In only four years of existence, Walden Media has shown it can turn great books into fine films: Holes (2003) and Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) are evidence enough. But Walden dropped the ball on Around the World in 80 Days (2004), a critical and box-office disaster. The difference? Holes and Winn-Dixie were faithful adaptations of the books, while 80 Days—little more than a slapstick farce starring Jackie Chan—was not.

Micheal Flaherty

Micheal Flaherty

The lessons learned, says Walden co-founder and president Micheal Flaherty, were simple: Be faithful to the story. Or, put another way, Don't screw it up.

Right now, the heat is really on Flaherty and Walden, the film studio producing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, releasing December 9. Walden partnered with Disney to market and distribute the film, but Walden retained all creative control. So, if you like the movie, you can thank Walden. If you don't like it, you'll know exactly where to lay the blame.

Since Wardrobe—one of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia—is among the most-loved books in evangelical circles, Flaherty, a Christian and Narnia fan himself, says the pressure to get it right is "insane." But Flaherty, 37 and the father of three young children, promises it will be a "fantastic, faithful adaptation."

I've heard that the Columbine High School shootings had an effect on your life and faith, and even played a part in the formation of Walden Media.

Micheal Flaherty: I was thoroughly depressed after Columbine, but I started to get encouraged when I read about how strong some of the young victims' faith was, particularly Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott. One thing I found interesting was that these kids loved films. Cassie's favorite movie was Braveheart, and I think Rachel's was as well. In contrast, the killers' favorite films were reportedly things like Natural Born Killers.

I decided I would like to find a way to make more great, inspiring films that can lift people up and encourage them, particularly for this age group. So I called my old roommate from college, Cary Granat, who at the time was president of Dimension Films. Cary also wanted to do something more inspirational for the family. So that was the origin of it, acknowledging that media really does have a role in influencing hearts and minds. And finding a way, rather than just to curse the darkness, to light a few candles and get more great films out there.

How would you describe what Walden Media does today?

Flaherty: We try to be a voice for parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, librarians—people who work actively with kids. We find out what stories really get these kids motivated to love reading. And from that we have a great list: Our first movie was Holes, and we just had Because of Winn-Dixie a few months ago.

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Some people say Phil Anschutz is just the big-money guy at Walden. How would you describe his role?

Flaherty: He's intimately involved. Cary and I speak with him several times a week. When we first met with Phil [in 2000] and he decided he wanted to invest in the company, he was involved in everything from writing the mission statement to helping us identify properties. He asked us for ideas of books we would like to turn into films. We mentioned The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and [learned] that was really on Phil's heart. He really wanted to see that film get made.

Some Walden films, like Holes and Winn-Dixie, made good money. But Around the World in 80 Days and I Am David were financial disasters. Can Walden afford to take those hits?

Flaherty: We all went into this with our eyes wide open. The economics of Hollywood says if you're batting .200, if 2 out of 10 of these things are working, then you're hitting the batting average. We're happy with those films, but I think we learned some great lessons from them as well.

Like what?

Flaherty:80 Days, for example, wasn't a completely faithful adaptation, as opposed to our other books. We took some liberties with the book. But I really just don't like talking about that one.

Well, then, what lessons did you learn from Winn-Dixie and Holes? What did you do right with those films?

Flaherty: We learned to listen to teachers, librarians and parents, because they know what stories really capture kids.

You said the Narnia conversations started in 2000. Where did it go from there? Did you just put it on the back burner?

Talks of bringing Aslan to the big screen began in earnest in 2001

Talks of bringing Aslan to the big screen began in earnest in 2001

Flaherty: No, it was definitely front burner. We needed to track down where the rights were, and that took up most of 2001—speaking with Douglas Gresham and the C. S. Lewis estate. Phil and Douglas had many great conversations, and I think Phil really won Douglas's trust and confidence that he would make a faithful adaptation.

Which couldn't have been easy, because they're pretty protective of Lewis's estate.

Flaherty: Very protective. And I'm grateful that Douglas gave us the chance, because when they were talking to us, we hadn't released a single film yet.

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Why the partnership with Disney for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

Flaherty: Because the marketing and distribution of films is such an enormous undertaking. With this film, we have full creative control, while Disney is in control of the marketing and distribution. They're certainly proving that there was no better studio to take this and really create a great franchise with it. We couldn't be happier with the job that they've done.

But hiring the filmmakers and making all the big decisions is all Walden?

Flaherty: All Walden. And that was all in place before we closed any deal with Disney.

Many evangelicals boycotted Disney for a while. And Narnia is very dear to that audience, so there's some irony that Disney is involved. Was that discussed before you partnered with Disney?

