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"Narnia" Producer Turns Cherished Literature Into Hit Movies

  • Lisa Rice Contributing Writer
  • 2005 5 Dec
"Narnia" Producer Turns Cherished Literature Into Hit Movies

Last week my three children were the envy of their classmates after bragging that they got to see a press screening of “The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The reactions went something like this: “You’re kidding me!  Your mom gets PAID to watch movies? And, “You saw ‘Narnia?’  No way!  That’s huge!  That’s like … ‘Lord of the Rings’ huge!”

Indeed, anyone who has seen the breathtaking trailers for “Narnia” will probably note many similarities to “The Lord of the Rings,” including captivating fairy-tale characters and profound allegorical truths. A deeper study of the authors behind both films – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – will also reveal that the two were contemporaries, good friends, and devoted Christians who wanted to influence their world through the arts.

Now, more than fifty years later, their works live on in the hearts of children – bigger, brighter, and in living Technicolor and Surround sound – largely through the efforts of artists who, like Lewis and Tolkien, greatly want to impact their culture. We caught up with “Narnia’s” producer, Micheal Flaherty of Walden Media, just as the movie’s buzz was swelling to a rumble – just days before its December 9 opening in U.S. theaters (the biggest in Disney’s history).  Micheal, we’ve noticed that you’ve spent a lot of energy over the last decade focusing on entertaining and educating children through book-to-movie adaptations. My own kids have watched their “Holes” DVD about 7,000 times now.  How did your career – and this passion for adaptations – begin?

Micheal Flaherty:  One of my closest friends in college, Carey Granite, became president of Dimension Films and started wondering how he could use his filmmaking in the field of education. I just happened to be working for the senate in the area of educational legislation and looking for creative ways to combine education and entertainment. We also both had children, who were continually asking great questions like “How far’s the moon? What’s it made of?” We knew that the awful season would arrive when the children’s colossal curiosity would be tapering off, so we got together and wrote up a business plan that focused on feature films that would capture and keep kids excited about “the big questions.” The plan included adaptations of great books of fiction and history, and real-life, compelling applications of math and science – far removed from the boring, abstract visuals of the past.

CW:  That was not being done too much before the '90s, was it?

Flaherty:  No. Venture capitalists looked at us like we were crazy for combining entertainment and education. They said, “You mean you’re doing tuberculosis filmstrips?” It took some convincing, but we found some good backers who caught the vision.

CW:  I know you also specialize in making “movies behind the movies,” like the IMAX film “Pulse” and “Ghosts of the Abyss.”  Then came the ever-popular feature “Holes,” “Because of Winn Dixie,” and “I Am David.” My kids are also excited about your upcoming movies “The Giver,” “Bridge to Tarabithia,” and “Charlotte’s Web” with Dakota Fanning. How do you choose which books to turn into movies?

Flaherty:  We made “Holes” because an elementary school teacher sent the book and begged us to make the movie. We feel so strongly about tapping into the real issues and imaginations of children that we don’t rely on agents or impersonal industry officials to tell us what projects are worthy of attention. We talk to parents, children, teachers, librarians and faith leaders. We question each group, asking, “What books and periods from history are your kids excited about? What questions are your kids asking?” Most of the projects Walden Media produces already have built-in interest and awareness, and are already cherished properties.

CW:  Would you say your current project, “Narnia,” is the most ambitious project of them all? 

Flaherty: Definitely.  We wanted to do it for a long time, and our backer, Phil Anchutz, really wanted to do it, but when we read the book, we realized how hard it would be to pull off visually. We feel so grateful to have found Andrew Adamson, who had directed it in his mind for decades.  We could not believe what he could accomplish with the integration of CG animation and people. He did an unbelievable job with both the look of the film and the story.

CW:  Lewis’s ageless story does come to life in “Narnia.”  There are so many overtly Christian elements in it, including portrayals of Christ’s (Aslan’s) sacrifice and substitution. The Stone Table scene is an amazing portrait of Jesus. But isn’t it a bit politically incorrect to put such a faith-packed film into mainstream theatres?

Flaherty:  Well, the story is the story, and we left all its elements intact. What’s interesting is Hollywood says that, as filmmakers, we’re reflecting the culture. Our attitude is to ask real people – teachers, librarians, and kids – what they want to see. It turns out that all the books they love the most just happen to have strong themes of faith. Since we’re dedicated to making faithful adaptations, that’s what ends up in movies. The press tries to manufacture a portrait of us as being on a mission from God, but really, we’re just giving America what they’ve asked to see.  They try to pigeonhole us as serving only a select audience, but hopefully the box office sales will show that they’re wrong. We believe movies like “Narnia” have a universal appeal.

CW:  I know our whole family – ages 10 to 46 – really enjoyed it. Incidentally, my teenage girls thought your casting of the four children was brilliant. They especially appreciated the teenage boy, of course … I heard something like “whoa, he’s hot.”

Flaherty:  (laughing) Yeah, we’ve gotten some similar responses (about William Moseley) during the screenings. Actually, we did have the best casting director in the world, Pippa Hall, and she chose those children from among thousands. We were really pleased with how each kid perfectly captured their characters.

CW:  How does the movie differ from the book?

Flaherty:  We tried to be faithful to the book, but in some areas we added a few elements that would enhance the story. For instance, the book only briefly mentions the big blitz in just one sentence. We wanted to expand on this and show the four kids to be in real danger. We also wanted to enhance the story of the magician’s nephew in the wardrobe. In the book the closet was much plainer. We feel we were more faithful to the source by making these additions.

CW:  Our greatest congratulations to you and your team at Walden Media. I know that C.S. Lewis must be smiling down from heaven right now as he sees how his vision has exploded on the silver screen. We wish you the best on this and all your wonderful, meaningful, world-changing projects.

Flaherty:  Thank you, and best to you and the folks at Crosswalk. 

Walt Disney Pictures' and Walden Media's "The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, December 9, 2005.  Click here ror more information.