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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 18, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Prince Caspian, SPQR

How good is Prince Caspian, the second installment in the series of films adapted from C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia?

For the second movie in a series to improve on the first is rare enough, but it's been done before -- Godfather II, for instance. It took the Harry Potter series until the third film before they started getting really good. Most of the time, though, it's like the sequels to Speed, Rocky, Die Hard, Beverly Hills Cop, and so many others: the path for a series is downhill, whether fast or slow.

But Prince Caspian isn't just better than the first film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe -- it's better than the book.

Prince Caspian is arguably the weakest of the Narnia books. The four children from the first book had a full lifetime in Narnia, growing to adulthood as kings in that magical land. But when they returned to England they were inexplicably children again, exactly at the ages they had been at when they first entered Narnia.

This had the effect of turning the whole Narnia experience into a dream. Their own bodies proved to the children that it didn't happen -- that even though they shared the dream, it wasn't real. Susan, the older girl, has accepted this and has mostly let it go. Lucy, the youngest, is the one who clings most tightly.

When they return to Narnia, they remain children; worse, they discover that it has been hundreds of years since their "disappearance." They are mere legends now, and a foreign nation has conquered Narnia and rules with such hostility to Aslan and the magical talking creatures that most of the conquering race believes that they never existed.

But the heir to the throne, Caspian, does believe. And when his uncle's new wife has a baby boy, Caspian has to flee the palace to save his life -- and finds that the original Narnians are still alive, though leaderless. He adopts their cause as his own, and vice versa.

In reading the book, however, the experience is one of disappointment. Didn't we end the previous book with our heroes triumphant? Now everything they had done before is ruined -- literally, for even the castle from which they reigned has crumbled from age and old wars. The land is less magical. And everything they try to do fails.

This is quite right, theologically speaking. Since the Narnia tales are meant to make allegorical points about Christianity, Protestant Lewis is making a point about a fallen Church. Strangers have taken over the land, people who never knew Aslan/Christ, and even those who remember Aslan's name aren't all that sure they believe in him except as a sort of nice idea. It's time for a revival, a reformation, a revolution.

But fictionally, the story is just one disappointment after another. Lewis has many gifts, but making battles seem real is not one of them. His focus is on the theological story, and as a result, Prince Caspian suffers ... as fiction.

Not so with the movie. The filmmakers have made the military struggle immediate and real. We understand what's at stake and we care about it. Aslan remains important -- as vital as ever -- but we spend very little time on him, which is right for the story: The point is that instead of trusting in Aslan, the characters trust in their military prowess and cleverness. They discover that all their plans come to nothing without the Lion's help, but in the movie, unlike the book, it doesn't feel inevitable. It comes as a genuine relief.

Ironically, then, even though the filmmakers spend less time on Aslan than Lewis does, the result is that the message of the book -- that we can't do anything important without God's help -- is far more effectively presented because we actually care about the characters far more.

Writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Andrew Adamson (who also directed) have done a superb job. Instead of trying to wow us with magical stuff, the creatures and effects are treated as part of the story -- what they concentrate on is making it feel real, and they did the job.

I was relieved to see that actors playing the children -- William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley -- have grown in skill and talent since the first movie. And the new cast members -- most notably Ben Barnes as the very hunkish Prince Caspian and Peter Dinklage as the heroic dwarf Trumpkin -- give strong performances.

The fact that we experience the reality of the battles does lead to a new problem: Lucy has a magical potion that restores dying people to health, but we only see her use it on two leading characters. In the book, she uses it on everyone, saving all the lives she can. I understand that there's hardly time in the movie to show all the healing, but we needed to know, for decency's sake, that it wasn't a special favor Lucy reserved for VIPs.

But that's hardly a quibble. The movie works as a movie, regardless of whether you already know and love the Narnia books. That was the primary requirement and it was achieved. Some will complain that the film is not pious enough -- to them I say, "Phooey." You can always reread the book. The film does not subtract one word from Lewis's version. And the heart and soul of the book are there in the film, better than ever.

Prince Caspian is a bright spot in an otherwise dreadful movie month. Yes, we had Iron Man -- but nothing else. My wife and daughter and I were planning to see Caspian together last Saturday night. On Friday night, however, my wife and I were going out on a date to celebrate our anniversary (31 years my wife has put up with me!), and we could not find one film that looked even remotely promising.

Ever since There Something About Mary, the writers of film comedies seem to have concluded that they're in a competition to be as gross and offensive as possible. Now that's even what they promote. I suppose I should be grateful when the trailers show an appalling lack of taste, judgment, and humor -- I am spared the waste of time and money that actually going to the theater would have led to.

As an aspiring filmmaker myself, it makes me sad and angry both at once. These miserable things got made, using up the time and talents of good actors on drivel. Meanwhile, many much better films don't get made. Why? Because the studios are sure they can make their money back with dirty, smarmy, unfunny comedies that cheapen everyone who sees them. Whereas films that are actually funny, with characters who do something other than gross out or titillate the audience, are considered to be a huge risk.

Once upon a time, there were studio heads who took pride in making good movies. Now, they all seem to be bureaucrats whose survival in their job depends on making profits and nothing else. So they go for where they're sure they'll make money. Quality is a gamble -- sometimes it pays off big, and sometimes it doesn't.

