Monday, December 13, 2010

The Irony of Technology in “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”

I write so often about bad news involving engineering and technology because engineers usually learn from mistakes more than they learn from success. But not always. A more positive theme in engineering ethics takes exemplary cases of how engineering was done right, and asks why and how things worked out so well. That’s what I’m going to do today with the latest installment of the series of “Chronicles of Narnia” movies, namely “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

It is ironic that the most advanced computer-generated imagery (CGI) and computer animation was used to bring to the screen a story by a man who was a self-proclaimed dinosaur, an author who wrote all his manuscripts by hand with a steel pen and never learned how to drive a car. C. S. Lewis, who died in 1963 after achieving fame as one of the greatest imaginative Christian writers of the twentieth century, also wrote one of the most prescient warnings about the damage that applied science and technology could do to society. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis warned that the notion of man’s power over technology was wrongly conceived. The thing that increased scientific and technological abilities really allow, is for those in control of the technology to wield more power over those who are not in control. Of course, he granted that technological progress had also led to great benefits, but that was not his point.

Perhaps the most popular of all his works of fiction is the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, a set of seven interrelated books for children in which he drew upon his vast learning as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature to produce one of the most completely realized works of fantasy ever written. I have read all of the stories many times. And like many other readers, I had my doubts that any cinematic version of them would stand a chance to live up to the unique standard posed by the books. For one thing, Lewis’s descriptions of fantastic beings such as minotaurs, centaurs, and fauns are suggestive rather than exhaustive, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, as most good literature does. This throws a great burden upon anyone who attempts to render the stories in a graphic medium. I was saddened to see at the end of the movie the dedication “Pauline Baynes 1922-2008.” Baynes was the artist chosen by both Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien to provide illustrations for the “Chronicles” and for many of Tolkien’s imaginative works as well. Baynes’s drawings fit in with Lewis’s descriptions so well because they did what book illustrations are supposed to do: namely, they enhanced the reader’s experience without turning the story in a direction not intended by the author.

And that is what the hundreds of IT professionals, artists, technicians, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and others involved in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” film have done. As computer graphics has advanced, people engaged in what began as a purely engineering task—to render a realistic image of a natural feature such as the hair on a rat being blown by the breeze atop the mast of a sailing ship—find themselves having not only to deal with the sciences of mechanics and fluid dynamics, but even now and then making fundamental advances in our understanding of how air flows through fibrous surfaces or how light travels through a complex mineral surface. Fortunately for the moviegoing public, none of this needs to be understood in order to watch the movie, the production of which is comparable in today’s terms with the effort needed to build part of a medieval cathedral. But anyone can walk into a cathedral and enjoy the stained-glass windows without understanding how they were made. This connection is not lost on the moviemakers. In fact, the very first scene in the film focuses on a stained-glass window showing the Dawn Treader ship, just before the camera zooms away to reveal a tower in the city of Cambridge, where the story begins.

It is this sensitivity to the spirit of the tales and the style, if you will, of Narnia that makes the movie both an essentially faithful rendition of the book, and an excellent adventure on its own. For cinematic reasons, the screenwriters did some mixing of plot elements and originated a few new ones, but entirely within the spirit of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “ethics of elfland.” Chesterton expresses the ethic this way: “The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld.” The chief plot innovation concerns a search for the seven swords of the lost lords of Narnia, which unless I’m mistaken were not in the original story. But until these swords are placed on a certain table, the Narnians cannot triumph over a strong force of evil that threatens to undo them.

What would C. S. Lewis think? Well, those who believe in an afterlife can conclude that he will find out eventually about what has been done with his stories, and perhaps some of us will some day be able to ask the man himself. He may answer, but then again he may view his earthly works in the same light that St. Thomas Aquinas viewed his own magisterial works of philosophy toward the end of his life. According to some reports, Aquinas was celebrating Mass one day when he had a supernatural experience. He never spoke of it or wrote it down, but it caused him to abandon his regular routine of dictation. After his secretary Reginald urged him to get back to work, Aquinas said, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” Once one encounters that joy which, in Lewis’s words, is the “serious business of Heaven,” the fate of a children’s story at the hands of this or that film crew may not seem all that important. But those of us still here in this life can rejoice in a faithful rendition of a spiritually profound work, made possible in no little part by engineers who simply did their jobs well and with sensitivity to the spirit of the project.

Sources: The Chesterton quotation is from chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland,” of Chesterton’s 1908 book Orthodoxy. I used material from the Wikipedia article on St. Thomas Aquinas in the preparation of this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment