Voyage of the Dawn Treader Film Thoughts: The “Voyage” is Bumpy, but the Destination Delivers

After my serious qualms with a few issues in the film version of Prince Caspian, it was with some trepidation that I sailed off to the theater to see the just-released Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader. For one thing, I knew PC had to be seriously re-worked to function as a film because of its narrative structure, and it’s not my favorite of the Chronicles anyway. VDT, on the other hand, has a big place in my heart, great journey structure, with plenty of fascinating stops along the way, and some fantastic moments of transcendence, including the heartwrenching scene in which Aslan tells Lucy she and Edmund will not return to Narnia. So I was concerned to see how the characters, plot, and most of all, the spiritual payoff survived the transition to the screen. There were some serious liberties taken, but, in the end, the Deeper Magic shines through. Follow me after the jump through the picture frame to get the whole story….

 That picture frame is our portal to Narnia in this film, as in the book, and it’s a magical moment that comes across beautifully on film. The sea setting makes for perfect movie fodder, but also unique challenges. The visual effects folks did not disappoint, and it doesn’t take long for the illusion of the ship at sea to seem completely real. I’m not terribly impressed with the 3D fad, and I think the beauty of the film will survive fine in 2D and DVD, though the effect is sometimes fun, particularly with the movement of the ship (and considering what these new 3D films cost, I wouldn’t blame anyone who opted for the cheaper route. A matinee ticket for an adult—11 bucks! And they want you to give back the glasses, shocking!)

 The acting is good, though Will Poulter, the amazing kid playing Eustace, doesn’t get enough screen time after his dragonish unpleasantness. He does a great job portraying spiritual transformation, but his lack of exposure does not bode well for prospects of The Silver Chair, in which he would be the only familiar face. Everyone else does well in roles that are often physically demanding and require one to act with non-existent CGI creatures. The Dawn Treader herself is gorgeous, lovingly recreated from C.S. Lewis’s description (and Pauline Bayne’s illustrations, which are featured in the credits). The junior engineer who went with me to the movie was particularly entranced with the way in which the ship seems to function as an actual sailing vessel. It also has wonderful little touches, such  as the huge carved owl below decks that is a salute to The Silver Chair’s Glimfeather, and the artwork in Caspian’s cabin that connects to the other stories.  I also loved that Eustace had numerous insects in jars and on cards and brags of his hygiene award; For Lewis, who feared insects and was not a  high maintenance guy, those would be as bad as that dreadful name Eustace almost deserves. The creature effects are particularly good this time out, easily taking the viewers into a world of talking Animals and mythological creatures. Reepicheep is especially well done, a great achievement since so much of the story revolves around his quest for the utter east. I do still think he’s too small, and though his chivalric nature shines through more clearly here than in PC, he is played for laughs far more often than I think appropriate (and certainly more than Reepicheep himself would think suitable). However, his facial expressions at the end of the film are fantastic.

 But as far as character changes go, Reepicheep’s comic moments are the least of the concerns readers and long-time Narnia visitors may have. Of course, there are some interesting characters added, including the Bull, a couple of fauns, and other non-human Narnians to liven up Caspian’s crew. Others are adjusted for film. For example, Ramandu’s Daughter never has a first name in the text. She is always the Lady, the Star’s Daughter, and later Queen of Narnia. This namelessness, to me, always  spoke of respect and power; her titles are impressive ones (to tie her in with her Miltonic literary roots, as I’ve argued before), but filmgoers like for people to have names, especially attractive ladies loved by a leading male, so she is now “Lilliandil,” a name created by producer Douglas Gresham (who really seems to be enjoying this film business, as he has a cameo as one of the Lone Island Slavers). Ramandu himself never makes an appearance, and Coriakin is never revealed in his role as former star.  The most interesting character changes, for me, were the addition of Rhince’s family (and I have to admit, until I heard this minor character’s name said over and over again, I hadn’t really thought of the fun connection with “rinse,” so perfect for a sailor and typical of Lewis’s name humor.) In the film, Rhince is from the Lone Islands and joins the crew to search for his wife, Helene (another nice name nod, as Helen is the first queen of Narnia; the name was also used for the Pevensies’ mother in LWW). His daughter, Gale (good wind name, but the Hunger Games connection is fun, too, as she’s darkhaired and gray-eyed, and then, there’s Dorothy Gale, whose Oz adventures have often been compared to the Narnian ones…) stows away aboard the Dawn Treader. I imagine this addition was to have more than one girl on board the ship so that Lucy doesn’t serve as the token female or something, and the child does provide Lucy some nice moments of mentorship, but her primary purpose in the story is because of the plot changes.

