Listening to him speak, Andrew Adamson sounds a lot like Peter Jackson. And it's not just because the director of Shrek shares the distinctive accent of his fellow New Zealander. Mr. Jackson took on the enormous task of translating J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings novels to the screen, and succeeded in large part due to an almost fanatical dedication to his source material. Now, Mr. Adamson has taken on the similarly daunting task of bringing C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to theaters.
At the Disney Studio complex in Burbank, Calif., to introduce the film to the "faith community," Mr. Adamson enthusiastically explained that he had read all seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia series in about 10 days when he was 8 years old. And as with Mr. Jackson, this dream project was guided by a strong sense of responsibility to its source. "I want to be very faithful to the book, very true to the book, true to my childhood memories of the book," he said.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opens Dec. 9, is a joint venture between Walden Media and Walt Disney Studios, and is the first in planned adaptations of all seven children's fantasy novels by renowned Christian apologist and literature professor C.S. Lewis.
While the film is not yet complete-most of the principal photography is done, but a mountain of special effects still needs to be developed and inserted-Disney and Walden took the unique step of introducing the film to a segment of their audience most concerned about the integrity of the final product. Over 30 faith-based and educational organizations were present at the preview, organized by Motive Entertainment's Paul Lauer. Disney and Walden "felt it was important to assure you that they intend to get this movie right," explained Mr. Lauer.
Since when does a major Hollywood studio care this much about the response of the Christian community? Well, at the very least, since The Passion of the Christ. Mr. Lauer is no stranger to the marketing strategy that propelled that film to worldwide success, having developed the grassroots campaign that mobilized churches and schools around the country behind The Passion.
Mr. Lauer has similar plans for Wardrobe. The marketing of this film will be the most comprehensive program for faith and family groups that Disney has ever undertaken, Mr. Lauer told WORLD. As with The Passion, that will entail meetings with church and education leaders, public events at churches and schools, advance screenings, corollary educational materials, outreach to youth groups and colleges, and a strong emphasis on internet resources.
Mr. Lauer told the audience in Burbank that all of this was designed to allow faith groups to "use the film for [their] purposes." To "leverage" its impact. Of course, all of this is also designed to sell tickets, something in which Disney and Walden certainly have a stake, with Wardrobe promising to be one of the most expensive films ever produced by either company. (Estimates suggest that the budget will run over $150 million.)
But the strategy makes sense, and films like The Passion and even The Lord of the Rings trilogy proved that it could be effective. The Narnia stories, Mr. Lauer points out, have already been embraced by Christians-it's just the studio's job to convince them that the films do the books justice. Oren Aviv, president of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing and representing Disney at the event, understands what's at stake here: "Our goal is to make sure that we make and market the movie so that it has the same significance that the book has had."
How likely is this? That will depend largely on the smaller half of the film's partnership. While Disney is certainly the highest-profile name attached to Wardrobe, the project is really the baby of the modest and relatively new Walden Media. Walden's focus is on educational, family-oriented films. Past projects have included James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, I Am David, Around the World in 80 Days, and, in its most successful collaboration with Disney, Holes.
It's Walden that purchased the rights to The Chronicles of Narnia from the Lewis estate when previous owner Paramount's options ran out several years ago. How did such a small studio capture a prize of this magnitude? To a great extent, it was through the tenacity of Walden's owner, Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, owner of a growing empire of entertainment and media properties, including newspapers, sports teams, arenas, and the largest theater chain in the United States.
According to Bob Beltz, Mr. Anschutz's former pastor who now serves as a liaison between Walden and its parent company, Mr. Anschutz conducted the negotiations with the Lewis estate himself, securing the rights to all seven books and the apparent enthusiasm of Lewis's family.
The years at Paramount produced several "bizarre" plans for adaptations, according to Mr. Beltz. "God was protecting [the books]," he says. Now the approach is different: In a sentiment echoed repeatedly throughout the Burbank event, Mr. Beltz said that there was a "tremendous commitment to keep the film faithful. . . . We view it as a sacred trust." Regarding the pivotal (and explicitly Christian in its imagery) scene in the book at the stone table, Mr. Beltz assured the audience that the scene was rendered "with exact faithfulness . . . what C.S. Lewis wrote appears on the screen."
Although the estate does not have approval over the final cut, they did approve the script. Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis's stepson, is in regular contact with the production, reviewing everything from casting decisions to costumes and special effects. "I haven't changed anything [significant] in the book," said Mr. Adamson, "certainly nothing without the consent of the estate."