But cheap dreck -- apparently that is the sure thing that will keep them safe in their jobs.

So I take yet another lesson from the Narnia films, and from the Lord of the Rings films a few years ago: It's all right to wait fifty years for the right film adaptation to be made. Even if the author of the book doesn't live to see it.

Maybe that's how long it takes for great books to become sacred, so that untalented or fearful filmmakers don't force-fit it to crummy little formulas that don't even work.

Maybe in 2035 -- fifty years after my book Ender's Game was published -- it can be made into a good movie. I'm likely to be dead by then -- or maybe not, since I'd be about the age my parents are now, and they're very much alive, I'm happy to say.

Of course, it's just as likely that my book will have been forgotten completely by then -- you never know which stories will hold on to generations of readers and which will fade away when their day has passed. But I'm fine with that -- anyone who aspires to eternal fame needs to reread Shelley's poem about Ozymandias.

Meanwhile, the only power I have is to keep saying no to bad scripts, oblivious directors, and terrified executives who don't dare make a movie that is actually based on the story of my book. Seeing Prince Caspian gives me the courage to continue doing so. If this sort of work is possible, then why should I let someone turn my premier intellectual properties into cinematic roadkill?

*

I first encountered the work of John Maddox Roberts as a reviewer of science fiction stories. His stories really stood out in the magazines, for they had that rare combination of adventure and depth. If all you cared about was the adventure, you were satisfied; but if you wanted a sense that this might be true, that people would really act this way, that you were getting some kind of insight into human nature -- well, Roberts had all that, too.

But I stopped reading the sci-fi magazines for a while -- I burned out, alas, after reading and reviewing thousands of stories -- and eventually baled out on reading the books as well. I'd get a few pages in and start saying to myself, "Oh, it's one of these, he's using that trope, but not as well as other writers," and I finally realized I was no longer a good reader of sci-fi. Reviewing had made me too critical.

(Of course, this also helps me understand why movie reviewers who used to have the common touch eventually come to value, not quality, but novelty -- anything that doesn't make them think, Been there, seen that.)

I lost touch with the sci-fi field for a while. New writers came along, old writers faded, and I had no idea what was happening. I was reading in other genres.

Then, as a browsed through the mystery section of the bookstore, I ran across John Maddox Roberts's name once again -- but this time as the author of a series of mysteries set in ancient Rome.

By that time I was already a fan of Steven Saylor's Roman mysteries, and so I passed by Roberts's books, thinking (a) how could it be as good as what Saylor does? and (b) Roberts was really good, so someday I'll give his books a try.

The day finally came. I was in another city and had finished the books I brought with me and faced the dreaded prospect of a flight home with nothing to read. Unbearable.

So I stopped at a Borders and this time picked up a copy of one of Roberts's SPQR books. (The letters "SPQR" stand for "The Senate and People of Rome" -- in Latin, of course.)

Why was I surprised? Roberts is still the same writer, and his work still has the same virtues. Like Saylor, he is taking us through the pivotal events leading up to the end of the Roman Republic. But where Saylor's main characters are relatively obscure, Roberts has chosen a member of a noble family -- someone who is expected to hold public office and who gets invited to all the best parties, so he has a personal relationship -- often a hostile one -- with all the leading figures of the day.

The result is that in the SPQR books, we actually get a somewhat clearer and livelier presentation of historical matters than in Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. This is not to say anything against Saylor's work -- his novels are powerful and moving. But because of the placement of Roberts's main character, he is simply present for more of the events that shape the history.

There's another difference. Saylor's "Gordianus the Finder" is loath to engage in violence, whereas Roberts's "Decius Metellus the Younger" is as ready to plunge into a riot and take on an enemy hand to hand as any man in Rome. Both authors might be accused of anachronism -- Gordianus is, perhaps, a bit too politically correct; Decius Metellus might be considered too much of a Mike Hammer/Spenser/Sam Spade hard-boiled detective. In fact, both writers are very careful to avoid anachronism -- their characters are true to the kinds of people who populated Rome.

Fortunately, you don't have to choose between them -- don't make the mistake I did of thinking that because you like one approach to a general subject matter, you can't indulge yourself in someone else's. Roberts's novels are, perhaps, lighter-feeling; but in truth he is every bit as deep in his treatment of human and historical issues.

You can start with any book in the SPQR series -- I've read them all, and I admire the way Roberts gives us, in each book, all the information about the past that we need in order to understand these events. Yet he does it so deftly that it never stops the action.

If you want to read them in order, however, the covers are conveniently numbered -- in Roman numerals, naturally, inside the Q of SPQR. The first book is The King's Gambit; the most recent is XI: Under Vesuvius. One of my favorites (and perhaps the most fun) is the least typical, VI: Nobody Loves a Centurion; all the other books take place in fairly urban settings, where Roman culture surrounds you, but this book takes place on campaign with Julius Caesar in Gaul. Roberts is at his best showing just why Caesar was so dangerous -- and so beloved by those who didn't actually hate him.

You could probably read all eleven SPQR novels this summer -- and at the end, not only would you be highly entertained, you would actually understand a significant section of Roman history. And when you think about it, Americans have a lot to gain by seeing how a mighty nation threw away democracy without even noticing that was what they were doing ...


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