There's great power in great storytelling. Jesus knew it, C.S. Lewis knew it and people of every color, class and creed worldwide know it today as well.
Messages communicated by way of story can go deeper. Lessons learned through powerful life transformations can resonate. And when our imaginations are profoundly engaged, there's no telling what any one of us can take away and apply to our lives going forward.
Lovers of The Chronicles of Narnia book series and the major motion picture franchise that has yielded The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008) also know this to be true. And with great anticipation we have waited for the latest book adaptation to hit the screen this holiday season—The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which opens wide in theaters in both 2D and 3D on December 10, 2010.
A Return to Hope
Billed as a film that returns "to the hope and wonder of C.S. Lewis' beloved world," The Voyage of the Dawn Treader take us back to the days of Narnia by way of an amazing ship on a journey to five mysterious islands. The time period is three Narnian years after Prince Caspian (wartime England, circa 1943), and brother and sister Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) are staying with their annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter) near Cambridge, England, while older brother Peter is away studying for university entrance exams and older sister Susan is on holiday with their parents in the U.S.
As inferred in the book's first sentence—"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it"—Eustace certainly is a loathsome character. He dislikes his cousins and apparently has made it his mission to make their lives miserable while they're staying with his family. He bosses, he bullies and he makes fun of his cousins' talk of their secret country of Narnia. Until … he finds himself transported to that world.
While staring at a painting in Lucy's bedroom, the Pevensies notice that the ship depicted in the choppy waters looks very Narnian. After Eustace joins them and begins taunting them, Lucy sees that the ship appears to be moving before her very eyes. The waves begin rolling and pretty soon water is splashing out from the painting, onto the children and flooding into the room. The wind blows through and soon everything is upended. When Eustace tries to stop the proceedings by pulling the picture off of the wall, he only succeeds in bringing himself, Edmund and Lucy into the painting and sinking the bedroom into Narnia's Eastern Sea.
Once the three swim to the surface, there they behold the majestic Dawn Treader and are soon rescued and standing on its deck. From that point, the story sets its course with King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the warrior mouse Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg) on a journey to find the seven lost Lords of Telmar, who are the best friends of Caspian's murdered father. Along the way, the voyagers encounter magical creatures, sinister enemies and face their greatest temptations before being reunited once again with the "Great Lion" Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson).
For Kids Big and Small
"Fear and temptation are the principal issues the characters face," explains director Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough, Coal Miner's Daughter, Nell). "And those themes point to the Narnia books' weight and substance. The film reminds us that you have to know yourself to deal with temptation and fear. That, too, is part of becoming an adult."
As to why Lewis' story is still so appealing to children big and small in the twenty-first century, Apted points to the supernatural. "I think on an obvious level it's got magic in it," he says. "I think kids like—whether it's Star Wars or Narnia—being taken into another world. Kids are very imaginative, and they can make that leap. And I hope that they also see something else in Lewis and in Narnia—some kind of sort of moral sense if you would, not heavily articulated, but with some goodness in it. I like the idea of making sort of an action film that a) has a lot of human emotion in it and b) has a spiritual aspect to it as well. I think it's good in this day and age to put that on the table with children's entertainment."
Following in the footsteps of Andrew Adamson (who directed the first two Narnia films and returns as producer for the third), Apted makes his foray into directing a film for children with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And to prepare, he did his homework by reading the book in which he found the variety of the storyline very much to his liking. He also watched the first two films, but on the first day of filming he knew it was time for an adventure into the unknown.
"Well, day one is blind panic," he admits. "I've never made a movie for children, and I've never dealt with this amount of fantasy or surrealism or whatever you want to call it. Then you think, ‘Well this is step by step. You're going to have to learn a lot.' I liked the challenge of it. And I knew we had the tools to do it. Andrew had done it with the first two, so I knew the tools existed. It was just a question of not panicking and kind of learning it and listening to people and asking questions."
Indeed, the bar was set high not only for Apted but also for the special effects which had been crafted so well in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (winning the Oscar for Best Makeup and garnering two additional nominations for visual effects and sound) and Prince Caspian. In fact, the visual effects team for just the character of Reepicheep numbered 380 CG artists alone.
Post-production work included a year's period of editing, scoring, re-recording and mixing sound while working on the extensive 3D work. Filmmakers collaborated with the world's leading stereoscopic and VFX companies in a process exceeding the length of even the recent Alice in Wonderland film. Computer-generated shots and all of the CGI characters (including Reepicheep) were rendered from the beginning in 3D and delivered directly to the film as left eye/right eye pairs. There are no 2D "cutouts" in this Narnia, and the end result provides a brilliant 3D experience—provided you're wearing your complimentary 3D glasses.
"I have to say that I was a little skeptical at first, and now I'm completely glad that we have a 3D version of the film," reveals producer Mark Johnson. "It's much more weaved, and it's giving our film depth and I look at it and quite frankly I like the 3D version of it a lot. There's a slightly different experience watching it in 3D to the 2D. But I'm really sold."
However, lest audiences worry that technology will somehow trump or reduce the story, Apted assures that the emotional core of the film is still intact.
"It's a very intimate film. And my aim was to try and make a film on a big landscape, but yet which had a lot of emotion and had a lot of heart and a lot of feeling in it. And in a sense one of my challenges directing the film was to try and protect that, because there was a lot of technology at my fingertips—a lot of wonderful visual effects and 3D and that sort of stuff. I just wanted to make sure that the technology didn't overwhelm the underlying emotions of the film."
On Course to Self-Discovery
The pivotal relationship between Reepicheep and Eustace displays this type of emotional depth and intimacy most poignantly. Initially upon meeting on the deck of The Dawn Treader, Eustace is just as annoyed with Reepicheep as perhaps Reepicheep is with him. But as the twosome interact with each other along their journey, Reepicheep sees something in Eustace and remains a loyal friend while serving as a guiding force through the troubled boy's dramatic transformation.
"To play a part like Eustace was particularly interesting to me because I suppose his transition speaks to a louder volume than I guess it would just reading on the page," admits Will Poulter, who couldn't believe it when he first found out he had won the part. "There's kind of a lot of underlying messages to it and a lot of kind of religious allegory that is associated with his transformation. I think initially he's almost an unredeemable character, and you almost love to hate him."
In both the book and the film, Eustace's particular temptation is greediness and selfishness which results in being turned into a dragon with the inner ugliness now overtaking his exterior. But all is not lost for Eustace, and the beauty of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is certainly found in Lewis' brilliant portrayal of the effects of sin and eventual redemption, as Aslan confronts Eustace near the story's end, removes his scaly dragon skin and dresses him in new clothes (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
"Reepicheep sort of serves as a mentor and kind of a superior who shows him the error of his ways and that allows Eustace some opportunities for self reflection and self evaluation," Poulter continues. "And as a result of that he becomes a better, purer person at heart. Temptation is a huge theme in this film, and it has actually affected Eustace to a great degree."
A Star Is Transformed
A relative unknown who made his professional acting debut as school bully Lee Carter in the comedy-drama Son of Rambow (2007), 17-year-old Poulter credits the inspiration for his breakthrough portrayal of "a complete brat" to C.S. Lewis himself, as well as to screenwriter Michael Petroni who adapted the book for screen. The London native was discovered by a casting director at the secondary school he attends (Harrodian School) where the drama department is always on the local film/TV industry's radar for new talent.
Considered a "rite of passage" for all British children, reading The Chronicles of Narnia was something that Poulter had already begun before seeing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe five years ago. At the time, he had not yet begun acting nor did he realize he would one day play Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
"I never thought in a million years I'd be playing a part in the third [Narnia] film," he admits. "Not in a million years. These films are so prestigious, and I thought they'd made a mistake and I'd slipped through the net. It's something that has such an incredibly dedicated and faithful following as well. The fact that a piece of literature—one man writing a book—can touch so many people is incredible. That is really admirable, and I think people forget that. It's ultimately the writer, and it's his influences and his abilities to touch so many people in that way. I think it's very, very admirable. And I was very, very proud to be part of that."
She's So Lovely
Georgie Henley, who portrays Lucy, also read the books as a child and relishes playing a more multi-faceted and evolving character who appears in this third film. Now that Lucy is on her way to becoming a young woman, she has her own battles to face and her own temptations to overcome as well. In the film, as in the book, Lucy must fight the temptation of vanity and her desire to be beautiful like her sister Susan and her own resulting jealousy. This very real struggle with self-image is what Henley wanted to convey to young girls who may be watching the film, as she is able to identify with these issues in her personal life as well.
