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
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
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
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 ...