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Speculations about a "Last Battle" movie
It won't be filmed, but we can dream
Over last Christmas, my family and I saw the (2005 Walden Media) movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. Afterwards, I lamented about how the latest movie series of the Chronicles of Narnia only got through three books, and no movie adaptation has gotten farther than four books into the seven-book series. But, on the other hand, I sort of see why. If someone wants to continue past The Silver Chair (the fourth book; the 1988-1990 BBC series got that far), a distant, near-insurmountable challenge looms at the last book, which explicitly ends the world of Narnia: The Last Battle.
No mainstream film producer wants to try filming that. I can totally understand why. But still, I think it's fun to look into why - and imagine how someone could do it if they did.
The first challenge is one scriptwriters have faced throughout the movie series, and any new scriptwriter would also face with Narnia: presenting Christian theology to a largely-secular audience. Since Dawn Treader was filmed in 2010, America has grown even more secular and less welcoming to Christianity. Meanwhile, as the Narnian series goes on, the Christian themes grow even more blatant. In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe we see Aslan's power and authority, and his character in his willingness to sacrifice himself for Edmund - but that can be minimized as Aslan being a good guy; even Lewis himself only presented his sacrifice as atoning for one single sin of Edmund's. In Prince Caspian we get Aslan's authority again, with themes about trusting in him and waiting on his timing. In Dawn Treader, Silver Chair, Magician's Nephew, and Horse and His Boy, we'd get the similar things again, even more loudly and clearly: Aslan created the world, guides every individual's life, knows the future, and has another name on Earth.
These can be papered over to some extent, if a studio wants to. The recent three movies preserved the themes in Prince Caspian; I think their treatment of the protagonists' choice to seek out Aslan in Prince Caspian is the best-done Christian theme and most dramatic sequence in the three films. But they downplayed them somewhat in Dawn Treader. This does risk angering a Christian audience who's looking for the Christian themes. Even back in 2010, a studio could try to please both them and the mainstream secular audience. But now, it's much harder.
In Last Battle, however, we have clear theology that can't be brushed away or downplayed. "The dogma is the drama" (as Lewis's friend Dorothy Sayers said about her own Man Born To Be King.) Aslan ends the world and judges individuals according to their faith. Faithful Tirion and noble Emeth are let into Heaven, while Rishda the atheist and the myopic Dwarves are left outside. (We'll talk about Susan Pevensey, who doesn't show up at all, later.) This can't be rewritten or left as a throwaway line; it is the climax and denouement.
On top of this, we have several other challenges with Lewis's specific plot beats.
The book opens with the evil monkey Shift convincing his friend Puzzle the donkey to dress up in a lion's skin and pretend to be Aslan (whom Lewis has established to be, essentially, Jesus in lion form). Soon, he's selling Talking Beasts into slavery to Calormenes (the neighboring pagan human nation), and letting Calormenes chop down trees and kill dryads. Most Narnians accept this despite their shock as on Aslan's orders.
The very nature of this plotting will also have trouble coming through onscreen. On the one hand, the gimmick of a donkey dressed up in a lion's skin is difficult to stage believably. We read that's why Shift only had Puzzle come out by flickering firelight, but even so, it'd take some good camera-work to make it believable that he could be a donkey and believable everyone could think he's a real lion. Perhaps we could appeal to magic to make it work? The movies showed Nickabrick calling up the White Witch's spirit onscreen in Prince Caspian; they’ve already been readier than the books to show dark magic.
But more importantly, the story needs to show why Shift's gimmick had such effect: the Narnians really do trust Aslan to the extent that Talking Beasts will go into Calormene slavery on the word of a staged appearance under his name. This's repeatedly stated in dialog, but it will be very difficult to make emotionally believable to the audience.
The second huge challenge is one the movies have had to work around before, now to an even greater extent: Lewis's plots don't make good epic cinema. Prince Caspian had to rearrange events and insert an attack on Miraz's castle; Dawn Treader had to create a whole new (poorly-done) plot arc around seven magical swords. The books Silver Chair and Magician's Nephew don't have any battles; Horse and His Boy only has one at the very end. You could film these better as character dramas, or even a TV series; they do lend themselves to it.
From one angle, this shows a flaw in modern moviemaking: they insist on overdoing physical battles. Perhaps the culmination of this trend is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where each fight is extended at great length until it seems (emotionally; I didn't count) that half the film is taken up with physical or magical violence. Myself, I felt so many of the Marvel movies would've been stronger if they'd spent more time on characterization and interpersonal dynamics beyond who can beat up whom.