And it’s those plot concerns that had me scratching my head a few times through the film. As our Headmaster mentioned in his wonderful review of the first half of Deathly Hallows, movies thrive on conflict, conflict we can see and hear, so one of the challenges of adapting a book to film is finding ways to do that. Sometimes this is done quite effectively, like jazzing up the political intrigue and charades on the Lone Islands with fight sequences instead of diplomacy and making the Dawn Treader seem like part of a convoy. But then, the mist comes in. The mist is an added element that is used to create a big conflict, save-the-world element for the movie. Evidently, the quest to find the Missing Lords and the End of the World is not exciting enough, so the mist has been added. The Dark Island, which is an island of dreams (not daydreams, dreams) in the novel, is, in the film, a sort of evil beehive that sends out little green misty shoots anytime anyone is up to something naughty, as the Island is supposed to represent a great evil lurking in Narnia. Apparently, since the other two stories have a tyrant defeated at the end, the idea here is that we have to have a big bogey to battle at the finale.

Unfortunately, though there are some nice reminders about defeating the darkness and temptation within ourselves, this plot line requires some narrative re-arranging. For example, we visit Coriakin’s Island much sooner in the story (the invisibility effects are done nicely) and, though this section is terribly short, in it Coriakin sets up the whole “you must destroy the Dark Island” motif, as well as the charge that the swords of the lost Seven Lords must be laid at Aslan’s table (of course, neither of these is from the book).  Dragon Island and Goldwater Island are the same place in the movie, streamlining the action, but also cutting down on the number of stops on the tour, and some of  the less critical stops are eliminated, understandably. But where this plot scramble really becomes evident is toward the end, when the Dawn Treader’s final island stop is the Dark Island (even after Aslan’s Table) and the crew is tested by mental traps that have been taunting them all along the journey. The White Witch even shows back up to tempt Edmund (again). Honestly, did Tilda Swinton make a big donation to someone’s charity or something? Her back-from-the-dead cameos are becoming requirements! Here we have the requisite  Big Old Fight, as the Sea Serpent comes in, not as its own threat, but as a mental fear made real on the Dark Island(it’s Edmund’s thought that materializes, just like the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters!). Eustace, whose undragoning is delayed until nearly the end of the film, fights with the serpent in a scene that is visually impressive, but still made me think of old Japanese monster movies, like Godzilla versus Mothra). Clearly, this lets Eustace do some good (he also pulls the ship in a calm) as part of his character development, but the big fight scene is intercut with his transformation by Aslan, his magical relocation to Ramandu’s Island, and his struggle to place the last sword at the table. This whole sequence, to me, showed a really strong Pirates of the Caribbean  influence, from the pre-battle pep talk ala At World’s End to the placement of the final sword that looked suspiciously like dropping that last cursed doubloon in the treasure chest. As if that wasn’t enough familiarity, Edmund’s fight with the sea serpent is also something most of us have seen before, just on a ship this time instead of in the Chamber of Secrets. This sequence also rushes up Eustace’s transformation and eliminates the baptismal imagery.

Sounds pretty bad, no? Up to this point, I was not dreadfully impressed. The strong spiritual messages of the story had been watered down throughout, including losing Lucy’s reading of the spell for refreshment of the spirit, compressing the albatross episode, trimming down the un-dragoning, and removing the post-dragon Eustace’s conversation with Edmund (one of my favorites).