"I guess one of the main challenges that I faced is that I wanted to make Lucy as accessible and as relatable as she could possibly be to young girls who were facing the same issues that she was going through with insecurities and vanity," she explains. "She definitely goes through a really hard time and it was really wonderful to play a more three-dimensional character in which she wasn't so sweet and nice all the time. She had a slightly darker side, and that was really wonderful to relay that message to the audience watching the film."
As the only major female character in the story this time out, Henley admits she did have some fun "playing with the boys"—especially when it came to rehearsing for her stunts and fight sequences.
"It was really great actually, because I've always liked bringing a little bit of ‘girl power' to the table. And it was really fun to train up with them when we were doing stunts and things, because they were much better at it than I was. So they really kept me going. They're such good guys, and I had a fun time filming with them.
"We had quite a lot of fitness exercise. And then we learned the basics of kickboxing, because the movement of kickboxing is basically the same as holding swords. It's basically just punching with a sword. I also got to do some archery which was amazing, and we did quite a bit of harness work as well."
Henley also reveals that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader just happens to be her very favorite book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, as she points to it being packed with "adventure"—due in part to the story taking place, for much of the time, on a ship as well as on the various islands she and the rest of those aboard The Dawn Treader encounter.
Not Just a Prop
She admits that her favorite scenes are those that were shot while on The Dawn Treader, and that's something Poulter agrees with wholeheartedly as well.
"I'll never forget being on that boat," he says. "It was literally a piece of art. I don't think I'll ever get an opportunity to work on such an incredible piece of set again. It was a true privilege to be on there. And so much work went into it and hundreds of people helped to build it. The chance to do that was just fantastic."
As the title character of the film, The Dawn Treader had to embody everything that Narnia is—especially since the story never actually takes the Pevensies, Eustace, Caspian or Reepicheep to Narnia. "When you're in The Dawn Treader, you're in Narnia," says Apted.
And under Apted's watchful eye, over an eighteen-month period production designer Barry Robison built The Dawn Treader with a team of draftsman from Mexico City and Baja. Inspired by a replica of Captain James Cook's boat The Endeavor (which sits in the harbor in Sydney, Australia), Robison wanted the boat to be much more than just a prop.
"The Dawn Treader was crucial because it's the star of the movie," Apted explains. "Once Barry designed its shape and scale, you could see his love and caring in the details. The craftsmanship was brilliant and as it came together it was thrilling for all of us to see. We're probably on The Dawn Treader for nearly half the film, so it needed to be something to look at. To experience this jewel on which no expense had been spared, and into which so much attention had gone, I think really inspired us all."
During the entire 90-day production in late summer/early fall of 2009, the cast and crew of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader called Queensland, Australia home. Studio work occurred at several sound stages in Gold Coast, and location work also included a seaside peninsula northeast of the studio called Cleveland Point where The Dawn Treader was situated for over three weeks of outdoor filming.
The Keeper of Narnia
Also on set was Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis ("Jack") and executive producer of the film. And according to producer Andrew Adamson, his input was invaluable.
"I think Doug has always been a huge asset to us in that he's the one of us that actually knew Jack and was really able to sometimes get to the core of things," explains Adamson. "I mean you read the book and interpret it—everyone reads a book differently and interprets it differently. But sometimes it was great to be able to go back to [Doug] and say what was Jack thinking with this particular intent. So I think he's always been a huge asset to provide us with that voice."
For Gresham's part, something he refers to as "fanatical Narnian purist," he is pleased with the end result of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on film and feels it is a vivid representation of the message his stepfather was trying to convey when he put pen to page over fifty years ago.
"I hope that [moviegoers] will see the temptations in their own lives that are reflected on the screen. No matter what faith or creed you belong to, you know that your kids are going to do bad things because they're tempted to do them and I think we need to teach our children about that and how to deal with it. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader goes a long way to helping us do that."
Starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Will Poulter, 20th Century Fox/Walden Media's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader releases wide in theaters on December 10, 2010. Please visit Crosswalk's Narnia Channel to read more about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia book series.
Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Walden Media.
**This article first published on December 8, 2010.