But there is a real issue here: films need to connect the events more clearly, and they benefit from showing things more visually, as Bret Devereoux admits when reluctantly agreeing that Peter Jackson made the least-bad decision in The Two Towers when he abandoned the book to bring Eowyn and the refugees from Edoras to Helm's Deep.
Even worse, the events of Last Battle invite epic cinema. But Lewis doesn't give us anything like around his protagonist the noble King Tirion.
When Tirion sees Calormenes abusing a talking horse claiming Aslan's orders, he kills them in rage - and then, realizing his rage, gives himself up to the supposed Aslan's judgment. But when he hears what "Aslan" is saying, he realizes this can't be the real Aslan. He's left tied up and rescued by Eustace and Jill, from Earth, having just arrived in Narnia. (Jill also rescues Puzzle, who's quite confused at where Shift has taken things.)
They try to gather forces to fight the Calormenes and overthrow the false Aslan, only to hear that a Calormene fleet has - offstage - conquered the Narnian capital, Caer Paravel. They rescue some dwarves, who refuse to join them or help Aslan's cause or anyone else's. The next night, they go to try to expose Shift's lies - but a small battle breaks out, and they lose and are cast into the stable.
All the epic moments - the Talking Beasts being slain, Caer Paravel falling, and more - happen offstage. Tirion bursts in on them or hears about them after the fact. The only onstage battle ("the last battle of the last King of Narnia") is a small skirmish at the climax - written with the language of a battle, but the camera will clearly show it as a skirmish.
On top of the lack of epicness, to a cinema-ready audience, this doesn't paint Tirion well. At the end of the book, Aslan praises Tirion with "Well done, last King of Narnia, who stood firm in the darkest hour," but no one except a theologically-minded Christian will have seen that onscreen. What they will have seen is a king who's uninformed about events, who at first falls for the enemy's deception, and who - except for minorly inconveniencing the enemy - accomplishes nothing in the end. He firmly trusts in Aslan, which makes him see through the enemy's deception, but it doesn't lead to any deeds except the one ending battle. The plot will need to be changed to make him more alert and active.
And finally, after all this - they lose the skirmish; the Calormenes drag them into the stable and... Lewis intentionally leaves it unclear whether they're precisely killed. But, they're immediately in Heaven ("Aslan's Country" as it's called in the book), even though it's not named as such till much later. They meet the other Friends of Narnia from Earth, such as three of the four Pevensies (I'll discuss Susan's absence later) who it turns out have been killed in a train wreck on Earth - though they don't realize that till Aslan tells them; they experienced it as being instantly brought to this place. They watch as Aslan ends the world of Narnia - and more.
This denouement in Heaven will need effort. Lewis doesn't present it as a simple closure; he spends time (a quarter of the page count!) with our protagonists in Heaven, "unwinding upwards" as his friend Walter Hooper described it. Reducing it to a simple bookend of "happily ever after" would shortchange Lewis's themes, and frankly make the whole plot feel worthless by having our protagonists defeated and then rescued by Aslan at the last moment.
Lewis builds up to this by having Tirion and Jill and Eustace repeatedly consider potential death, decide that death for a noble cause is worth it, and remind each other that Aslan will take care of them despite death. The last quarter of the book in Aslan's Country pays off on this in full measure, painting it as an even more "real Narnia" where every good thing is present in an even better way.
Anyone would have trouble writing characters in Heaven at length. Scriptwriters today - as we see in Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, and all the more in the recent Wheel of Time TV series - lean heavily on arguments and irritation between the protagonists. But once our characters are in Heaven, a single moment of that is gravely inappropriate. Lewis said once that he'd considered a sequel to Screwtape Letters in the voice of an archangel, but he'd given it up as too difficult. Hopefully, any scriptwriters and directors who try Last Battle will be up to the challenge.
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Still, I'll rise to this challenge and present a draft treatment. This will necessarily be theological. But if any studio were willing to take on that, I hope this would be a decent dramatization.
First, we present the setting's assumptions. We open with a crowd of Talking Beasts lamenting how Aslan hasn't shown up since their youth, and how much they need his wisdom. (Perhaps a few Calormenes are visibly on the margins.) Then, Roonwit the Centaur prophesies: Aslan will come back in a way you didn't expect. Then, jump cut - a few years later - to King Tirion hearing that Aslan has been seen near the Great Waterfall, warning that he's got instructions you aren't expecting. (It's actually the false Aslan, but we don't know that yet.) This primes the characters and audience.