But then, redemption.

The last five minutes of the film suddenly veered back onto a course Narnians will recognize. The journey to the Very End of the World, lily-strewn sea and all, is so very different in tone from the big monster fight that I wondered if another writer or director had taken over. And there, in front of the big wave in front of Aslan’s Country, we get the nearly last few paragraphs of the book, almost verbatim. Aside from letting Caspian come along for the goodbye, the scene is nearly identical to the book, particularly in one vital respect. Aslan gets to make that pivotal declaration about his presence in our world when Lucy bewails the fact that she will not meet him again once she returns home. “There, I have another name.” Tears poured out from under my cheesy 3D glasses as Aslan proclaimed his identity and Lucy and Edmund bid farewell to their friends and beloved country, for here, the payoff worked gorgeously. The return to England is wrapped up nicely, with a teaser as Aunt Alberta calls that Jill Pole has come to see Eustace (though I doubt we’ll ever see Silver Chair or the other Chronicles emerge in this film series, it’s a nice touch, like the discussion of the end of time during Reepicheep’s farewell, that harks to The Last Battle). The closing shot, as Eustace narrates in a very different voice from that he used earlier in the story,  is Lucy closing the bedroom door, her face disappearing behind it and reminding us that the little girl who opened the door to the wardrobe will no longer return to Narnia. It’s a fantastic moment of closure, right after the perfect moment with Aslan. Even with the changes, and the mist and sword nonsense, here is a story we recognize, and those of us who know Aslan’s other name will find the end of the journey, like the waves at the end of the world, to be sweet.


  1. And that is why I’ll never see VODT. Too many of the changes would annoy me to no end & totally leave the redemption moments cold for me. I prefer the VODT of the mind & imagination of C.S. Lewis rather than one that has to be hacked & slashed up to work for a movie audience.

    And of course Lucy will never return to Narnia…in the movies at least since they’ll never get around to making The Last Battle. 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong, Prof. Hardy, I’m not disparaging your review. That is excellent. Thank you for putting it up.

  2. This is a superb review, Mrs. Hardy. You have the rare and precious gift of understanding, appreciating, and sharing these great works on a literary level AND on a visual scale in film. While films, as you so well expressed, cannot replace the experience of reading, they can most certainly provide another type of transcendent experience that enlightens, edifies, and delights. This gift is inestimably valuable in our culture, as film can often be used to introduce non-readers to the great works themselves. As a fellow reader, writer, and film lover/critic, I greatly appreciate your brilliant insights as I prepare to engage in this film myself.

  3. I saw the film last night with my 15 year old daughter Narniac and 17 year old son who knows the books well. I agree with Prof. Hardy’s assessment almost without exception; the film was watered down for the transition but we do get Eustace redeemed, Reep glorified, and the two united, so, as a trailer to the book — and that, folks, is all serious readers can hope for in a movie adaptation from text — VDT works.

    My children, in contrast, were much less forgiving. In a nearly empty theater, I’m afraid they must have upset someone with their laughter, “oh, c’mon!”s, and their several “really, was that [change] necessary?” I confess I joined them in shaking the head every time the green mist appeared.

    I hope to be writing a VDT review much like my recent ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1,’ in which I’ll go over three things the movies didn’t do that the text does because of the differences between book and film as vehicle of meaning, i.e., imagination versus sense experience.

    Until then, thank you, Prof. Baird-Hardy, for sharing this Narniac’s Guide to VDT the Movie!

  4. One more thing!

    I, too, thought, Edmund’s sword to serpent mouth was a hat-tip to Harry-Daniel in the Chamber of Secrets — with the bonus of the White Witch seduction-smoke recalling the much more recent Ron-Rupert encounter with the Locket Horcrux personal demons in HP 7.1!

