In the summer of 2008, one of the biggest questions critics and entertainment reporters were asking was, "What happened to Prince Caspian?"
The film's predecessor and the first of C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories to reach the big screen, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, shattered industry expectations in 2005 by earning more than $65 million in its opening weekend and going on to gross nearly $300 million domestically. To put those numbers in context, it was the second-highest-grossing movie of the year, beating even Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So there was no reason for Walden Media, the small, family-friendly studio responsible for Wardrobe, not to expect big things from the sequel.
But when Prince Caspian finally hit theaters, the towers of Hollywood did not shake nor even rattle. Though the $55 million it took in over its opening weekend marked only a 16 percent decline, it suffered from poor word-of-mouth. By the end of its run Caspian's total was less than half of Wardrobe's, making it a serious disappointment for everyone involved.
By 2009, negative associations with Caspian looked ready to sink the third film in the franchise, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Disney, which had partnered with Walden on the first two films, no longer wanted to provide the kind of budget Walden wanted. It dropped Dawn Treader in the middle of pre-production, and there followed considerable speculation that Caspian would be the end of The Chronicles as feature films.
Happily for fans, 20th Century Fox decided there was life left in Narnia. The studio stepped in to take Disney's place. So the question box-office handicappers are asking now is, "What did Walden learn from Caspian, and will it be enough to keep Dawn Treader and the franchise afloat?"
Plenty of differences between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian could have contributed to Caspian's underperformance. One of the most notable was timing-Wardrobe hit theaters in the second week of December, Caspian in the middle of May. No surprise then with the series' life on the line, Walden has decided to return to a pre-Christmas release for Dawn Treader.
But Walden co-founder and president Micheal Flaherty doesn't mince words when acknowledging that there were other, less superficial mistakes his studio made with Caspian that it took care to avoid this time around. One of the most significant, he says, was ignoring the franchise's core audience.
Much has been made of Walden's distinctive approach of promoting some projects to pastors, youth groups, and parachurch organizations (outlets like Entertainment Weekly and Politico have even accused the studio of pushing a religious agenda). However, says Flaherty, shying away from that approach and relying instead on standard Hollywood methods of marketing cost Walden dearly with Caspian.
"We got cocky," he admits. "With Wardrobe, we were the hardest-working production in show business. We went everywhere. We went to every teacher's conference, we went to every faith conference, we went to every concert to let people know that this film was coming out and ask them for their support." After Wardrobe's stunning success, Flaherty says the studio took it for granted that Caspian was destined to do as well. "We thought we just needed to let people know the date it would be coming out," he laughs.
An incident at church soon made him realize how wrong he had been. "My pastor gave a sermon a month after its release and mentioned how much he liked it. So I went up to him after and thanked him, and he said, 'Yeah it was great, I just wish I had known when it came out, I could have said something earlier.' That was a real sign for us that we didn't want to make the same mistake with [Dawn Treader]."
While pastors and parachurch organizations are no doubt happy to hear that Walden has new appreciation for their audience value, most weren't bothered by being overlooked so much as they were by the content of the film. In an interview earlier this year, Dr. Jerry Root, who teaches Lewis at Wheaton College, complained, "The worst element in Prince Caspian was when Lucy sees Aslan for the first time on her return to Narnia. In the book she exclaims, 'Aslan, you're bigger!' Aslan responds, 'I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.' In the movie, this was seriously compromised to, 'Aslan, you've grown!' Aslan replies, 'Every year you grow, so shall I.' It is a horrible compromise of Lewis and really bad theology." Many other high-profile pastors and Christian leaders agreed that Caspian distanced itself from the books' biblical themes while at the same time imposing values that weren't consistent with Lewis' beliefs.
While no one involved with the production will directly state that Caspian underplayed Lewis' theological subtext, Flaherty says that during the making of Dawn Treader, Walden had as many Lewis experts as possible on hand to advise them on the points they "absolutely could not miss." And he maintains that even with changes to the plot, Walden strove to maintain Lewis' worldview. "We added things with the conviction that they were amplifying Lewis' themes and not taking away from them." Specifically, he says they "really wanted to play up that theme of the Christian walk, the spiritual journey, all the things that continue to hold us back from being the person that we were created to be."
Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson and an executive producer on all three films, describes himself as the "Narnia purist and card-carrying Christian" on the production team. "Which basically means I'm the resident nuisance," he jokes. "So if you move a comma from one point on the page to another, I'm the one that jumps up and down and screams." When a choice between deferring to the other filmmakers and digging in his heels over a story change arose, Gresham says he prayed for wisdom and let the deciding factor be whether the alteration affected the film thematically.
"I can't really speak to the plot additions because I don't always understand them myself," says Gresham. "And I sometimes have to accept, not without a fight I hasten to add, what they say we have to do. I stick to making sure that we get the theological messages that Jack [C.S. Lewis] himself was trying to portray in the books. And I think we've done that."
I mention, as an example of his point, the particularly significant line in the book where Aslan tells Lucy that he is also in her own world, but by a different name. Gresham laughs and admits, "That was one of the fights that I won. That scene was done the way I wanted it to be done almost completely."
Though almost all of the focus on Dawn Treader centers on whether it will achieve enough to allow the franchise to go forward (Gresham bluntly says, "I'd love to do Silver Chair next, but it depends entirely upon how much the public supports this movie"), Flaherty points out that there may be more at stake than merely the future of The Chronicles. "If the Narnia films do well, it sends a message to the other studios that they should also be making films like this," he says. "One of Walden's counterintuitive goals is that we invite imitators. The more studios making family-friendly films, the more studios making films based on good books, the more successful we feel like we've been."
For a review of the film, see "Fantastical."