Friday, October 1, 2021

Pitfalls in Book to Movie Translation: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and A Wrinkle in Time

Translating a book into a movie is very difficult to do. Things that can be done and expressed in a book don't always translate well into an engaging, watchable film. Often, filmmakers have to make difficult decisions about plot points and other aspects of the book that don't translate well into film. Usually, however, there is a way to convey the core of the book into film. There are a lot of films that I really like that don't really follow the narrative of the book closely, but end up being very enjoyable movies. One of these is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The thing that distinguishes movies that take liberties with plot points that end up being successful from movies that flop is, in my opinion, that the core message and feeling of the book is maintained. I particularly enjoy Prisoner of Azkaban because it captures the feel of the book so well. In fact, that is my favorite among all the Harry Potter films particularly because it is so different yet feels like it really pulls you into Harry's world.

Two of my favorite books of all time that have been made into movies are The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L. Engle. Both movies are well done in their own right, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a decent adaptation of the book. These books rank among my favorites because they marry exposition of Christian doctrines with enjoyable narrative, with the main purpose to teach those doctrines through the narrative. The movie version of Voyage does a reasonable job of maintaining this narrative. However, Wrinkle fails spectacularly in this regard.

The narrative of Voyage of the Dawn Treader as expressed in the book is a series of mini-adventures, each with a lesson about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My favorite adventure therein is Eustace Scrubb's encounter with a dragon. After falling asleep on the dragon's hoard thinking dragonish thoughts, he finds himself changed into a dragon. He had, for some time, been a rather dislikable and mean character, thinking only about himself. The dragon form he took on was merely an outward expression of his inner thoughts and feelings. After becoming a dragon, Eustace begins to realize how awful he had been acting and wishes he could change. After some time, and in a beautiful, symbolic way, Aslan heals him. The chapter containing this narrative does an excellent job of capturing the change of heart that a turning to Jesus Christ creates in people.

Eustace tries, in one part of the book, to remove his scaly skin and fails. He realizes instead that Aslan has to remove it for him. This imagery of Eustace trying to remove his scaly skin, but failing, and having to rely on Aslan to change him back into a boy is a device to expose our reliance on Jesus Christ in order to successfully change our hearts. C.S. Lewis also reminds us that change is a process, and says of Eustace's change:
"It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that 'from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.' To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun."

This message, part of the heart and soul of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is expressed fairly well in the film. The film took large liberties with the major, overarching plot, but the Christian themes, and especially Eustace's redemption, are well maintained throughout the movie. As a result, I like the movie adaptation.

A Wrinkle in Time is another of my favorite books. That book, and the series it is part of, does an excellent job of marrying the knowledge and truths obtained through science and those obtained through faith. Madeline L. Engle did a particularly good job in her novels of showing how faith and science are compatible, complimentary and necessary ways of arriving at truth. A major theme of A Wrinkle in Time is our individual worth, the gifts that God gives to us, and our responsibility to use those gifts in service of Him as we work to support good and light.

The movie of A Wrinkle in Time does an excellent job of being faithful, where possible, to the major plot points. It is an entertaining movie, and has excellent special effects. It is dazzling, and even teaches some good lessons. When I first watched the film, though, I had a deeply unsettling feeling about it. Though I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong, I knew it had something to do with the fact that those making the movie decided to remove all of the Christian features from the narrative. Unfortunately, it is not merely the fact they removed those features that ruins the film, but that in doing so, they turn the main message of the book on its head.

They might have been successful at expressing a partial message of the book in the film even while removing direct references to Christ (though I am skeptical doing so is possible), but they went further than that and actually ended up making the opposite point from what the book makes. Another author expresses how this happened much better than I can:

"Again, DuVernay comes so close. A message of self-acceptance is in so many ways profoundly good; Meg has, throughout the first part of the movie, a degree of self-rejection that’s frightening: she does not want to be who she is. Her desire to be otherwise means that re-materializing after she tessers is hard for her: she rejects her own being. To say yes to existing as oneself, distinct and different, is a crucial yes. That’s what she must learn, and she learns it as she learns that she loves and is loved by Charles Wallace. 

"And her temptation is in fact also very effective: IT tempts her with being something other than herself. IT offers her the popular (and straight-haired, rather than natural-haired) mean-girl version of herself. And she passes the test: choosing to forgo that twisted power, and choosing to accept her own being. But this choice, self-acceptance, is shown as something that can only happen if one accepts that one is not distinct and different and created: you are only valuable if you find yourself to be part of the All, and to have being in yourself, rather than receiving it as a gift. It’s another kind of self-erasure, because it rejects the idea that you have limits. 

"“You have everything you need in yourself,” a friend summarized it as we got ice cream after the movie. She paused. “Boy, that’s going to be a hard lesson for kids to unlearn.” 

"The lyrics of the final song over the credits perfectly encapsulate this message: “Today I saw a rainbow in the rain / It told me I can do anything / If I believe in me,” Demi sings. And then the chant before the chorus: “I can, I can, I will, I will / I am, I am, no fear, no fear.” Learn to take on yourself the name of God, the I AM, and you have learned the lesson of the movie version. 

"It is precisely the opposite of the message of the book. The wisdom here is precisely counter-wisdom. And this is why, while Jennifer Lee’s version of perennialism seems to mirror L’Engle’s, it does not."

It's interesting to me that in the process of attempting to remove Christ and God from the narrative of Wrinkle, they were unable to maintain the true message of the book. Perhaps there's a lesson here about the effects of attempting to segment our lives into spiritual and worldly spheres.

Maybe someday a movie version faithful to the heart and soul of Wrinkle will be made. Until that time, I think I'll stick to the book. 

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