    My two children said Caspian reminded them of the younger Johnny Depp…

  5. The professional Lewis community are going great guns to promote this movie lest the franchise die mid-stream, as Prof. Baird-Hardy suggests it must. I received this “Get out to the movie!” clarion call from Aslan’s Horn today from the CSL Society of California. I’m struggling to understand what “courage” has to do with this “get out the vote” message:

      “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
      —C. S. Lewis

    Dear John,

    The new film The Chronciles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has now hit theaters in the U.S. and worldwide, just in time for the Christmas season. Based on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’s widely acclaimed and popular book series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the film should absolutely not be missed! To make the film successful so that future films will be possible, word-of-mouth interest and box office attendance now is of enormous value, and the arrival of this new film will attract many millions of new people, young and old, to the world of Lewis’s work.

    Directed by Michael Apted, who also directed the fabulous film on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is produced by Walden Media and 20th Century Fox. The Royal Gala premiere in London was held on November 30th with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attending, and the American premiere was held in Lexington, KY.

    Noted C. S. Lewis scholar Devin Brown highly recommends the film:

      “I liked the new film adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader very much. It is exceedingly moving at times and also at times very funny. It has kept all that was essential to Lewis’s original while still opening up the story to be adapted to a different medium. I am convinced that Lewis fans—young and old, new and longtime—are going to like it very much as well.”

    Here are trailers 1, 2, and 3, and selected additional clips of various scenes from the film include the following:

    Here are audio clips from the soundtrack, and I am adding below additional sample comments on the film from Christian leaders and film critics.

    We hope that you will join with family and friends at a theater nearby soon to experience and enjoy The Voyage of the Dawn Treader!

    Best regards,


    David J. Theroux
    Founder and President
    C.S. Lewis Society of California

    “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader offers a splendid opportunity for the Christian community to support an outstanding portrayal of a much-beloved children’s book written by one of the great culture-shapers of modern times, C.S. Lewis.”
    —Philip Yancey, Editor at Large, ChristianityToday

    “This is a rip-snorting adventure fantasy for families, especially the younger members who are not insistent on continuity.”
    —Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

    “The themes of redemption and grace are presented in moving and memorable fashion. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is more than just action-packed—it’s inspiration-packed.”
    —Jim Daly, President, Focus on the Family

    “We were swept away by this best Narnia yet! With awesome beauty, fierce adventure and delightf;ul humor, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader rises from the printed page to the 3D screen. This is classic Lewis—Narnia returns!”
    —Steve Bell, Executive Vice President, Willow Creek Association

    “This is a film which will resonate deeply . . . . The spiritual content is what lifts a pure fantasy based on Homer’s Odyessy into the realm of allegory of the Christian life. . . . Highly recommended for audiences seven and up.”
    —Catholic Media Review

    “A worthy challenger to the far more popular Harry Potter pictures.”
    —Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

    “Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an exciting, well crafted roller coaster ride of holiday entertainment. In many ways, it is one of the best movies this year. Even so, fans of the book will find that the story has been changed in significant ways. . . . but it must be noted there is still a strong faith element, salvation theme and references to the Son of the Creator of the Universe having another name in our world and Lucy and Edmund needing to get to know him. . . . in every respect a four star movie, in terms of entertainment and production values. Whereas the book is episodic, the movie has a focused goal and a classic story arc. The characters are well developed, the dialogue is brisk, the 3D and special effects are good, and the ending is heart-rending.”
    —Movie Guide

    “Perhaps the best news for Walden is that Dawn Treader proves delightful enough that it should lead to another Narnia film. Dawn Treader also will likely inspire those who skipped the second installment to seek it out and get caught up on the story of Caspian (Ben Barnes), who has a big part in the third film, too.”

    “Eye-popping and entertaining.”
    —New York Post

    “The really good news is that if you’re looking for a thoroughly enjoyable family outing this Christmas, you need look no further. This is a delight. I, for one, loved it: Five out of five shield rating.”
    —Daily Mail

    “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader arrives with confidence and bravado intact. . . . and arguably the most Tolkien-esque of the Narnia books.”
    —The Guardian

    “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a solid sequel that might even surpass the first entry as the best in the series for some fans. It also bodes well for the future of this once iffy franchise.”

