forebears and will let Narnians live like Narnians. Maybe, just maybe, there might be a future for Trumpkin and his people.
That story could have worked, but Lewis didn't want to write that story. Instead he wanted to write the story where Trumpkin is attacked by god because he had the gall to not believe in him after he went AWOL for a measly 1,300 years.
Or imagine this story entirely from Caspian's point of view. Imagine him actually having to grapple with the guilt that comes from being the privileged son of genocidal invaders. Imagine his private relief at Trufflehunter's soothing words, coupled with his tortured knowledge that Nikabrik's criticisms are also just as true: it's not his fault, but he has benefited greatly from acts of great evil. Imagine a Caspian who really does work hard to correct his privilege, to be the Telmarine who saves Narnia, not because he's such an awesome good guy, but as an act of redemption. Imagine a Caspian who fights and dies not to be king, but to give Narnia back to the Narnians. Imagine a Caspian who has a "war council" because he really doesn't think he's fit to command the Narnians*, a Caspian who only comes to power in the end by popular election of a people who have come to trust and respect him and care for him as one of their own.
That story also could have worked, but then it would have had to acknowledge that people with privilege are privileged, and that Not My Fault! isn't an excuse for a failure to acknowledge that privilege and work to erase the gap that separates the marginalized people from privilege. It would have involved abandoning this Divine Right of Kings and Sons of Adam and Caspian Sperm-Heirs and asking hard questions about governmental legitimacy in a land where invaders vastly outnumber the invaded.
Instead, for better or worse, we have the story we have. A story in which four English children pop into a fantastical land in order to put a Telmarine boy on the Narnian throne because Narnia runs best when Narnians aren't in charge. A story where the marginalized persons who are undeferential to the privileged are Black or Malformed or Subhuman, and who are villains to be killed. And, of course, a story where ugly schoolgirls and insufficiently-worshipful schoolboys are terrorized because the author felt that a children's book was the best place to deal with his hatred of school-children.
All in all, not the easiest story to adapt to the silver screen. I suspect the BBC adaptation department did the best they could.
* Because for all Lewis' point about thinking you're fit to command being proof that you're not, Caspian was more than happy to order people about in the middle of a bloody great war. So thinking you're fit to order people to their deaths is Good, but thinking you're fit to manage a kingdom that did fine under the last utterly incompetent and irredeemably evil ruler is Bad.