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The chronicles of making 'Narnia' a film

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At the beginning of 2001, Perry Moore embarked on a quest. Moore, an executive with an untested movie company called Walden Media, dispatched an impassioned letter to the chief executive of C.S. Lewis Co., seeking movie rights to the "Chronicles of Narnia" fantasy novels.

He vowed that Walden would be able to turn "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first book published in the series, into a movie. Over the previous seven years, in a time before "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" had shown the profit potential in family-friendly sorcery epics, every major studio in town had turned down the project, some even twice.

Almost five years later, Moore's promise will be kept, thanks to an unlikely cast of collaborators, including a former Tasmanian sheep farmer, a media-shy billionaire disgusted with much of Hollywood's cinematic fare, and Walt Disney.

The march of technological progress and the United States's shifting social currents have played their roles in bringing this saga to a resolution. But fittingly for a book and series in which Christian themes of sacrifice and resurrection are more than mere subtext, less quantifiable factors also featured prominently.

"This was a three-way leap of faith, frankly," Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said.

The movie that is emerging, with a production cost near $150 million, provides epic sweep, to judge from about 10 minutes of nearly completed film. But beginning in December, the audience will make the determination if the faith was justified.

A scholar at Oxford and Cambridge, Clive Staples Lewis was a prolific writer of literary criticism, poetry, science fiction, novels and muscular defenses of Christianity. But nothing he wrote has captured the imaginations of more children and adults than the seven books that make up "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Beginning in 1950 with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he conjured a world of talking fauns and beavers in which the four young heroes are thrust into the endless battle between good and evil. Since then, more than 95 million copies in 41 languages have been sold.

If that seems perfect fodder for a movie, Lewis's view of film was nonetheless ambivalent. Underpinning his confession that he was "rather allergic to films" was a concern that a steady diet of visual images on screen could embalm the imagination, particularly of the young.

Yet Lewis did not sneer at popular culture as a whole. "He recognized that there was great power here, but an irresistible tendency to make things vulgar, of playing to the simplest emotions," said Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College and author of "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis."

Until this year, video renditions of Lewis's fantasies were confined to television. But despite their accolades, the washed-out animation and actors in beaver suits left one important constituency dissatisfied Douglas Gresham, who in addition to being the artistic and creative director of C.S. Lewis Co., is Lewis's stepson. He lived with Lewis for 12 years as a youth, after his American mother, Joy Davidman, struck up an epistolary friendship with the British scholar and the two later married.

Gresham worked for a circus in London when he was 21, before making a living as a Tasmanian sheep farmer and a radio and television broadcaster in Australia. But he says he always wanted to turn the Narnia books into feature films. In a New York hotel room last month, a large cross dangling from his neck and khakis tucked into knee-high leather boots, Gresham said that he felt a moral imperative to spread the values of his stepfather's works. Soon after he started at C.S. Lewis Co., in 1993, the estate granted Paramount, on behalf of Kennedy/Marshall Co., the option to make the film.

Despite a track record that included "ET the Extra-Terrestrial" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall made some missteps. One version contemporized and Americanized the story. But the producers soon realized that moving the tale's bookends from a blitz-ravaged Britain to a quake-shaken Los Angeles did not work.

Fidelity to the book became the new watchword. At one point under John Boorman, whose directing credits included "Hope and Glory" and "Excalibur," the project came tantalizingly close to pre- production. But Disney, Universal and Paramount all passed on that proposal. The projected cost was a problem. Budgets ranged from $90 million to $116 million. The option lapsed and the estate was free to turn elsewhere.

In Walden Media, C.S. Lewis Co. found an unlikely partner.

Dreamed up in 2000 by Cary Granat, a Miramax executive, and Michael Flaherty, a former Massachusetts Senate aide, Walden is backed by Philip Anschutz, who founded Qwest Communications and is a social conservative active in the Presbyterian Church. Anschutz decided that instead of bemoaning the sex-and-violence-drenched work of Hollywood, he would do something about it.

His outsider status and sense of mission not to mention his billions helped Walden clinch the rights to the books. It also helped withstand the mad rush previously uninterested studios made for the material in late 2001, as such epics became suddenly fashionable.

C.S. Lewis Co. stayed loyal to Walden. At a two-day meeting in New York, Walden laid out its vision, along with promises that the children would not be Americanized and that the guardians of Lewis's legacy would be deeply involved in the production. Anschutz asked Gresham and fellow executives of C.S. Lewis Co. for what the estate considered a fair deal; a handshake agreement came a few minutes later, Moore said.

Nearly four years later, Gresham said his trust was not misplaced.

Gresham was involved at every stage, from the choice of director (Andrew Adamson of "Shrek") to casting decisions to trekking to sets in New Zealand (four times) and the Czech Republic (once).

Gresham and C.S. Lewis Co. also signed off on last year's decision to bring Disney in as a 50/50 partner after two years of preproduction and much of the casting. A personal connection helped seal the deal. Referring to Cook of Disney, Gresham said, "He was a man I felt I could trust."

By putting up about half the budget, Disney became more than a distributor. Disney executives were involved in casting decisions, were on the set and provided notes. Disney led the marketing effort, one of its most elaborate yet.

It is a remarkable about-face for a company that had rejected the project before, partly because of qualms over its Christian themes, according to Kennedy.

"Harry Potter" proved that a faithful book adaptation with a cast of unknown British children could yield a blockbuster, and "The Passion of the Christ" demonstrated that religiously minded people were hungry for a movie they could embrace.

Despite all the factors that converged at the right moment for this film, it is still not a sure thing. For starters, Adamson had never directed a live-action film. And "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is scheduled to open just four days before Universal's "King Kong," an epic directed by Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings." Trickiest of all, perhaps, is Disney's marketing strategy. On the one hand, it acknowledges the religious symbolism of the book by appealing to religious groups with some of the same companies and tactics used to promote "The Passion of the Christ." But it also reaches out, for example, to fantasy fans with a junket to Comic- Con and to schoolchildren with lavish educational tie-ins. In trying to please everyone, the movie could end up pleasing no one.

Still, millions of children and adults have read the "Narnia" books without detecting the Christian themes.

Despite the risks, confidence prevails at Walden, Disney and C.S. Lewis Co. The creative team behind "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has already begun work on a script for "Prince Caspian," the next book chosen for a film adaptation.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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