    “Fox and Walden’s Narnia is a reason for Christians everywhere to rejoice as it lays its foundation firmly back in the faith that has made Lewis’ books beloved for generations. The movie gets its message across clearly but still leaves room for thought and pondering, all while providing great action and entertainment.”
    —Marshall and the Movies

  6. I saw the movie twice, at midnight and again on Saturday. Both times I was horribly disappointed at the size of the crowd. The first time through, I spend most of the movie in shock at how much they managed to change up what seemed to be a fairly straightforward plot. This was unlike Prince Caspian where I understood immediately why certain changes had to be made. However, on the second viewing, I found that I enjoyed the film more, although maybe that was just due to the nice visuals in the 3D version which I did not have in my first viewing.

    But yes, Lucy’s declaration that “we’re never coming back to Narnia again” had me tearing up, not only because Lucy would never go back, but also because it seems like we as viewers will never get to go back.

  7. Here’s what I think courage has to do with promoting the Narnia movies, John. It may not be very important, but I remember a long time ago when The Prince of Egypt was made, and I read an article about it in the Focus on the Family magazine. They made the point that those of us who are Christians have no right to complain about the usual garbage that comes out of Hollywood if we are not willing to support them when they actually do something right. And I have to say, as someone who loves both movies and books, that I agree with that statement. Movies have such an impact on our modern culture. When a really positive movie is made, especially one with a spiritual message, we should let Hollywood know “Yes, this is what we want!” Then maybe they’ll keep making good movies. There is power in numbers, and we can let them know how we feel about any movie they make. Remember The Golden Compass? I think they had to give up after one movie of the His Dark Materials trilogy because so many people were completely turned off by Pullman’s anti-God message and refused to go see it. I only just recently saw that movie for the first time, and I definately wasn’t impressed with it, although I admit I have not read the books yet. I think it’s significant that so far the Narnia books have made it to three movies. Atheists make movies and tv shows loudly proclaiming their beliefs, and we should too, or the only message a lot of people will get is what the atheists/humanists want them to hear.

    As far as the new Narnia movie, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m planning to go with my cousin near Christmas. I’ve read some really great reviews of it. It sounds so good. I wasn’t impressed with Prince Caspian, mostly because I didn’t like the conflict they introduced between Peter and Caspian. In the book Peter understood Aslan’s purpose in allowing them to come to Narnia at all. It was always to help Narnia, not himself. I expected that the third movie would have to be changed a little because the book is so episodic, but at least it sounds like they tried to keep the spiritual focus. I can’t wait to see it!

  8. I’m missing your point, I guess. I think I understand why Christians with a concern for cultural points want better movies and encourage believers to attend edifying films (sic). What I am not ‘getting’ is how this recommendation or a believer’s decision to act on it constitutes courage, especially as defined in the letter above.

    My guess would be that they think the movie is about courage, but that is equally a head scratcher.

    I haven’t seen Prince Caspian the Movie yet but I have some bad news for you. If you didn’t care for a Peter-Caspian conflict about who is in charge, you’re in for a second helping of almost atextual conflict between kings in this adaptation.

  9. I meant “definitely” above, and I guess I just mean that it takes courage to stand up for our beliefs, especially when we know there are so many who would like to shut us up. And I guess I’ll find out what the new movie is like soon. Still looking forward to it!

  10. Hello, and I’m glad people are talking about this movie here! My sister and I and a friend saw it on opening day, and my review is on my blog, here.

    The short version is that it is, of course, not as good as the book – but, when it got things right, they were so very, very right. The ending was perfect, and so were Reepicheep and Eustace, who, to me, are the heart of this book. All three of us were crying pretty much nonstop for the last five minutes. I think the mistakes they did make with the movie could have been avoided had they been able and willing to make it a little longer.

    John, I also wanted to add (this is the reason for my comment, actually), that I loved “Dawn Treader” because, unlike “Caspian”, there was no character assassination. The conflict between Edmund and Caspian on Deathwater actually *is* in the book, and so is Caspian’s temptation to dereliction of duty. To me, the characters came through very much as written, as Susan and Peter did not in “Caspian” (which I otherwise loved.)

