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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Features

The Big-Screen Wardrobe

Walden Media's Michael Flaherty Divulges the Challenges of Filming Narnia

Will Aslan look like a real lion, or a cartoon? Will the echoes of the gospel in the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe be distorted or downplayed? Will the movie adaptation be safe for young children?

Director Andrew Adamson, who unleashed Shrek and Shrek 2 on the world, is under enormous pressure to fulfill not only the expectations of Walt Disney Pictures, but also the demands of C.S. Lewis fans with the release of the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Selected for the job by Disney and Walden Media, he’s expected to deliver entertainment on the level of Peter Jackson’s extraordinary adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Narnia purists will scrutinize his work for accuracy, even as he strives to introduce newcomers to Aslan’s realm with the appropriate grandeur and grace.

There is no doubt that Disney will ensure awe and amazement with cutting-edge special effects cooked up by WETA Workshop, who animated Jackson’s trilogy so impressively. The Workshop has revealed tantalizing glimpses of its progress in Internet exclusives. And Walden Media — a production company focused on positive and family-friendly films, books, and interactive programs — is striving to ensure that young students discover the reservoir of meaning in Lewis’ mythmaking.

But the greatest challenge for the filmmakers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is in bringing C.S. Lewis’ story to the big screen without compromising the core of his storytelling genius. In a sense, Adamson’s task is the opposite of Jackson’s. Tolkien’s tale was so elaborate, filmmakers had to prune whatever branches they could. Lewis’ stories are surprisingly simple, making it necessary for Adamson to embellish a great deal. Doing so without altering the story’s essence is a formidable challenge.

Micheal Flaherty, president of Walden Media, understands this. In fact, it is of paramount importance to him to preserve that integrity. “We always have to be so careful,” he laughs, “because there are so many people who love this book, and they get nervous when they think of any enhancement or addition.” Still, he explains, books and film “are two different media.”

“There are a lot of gaps [to fill] if you want to make a creative, incredibly exciting film,” says Flaherty, a Christian and passionate Narnia fan himself. “So, the key for us was to find this visionary … who had been figuring out how he wanted to make the film for the last several decades in his mind.”

Does Adamson’s vision comply with the specifics of Lewis’ narrative? Imagine the daunting task of creating Narnia’s magisterial lion, Aslan. Upon hearing Aslan’s name for the first time, Lewis tells us, “Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous.” Upon seeing the lion’s fearsome power, “they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”

If Aslan made the children “trembly,” he probably had a similar effect on those assigned to animate him. Says Flaherty: “It is tough to get that combination in there. He’s not safe, but he’s good. … Andrew Adamson and Mark Johnson, the producer, working with Douglas Gresham [Lewis’ stepson] … they just did a fantastic job finding that balance. The lion’s completely computer-generated, and there’s no way to tell that it’s not a real lion, other than the fact that you’ve never seen a lion like this before.”

While Flaherty’s excited about the kingly cat, he’s similarly pleased with other aspects of the film. He points out the relationships among the children, the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve,” as a particular success. (Incidentally, isn’t there something poetic about this film being directed by someone named “Adamson”?) And he calls Tilda Swinton’s performance as the White Witch “outstanding.”

Flaherty sounds more like the president of a fan club than the president of a production company: “Everything from the professor
speaking to Peter and Susan, right up to the kids spilling out of the wardrobe at the end of the story … Andrew and Mark just did such a great job.”

But the lasting power of Lewis’ story stems from more than its plot and characters. In his essay “On Stories,” Lewis describes the essence of storytelling. “To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series — the plot, as we call it — is only really a net whereby to catch something else. … And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird.”

That is to say, if the proper details are in place, they will suggest meanings that cannot be expressed otherwise, ideas that cannot be reduced to a sermon, a lesson, or a paraphrase. Lewis insisted that The Wardrobe was not written as a tract for Christianity: “Everything began with images: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion,” he explained. “At first, there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

So what of the rumors that filmmakers intentionally weakened the film’s Christian implications? “Nothing,” Flaherty insists, “nothing’s happened to enhance or detract from any element of the story. The film is the book.” He’s clearly heard rumors of all kinds, though, and laughs. “The other day [I read] about someone being upset because there was a scene where you could hear toilets flushing at the beavers’ house. I have no idea where that came from.”

Christian volunteers, sensing the arrival of a movie that will open opportunities for evangelism, have mobilized across the country — just as they did for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — to promote what they call a “faith-based film.” One such effort ( nicknamed its volunteers “Narniacs” and promised them film-related rewards. The filmmakers are not making any moves to stop this. Indeed, the production of such film-related propaganda as a soundtrack album populated by Christian pop stars demonstrates shrewd marketing to a built-in audience.

Flaherty believes that the use of Narnia as a teaching tool is almost inevitable. “I don’t think it’s any threat to Lewis’ work,” he says. “The Girls Scouts are using [the movie] to teach about the heroism of the two girls. Churches are going to use it to teach lessons that are important to them. History teachers are using it to teach about the Blitz. Music teachers are using it to teach about the power of music. … The beauty of any great story is that people will run with it. They’ll see truth in it.”

As audiences — Christian and otherwise — count down to opening day, parents may pause, remembering how (appropriately) dark and violent Jackson’s vision of The Lord of the Rings proved to be. Should they shield young children to save them from Narnia nightmares?

“If the book’s acceptable for the family, I think the movie is acceptable for the family,” says Flaherty, father of three children. Still, it is probably wise for parents to proceed with caution. Children may not be alarmed to read about how the Giant in Aslan’s army “crushed dozens of the foe” with his feet. But to see elaborate images calculated to thrill audiences with their ferocity — that can be another matter.

Lewis and Tolkien knew, however, that darkness is an artist’s asset, because it emphasizes the power of light. Evil’s role is an integral part of their vision, which — while whimsical, imaginative, and fantastic — reflects reality. If Lewis is right and the author’s plot is “only really a net whereby to catch something else,” then portrayals of evil in storytelling can capture something else, too: the everlasting promises of God that sustain our hope during dark times.

Flaherty reaches the same conclusion. He feels his mission at Walden Media is to provide stories that catch visions of hope in nets of excellent storytelling. Walden Media coordinates with schools for educational efforts surrounding its films, from the science of James Cameron’s documentaries, to the emphasis on volunteerism in Because of Winn Dixie, to the liberating power of literacy in Holes. “When you’re in the middle of difficult things,” he explains, “you can really get overwhelmed and not understand that you have a path out. For me, it’s [the theme] of Narnia — it’s the hope in a hopeless world.”

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet

Photos copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc., and Walden Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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