Prince Caspian

Can Hollywood Be Restrained?

Suspense Drives the Book, Not Instant Gratification

January 7, 2008
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Sometimes it seems to me that one generally unnoticed impact of instant gratification on our society comes in its toll on storytelling. In an age that wants everything microwavable and instantly digestible, there’s sometimes little room for slow exposition and that crucial component, suspense.

Suspense is an elusive element generated by delayed gratification. Pose a question and then fail to answer it—continually—and you might just arouse enough interest for people to take notice. M. Night Shyamalan was able to do it at least once, in The Sixth Sense. J.K. Rowling managed to pull it off seven times in the masterful Harry Potter series. But most writers and filmmakers just can’t seem to get their minds around the concept. It just doesn’t mesh with their view of what audiences want, I suppose.

One prime example of this, to me, was the butchering of the “Mines of Moria” episode from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in in Peter Jackson’s film version. Tolkien’s chapters “A Journey in the Dark” and “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” are among my favorites in the book, mainly because of the sense of quiet but growing horror that builds as the fellowship treks through the dark, silent, and seemingly empty caves of Moria, seeking the last remnants of the dwarf kingdom. Uneasiness grows as nothing happens—continually. On and on they walk, Gandalf nourishing the hope that perhaps the dwarves are still alive somewhere in the darkness, while the others feel as though they are simply going deeper and deeper into a suffocating crypt.

That hope of contact is dashed when they find Balin’s tomb. It is only as they read the remains of Ori’s ruined diary that Gandalf recognizes he has led his friends into a trap: not only are there orcs hiding in the caves, but something older, darker, and more ancient. Gandalf’s climactic battle and fall to his apparent death are masterful payoffs to the carefully set up scenario where the seemingly unbeatable wizard unconsciously chooses his fate. The revelation of the Balrog of Morgoth is a twist that works mainly because the atmosphere of horror has been so well nurtured and prepared.

Jackson completely mishandles this scene in the movie: first of all, he has Gandalf being openly unwilling to go through Moria because of something he has pointless and unexplained scruples about revealing. “I would not go into the Mines of Moria unless there were no other way,” he demurs.

Then, not only does Jackson give away the ending by having the secret doors of Moria open onto a cache of rotting dwarvish skeletons in a cheap B-movie shot; he also decides to open the whole sequence by having Saruman the evil wizard cackling to himself about how Gandalf knows Exactly What is Hidden in the deep dark cave. And to crush any last remnants of wonder, Jackson has Saruman bring out his photo album of Balrogs to show the movie audience just so they’ll be sure to understand what’s lying in wait for our heroes. Sigh.

Which brings me to a similar fear I have about the movie version of Prince Caspian. One overlooked feature of the story is the complicated exposition that C. S. Lewis manages to pull off in the second book of the Chronicles, subtitled The Return to Narnia.

The Pevensies puzzle over their environs in Prince CaspianThe first three chapters are actually almost a detective story: the four children are in the most humdrum circumstances possible, as opposed to the scenario in the last book. No longer hiding out from bombs in London, they are back in peacetime and on their way to school. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, they are pulled off the train platform and into someplace that they feel should be Narnia. But it’s not.

And Lewis manages to keep you guessing. There is no lamppost, no snow, no sign of anything magical. Just trees. And a deserted seashore. They don’t recognize where they are at all. Instead of being invited to tea by a faun, they confront hunger and thirst right away and are forced to stop acting like schoolchildren and start thinking like the resourceful former adults they were when they left Narnia. Thus they are forced to act like Narnians without even being sure that they are in Narnia, a masterful stroke.

Lewis keeps the plot moving as the children discover the apple orchard. the old courtyard, and finally the treasure house of Cair Paravel, where they recover their gifts and recognize that they are really and truly back in Narnia. But by this time the answer opens up far more questions: what has happened to Narnia? Where is everyone they knew before? And why have they been brought back?

Just as the children come to the conclusion that some thousand years must have passed in Narnian time since their last visit, they spot two men in a boat throwing a bound dwarf into the water. They rescue the dwarf, who is able to at last tell them what’s going on: and in the process, Lewis begins to tell the backstory of Prince Caspian and his rediscovery of Old Narnia, a second story that, because of its limited viewpoint (Caspian’s), also raises as many questions as it answers.

Who are the Telmarines? How did a human-centered and unmagical people such as they come to rule over a land like Narnia? Whatever happened to the dwarves, fauns, dryads, and naiads who lived there before? Both the children and Caspian are young heroes confronted with a world that should be magical and apparently isn’t, at least not any more. What in the world could have happened? And how can they bring the magic back?

The story of how this group of five young heroes brings the magic back to Narnia is one worth hearing. But it requires a slow buildup. It’s not until chapter eight, halfway through the book, that the backstory is over and the children have enough pieces to realize what the situation actually is and what has to be done.

And something tells me that this complex and thoroughly delightful mystery story within a fantasy setting is going to get lost in the mazes of Hollywood bureaucracy.

Prince Caspian and the baddiesI have a feeling that movie executives are going to be antsy about waiting until a third of the way through their movie before introducing the titular character. And as for putting off the statement of the main problem until halfway through the movie, I seriously doubt it will happen.

I have a sinking feeling that what we’re in for is a quick exposition: kids back in Narnia, cut to the chase: they meet up with Caspian, who explains his backstory in less than three minutes—and then on to two hours of battle sequences and CGI animation, where the final end will clearly be in sight the entire time. Deep sigh.

And it’s a shame, because the convoluted exposition and storytelling of Lewis’s Prince Caspian really does work in the book. And it could work in the movie, if someone were to be confident enough in the story to let it be as it is.

I also worry because the problem of Prince Caspian—how to bring magic back into a world that we instinctively feel should be magical and full of wonder, and yet isn’t—is a problem that young people who will watch the movie still have to face today. And older people too, for that matter. Prince Caspian isn’t a story about saving a fantasy world, about “making us care again” about Narnia. It’s a story about saving our own world, about trying to bring the magic back when atheism and materialism and pragmatism have tried to banish and outlaw it for good. And the solution to the problems of both worlds is found in following that elusive and increasingly mysterious lion, Aslan.

I hope that this message doesn’t get lost in translation either. But something tells me, if they couldn’t get the Mines of Moria right, how could they get this?

Still, we can always hope. Regardless, my family and I will be at the theater on May 16 to find out.

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credit: TheMovieDB.org

Regina Doman specializes in writing books based on fairy tales, including most recently, The Midnight Dancers, a novel for teens and adults based on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." (See www.fairytalenovels.com.) She also writes, edits, and oh yes, is helping her husband raise their seven children in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She’s a member of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, and can be reached via www.reginadoman.com.

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