    My two cents!

  11. I’m really late here, but I just got back from seeing the movie with my parents.

    I liked it in much the same way I like the Harry Potter movies – not because they are the elegantly crafted adaptations I hope they will be, but because I get the chance to see some of the elements from stories I really love presented in a different way.

    VotDT is probably – no, make that almost definitely – my favorite of the Narnia books, for a lot of reasons. I have actually been on a journey at sea by sailing ship (longer than the Dawn Treader’s), for starters, and so to not only have the journey motif, but to have it specifically in that form brings back many happy memories for me. I have a deep affinity for the ocean and to me it seems like the ideal place for a spiritual quest.

    The imagery at the end of the book is some of my favorite anywhere – and that’s largely what saved this movie for me. As heavily distorted as the rest of it was (I found the “defeat the mist” fantasy-action-bad-guy-plot particularly annoying), I was in tears for the final scenes. The lilies, the little boat in which Reepicheep departs, and the wide shot with Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace looking back at Aslan (and, here, Caspian) before walking through the wave all looked beautiful and were nearly just as I had imagined them. And the fact that they kept Aslan’s reference to his this-world identity! Very brave of the filmmakers, and a wonderful moment for me.

    I have issues with many of the same points others have brought up, so I won’t re-hash them here, but I just have to say, those last few minutes definitely made the movie worthwhile for me.

  12. “Even with the changes, and the mist and sword nonsense, here is a story we recognize, and those of us who know Aslan’s other name will find the end of the journey, like the waves at the end of the world, to be sweet.”


    Sorry, but I have to disagree. Those few good moments which survive from the book only made the junky Hollywood elements (like the “green mist” nonsense) which dominated the movie even more painful to endure , because we got a few flashes of what the movie could have been.

    Re: John’s post above which starts off with “I received this “Get out to the movie!” clarion call from Aslan’s Horn today from the CSL Society of California. I’m struggling to understand what “courage” has to do with this “get out the vote” message”

    “Courage” indeed … not. Their motives are so transparently and crassly commercial. Apparently there’s good money to be made in shilling for Walden Media by the professional C.S. Lewis scholars crowd who are trotted out each time to convince the faithful in the “Christian Community” that these movies are good adaptations of Lewis’s work. “Get out the vote” is a well chosen phrase because it’s exactly as crass and cynical as what political parties do each election cycle to motivate their base by emphasizing hot-button issues which they have no intention of actually dealing with after the election is over. It’s all about money and holding on to their perceived power and privileges as gatekeepers . But can’t these C.S. Lewis pros see clearly that the last two films “Prince Caspian” , and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” are killing their precious Narnian goose-which-lays-the-golden-eggs ? The film that made the most money is the first one , “The Lion , the Witch, and the Wardrobe” , which stayed closer to the book . The truth is “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” with it’s standard-issue Fantasy Film 101 elements that any neophyte grad of a screenwriting course could have come up with was boring. I just wanted it to be over. It astounds me that anyone who is a “scholar” of Lewis’s work could accept the ridiculous plot elements and flat dialogue which the filmmakers have foisted upon Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” .

  13. I haven’t seen it yet. I can only take so much distortion.

    However, here is a reference to the film having achieved the $100 million domestic mark.

    Note that the film cost 155 million to make. It has grossed 366 million thus far in world-wide release. This does not qualify as a frothing success by Hollywood standards at all.

    Perhaps I will be gifted the DVDs and finally see it. But I have yet to recover from the Prince Caspian debacle.

  14. Watched it last night. FORCED myself to watch it since my daughter gave it to me for my birthday over a month ago. In fact, we watched it together.

    Underwhelming. Distortion equal to PC for mere Hollywoodism. At the rate of distortion, who cares if they make another alleged CoN? Thus far, excepting LWW, the con has been on and has been recognized – the box office abysmals.

    BBC productions are better for narrative fidelity.

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