Cover Story

The chronicles of making Narnia

A few cheeseburgers and cheesy productions later, the Christian classic finally comes to life on the screen

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

NEW YORK—When Paramount owned the film rights to The Chronicles of Narnia, its plan at one point was to set the C.S. Lewis children's classic in present-day Brentwood. Instead of a White Witch wooing young Edmund with Turkish Delight, a cool Californian would win him with cheeseburgers. "They never made it," notes a grateful Mark Johnson, the producer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the first book in the Narnia series and due in theaters Dec. 9.

Thanks to the wonders of computer-generated animation and a unique array of talent, filmgoers instead of enduring cheese are being treated to a golden age for Christian fantasy on film. Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to screen in three stunning installments that culminated in 2003's Return of the King, a film that swept all competition with a record-setting 11 Oscars. Two years later it's still hard to believe that Tolkien's once-obscure Middle Earth fantasy, replete with heavy Christian overtones, has become one of the most successful film franchises in Hollywood history.

That success set the stage for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-an ambitious collaboration involving Mr. Jackson's special-effects wunderkinds along with the small, education-oriented production house Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures.

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While previous attempts to visualize Lewis' beloved tales were made (most notably in a 1988 British miniseries), the book has never received the big-screen treatment it deserves. And while many a fan may have longed for a full-scale production that would do the books justice, devotees should be grateful to the C.S. Lewis estate (managed by Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham) that none got off the ground before now.

But it was that other fantasy franchise, Harry Potter, that finally catapulted Walden and Disney into Narnia production, according to Wardrobe's producer, Mark Johnson. "U.S. studios were reluctant to make any movie that had British kids in British situations at its core. They didn't think that American audiences would tolerate that," he said. "When Harry Potter came along and was so successful, I think that allowed this movie to get made as faithfully as it did."

The long journey to theaters this month highlights the complex process involving players who don't always share Lewis' faith and worldview (or sometimes even fully understand them), but who are united by a common respect for the integrity of the work and a desire to remain essentially faithful to it.

When Walden Media president Micheal Flaherty and college roommate Cary Granat, now Walden CEO, formed their production company, "the crown jewel" of film adaptations for them was The Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Flaherty told WORLD. The company began, he said, with an eye towards making faithful film adaptations of great books that would generate greater interest in the books they were based on, and in reading in general.

Much of the credit for creating a straightforward (faithful may be a description debated by purists) adaptation of Lewis' work rests with Walden, the smaller half of the film's production partnership. With only a few productions under its belt (Because of Winn Dixie, Holes, Around the World in 80 Days), Walden looked to conservative media investor and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz and discovered he too had an interest in bringing great books to the screen, and a specific interest in bringing Narnia to life.

But Walden still needed a distribution partner with box-office muscle. Walden had worked with Disney on two films and discovered that "everybody at the company" was committed to making a faithful adaptation with wide distribution, said Mr. Flaherty, "a commitment that they have overdelivered on every day."

With some special effects in the hands of Mr. Jackson's New Zealanders at Weta Workshop, the team looked to another Kiwi, Andrew Adamson. Mr. Adamson is well known as a top animation director-he was behind DreamWorks' two highly creative Shrek movies-but had never directed a live-action feature. With Shrek, however, Mr. Adamson said, "I had taken kind of a fantasy story with animated characters and imbued it with a lot of human qualities, and I think that's what they felt this story should be. Yes, it's a big, epic fantasy story but ultimately it's a story about human characters with human values."

Unlike Paramount, Mr. Adamson said he didn't want to contemporize the classic and wanted it to stay in period. But he did expect the producers "to want to contemporize it, to want to Americanize it, and they didn't. They wanted to be true to the book-which is what I wanted from reading it as an 8-year-old."

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