Flaherty: What was discussed was that we just need to make a faithful adaptation of this book. That's our sole prerogative. We wanted a guarantee that we had control over that, and Disney really understood that. Everyone was on the same page in terms of making a faithful adaptation out of this.

So if people have gripes about the film adaptation, they should come to Walden, not Disney.

Flaherty: Absolutely. We're trying to build a brand for Walden as something that parents, pastors, teachers and librarians are really comfortable with. So if they see our logo on a movie poster, they'll know that they're going to get a certain experience. We hope that with Holes and Winn-Dixie, people are starting to get an idea.

What's your personal involvement in the film?

Flaherty: I was involved early in terms of the script development, until everyone was comfortable with it—and the key decision person there was Douglas Gresham in terms of the final certification about it being faithful.

I read somewhere that nobody affiliated with this movie is allowed to spit without Douglas Gresham's permission. Is that an accurate description of his creative control on this film?

Flaherty: That quote is sort of a mischaracterization of how it works, because it's such a great collaboration between everybody. I don't think anyone lords approvals over anybody else. I think whoever said that, what they were trying to say was that nobody wants to move forward with this if Douglas doesn't feel comfortable with it.

Do you think he feels a lot of pressure of being the conscience of C. S. Lewis, of actually representing him in this process?

Flaherty: What's awesome about the production is that everybody feels that pressure. Everybody knows this is a monumental responsibility. Everyone knows that that book is a little lower than angels, and that we have to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. That's where we raised the bar to.

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Another Walden film, Charlotte's Web, is coming out next year. The director said that when people hear it's going to be made into a movie, they typically say, "Wow, that's great." But their second reaction is, "Don't screw it up." If they're saying that about Charlotte's Web, how much louder is the "don't-screw-it-up" voice for Narnia?

Flaherty: Oh, it's amplified, particularly from teachers and librarians and parents. They really rightly feel ownership over the property. So you don't want to disappoint those people on so many different levels, artistically, business-wise. It just doesn't make any sense.

But does that feel just a whole lot bigger here?

Flaherty: Without a doubt.

As Lucy peers into the wardrobe, Christians worldwide will be peering at this film, with the highest of expectations

As Lucy peers into the wardrobe, Christians worldwide will be peering at this film, with the highest of expectations

Because it's not just librarians and parents, it's this whole subculture.

Flaherty: It's my pastor. Do you know what I mean? It's every accountability partner I have. I mean it's … Yes, the pressure is insane.

When I heard they were making The Lord of the Rings into movies, I remember thinking, Don't screw it up. But I also decided that if I got hung up on every jot and tittle, every single line of dialogue, I wouldn't be giving myself a chance to enjoy the films. Once I got over that, well, I absolutely love those movies; Peter Jackson got the big things right. Do people need to approach Narnia the same way? Should we insist on every single detail just as Lewis wrote it, or should we mainly be concerned that you got the big things right?

Flaherty: I think it's the latter. But at the same time, with it not sounding like a cop-out, it's just two different mediums—books and film. There's no other way around it. Holes and Winn-Dixie are incredibly faithful adaptations, but there's still things you need to do to bring the story to life. Ditto with Narnia. We didn't lift dialogue 100 percent from the book and put it into the script. But I'm confident in saying that people should have properly high expectations that this will be the faithful adaptation they had hoped and prayed for.

Probably the biggest concern for Christians is that Aslan isn't dumbed down to just an awe-inspiring lion, but that he remains an apparent Christ figure.

Flaherty: I think that's evident to some people in the book, and it's not evident to others. If it's evident to you in the book, it's going to be evident to you in the film. I think that's the officially sanctioned diplomatic answer! (laughs)

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What did you learn from Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings films that you might apply to the Narnia franchise?

Flaherty: The biggest thing we learned from Peter was the importance of a visionary director who had an insane love for the property. So that's what we got with [Narnia director] Andrew Adamson, who consumed all seven of these books and read them millions of times. And for decades, he has been envisioning and dreaming of how he would bring those to the screen.

What are you most excited about when it comes to the release of this film, and what are you most nervous about?

Flaherty: What I'm most excited about is already happening: Last week, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. And Holes and Winn-Dixie actually went to No. 1 on the bestseller list too. Walden's whole purpose is to lead people back to the book and to get them not only to love that book, but to develop a general love for literature.

In terms of what I'm most anxious about, I guess I'm just trying to follow Paul's advice in Philippians 4, which was to be anxious about nothing and pray about everything.

Do you think I'm going to let you get away with that answer? (laughs) Seriously, are you nervous about box office numbers? Anything?

Flaherty: Now that we know we're going to deliver this fantastic, faithful adaptation, I think we've all accepted the fact that after that, things that are out of our control. Disney's run a perfect marketing campaign. Andrew has delivered what we think is a perfect film. After that, there's not much more that we can do.

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