Tirion must respond by doing things. He goes to look for Aslan, but he doesn't see him. (Shift doesn't want Tirion getting suspicious yet.) He's dubious about how Shift is stage-managing things, but nothing more. Note that unlike the book, we won't let the viewers in on Shift's deception. This will help the viewers sympathize with the Narnians' point of view.
After this, we can begin with the plot as shown in the book. Tirion sees the Calormenes felling the trees and harnessing the Talking Horses, ostensibly at Aslan's word; he presents himself to Aslan's judgment in faith; he's tied up and rescued by Eustace and Jill come from Earth.
But then - to show Tirion's firmness and to show action in the film - we have to have a battle with the invaders. He hears of a small Calormene army coming (it's easier to show that than the fleet from the books), and he raises local troops (including the Dwarves and Horses we'll see later) to fight them. They march out in good cheer... only to have the False Aslan appear after a small skirmish to tell them to disband.
"This can't be the true Aslan," Tirion says; Eustace and Jill agree. But it works - the army melts away or lets itself be captured. So Calorman conquers Narnia.
And only now do we see Puzzle and Shift talking and hear what's behind the hoax. I think this will preserve suspense for the audience without making things too trite. Accordingly, Jill can rescue Puzzle here.
Now that things have been adequately set up, I think we can proceed per the book. Our protagonists go to Stable Hill to expose the hoax; they see the Calormene god Tash appearing to claim Narnia; we proceed through the Last Battle and Aslan ending the world. Maybe we can enlarge the battle itself a bit, but not too much - I think it's important not to give Tirion a large army, to preserve the themes of evil winning until Aslan defeats it.
Finally, if we preserve Lewis's themes, we must keep a denouement in Heaven before our protagonists find out that they're in Heaven. We should shorten it from the book rather than make it a quarter of the runtime, definitely - but keep something.
But there's one more issue, which's become a lightning-rod for critics totally out of proportion to the role it plays in the plot here: What about Susan Pevensey? In the book - well, on one level, we don't meet her in Heaven because she isn't dead; she wasn't in the train crash that killed the others. Still, at the (only) time the other Friends of Narnia are talking about her, they don't yet know that they're dead and in Heaven. So, they explain that she isn't with them now because she wasn't on that train because she wanted to take on the trappings of being grown-up (Jill specifically mentions "nylons and lipstick"), dismissed Narnia as a childish game, and "is no longer a Friend of Narnia." Unfortunately, this has become a lightning-rod issue, as critics accuse Lewis of damning Susan for having a sexuality. So, any treatment will face criticism for either keeping to Lewis's alleged narrow-mindedness or giving in to the critics.
Perhaps the criticism has some basis, given Lewis actually did have some issues with femininity. It's more apparent in some of his earlier books; his wife Joy, whom he met later in life, was a very good influence on him in this regard. But in context of the rest of Lewis's writings, I think he was meaning to criticize Susan for giving into social approval rather than sexuality.
Well, since this dramatization is already including enough theology to shock those critics, we could just tell it like Lewis did. Or if we're willing to be criticized as giving in, we can just say Susan was doing something else and didn't get on that train. But if we're trying to make things more palatable, we can change the language to make it more clearly giving in to the world.
However it's spun, Last Battle would be a controversial movie. We have protagonists who lose; we have destruction of the world of Narnia; we have a hard-to-sell deception; we have the so-called "Problem of Susan"; we have explicit theology backwards and forwards!
Movie producers don't want this controversy. They'll go for safer options. Meanwhile, the people who don't mind this - small indie Christian studios - would have low budgets and (frankly) lower artistic talent. I fully expect some Christian studio to produce a Last Battle movie once the copyright expires, but I expect it'll be low-budget and low-quality.
But I think this could be a beautiful movie if done right. As a Christian, I want to see this "dogma" be "the drama" onscreen. Beyond that, though, I would love to see the Narnians dealing with the deception, to see Puzzle's confused innocence when rescued, and to watch Tirion's noblity as he fights against growing and growing odds.
And even beyond that - even in the end of Narnia - there are such wonderful images. The Sun eats the Moon, and Father Time (who "shall have a new name now that he has awakened") snuffs out both. And the stars fall to the earth, for "Aslan had called them home."