Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lions, Witches and Tug-of-war—Oh My!

An Interview with Michael Flaherty

Michael Flaherty is the president of a movie studio that manages budgets in excess of $100 million. He’s also a Christian. If you think that this might make him the target of a lot of suspicion, you’d be right. Any time big money and religion get mixed, B.S. radars start working overtime. Mine included, alas!

But Flaherty is pretty open about the purpose of Walden Media. He recently told Christianity Today that he and Cary Granat started the company “to find a way to make more great, inspiring films that can lift people up and encourage them.” Because they realized that the “media really does have a role in influencing hearts and minds,” they decided, “rather than just to curse the darkness, to light a few candles and get more great films out there.”

“We try to be a voice for parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, librarians—people who work actively with kids,” Flaherty said. “We find out what stories really get these kids motivated to love reading.” So his number one agenda is not, as many liberal skeptics might think, spreading the message of Christianity. It’s also not, as many conservatives suspect, pandering to Hollywood. It’s not even, to be perfectly honest, making “art.”

“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.”

That “certain experience” is familiar to anyone who’s seen one of Walden’s better films: Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The movies convey a sense that Walden’s production teams really paid attention to the books upon which they were based; that the filmmakers actually liked the books; and that they know how to show an audience a good time. For better or worse, Walden’s films also lack a certain spark, the kind that elevates a film to the level of a cinematic classic.

And that’s probably as it should be, given that Flaherty’s objective is not to inspire the next generation of filmmakers.

“What I'm most excited about is already happening,” Flaherty confided to Christianity Today. “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.”

When Flaherty says this, he’s not just pandering to the Christian press. He tells the same story, for instance, to the Boston Globe, which commended Walden Media for “quietly building a portfolio of films that young audiences enjoy, critics applaud, and—surprise—authors and educators endorse. ... If moviegoers walk out of one of their films saying it was OK but the book was better, says [Flaherty], ‘We consider that a success.’”

Many evangelicals, by contrast, are hoping that moviegoers walk of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wanting to know more about the Gospel, not other books. Those hostile to the Christian message, such as His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, just hope that moviegoers stay away.

Somewhere in between, we have a Christian like Flaherty telling the Boston Globe how popular entertainment can ''foster academic interest rather than inhibit it."

Academic interest, eh? Huh.

But maybe the problem isn’t Flaherty. Maybe the problem is that we, as Americans, tend to buy into the idea of the “Culture War” too easily. “I think that the press is clearly obsessed with that,” Flaherty responded when I posed that question to him. “But we like to pride ourselves on being the purple company.”

Neither the Christian press nor mainstream outlets seem too much interested in a “purple” approach to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Christian publications such as Christianity Today and Christian History and Biography have devoted entire issues this fall to The Chronicles of Narnia and author C. S. Lewis. Mainstream entertainment magazines, meanwhile, simply couldn’t be bothered. Premiere, for instance, isn’t carrying a single Narnia feature article in either its November or December issues; and Entertainment Weekly’s “Holiday Movie Preview” edition ran feature articles on King Kong, Jarhead, The Producers, The New World, Memoirs of a Geisha and Rumor Has It, while snubbing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with a mere eighteen lines of text buried on page 82.

News journalists, by contrast, are circling like vultures. But like the Christian press, they’re not particularly interested in the movie per se. They’re looking for controversy, and Flaherty is genuinely puzzled about being caught in a media tug-of-war. He says he often takes calls “from journalists who are very eager to demand why we’re catering to the faith audience; and then literally the next phone call I get is from a journalist wanting to know why we’re retreating from the faith audience. I’ve never been accused of going in two different directions simultaneously—until now.”

He thinks the laregly polarized press generally fosters an inaccurate view of the real world. In his experience dealing with educators, the lines are not so neatly drawn between black and white, red and blue or evolution and intelligent design as our scribes would have us believe. “At the education conferences, we meet Sunday School teachers,” Flaherty told me, “and at the faith conferences we meet librarians.” I had to stop a minute to process that sentence. It seemed to me he’d misspoken; but he hadn’t, and my misunderstanding proved his point. “I don’t think that people truly understand how much all of our worlds constantly intersect.”

“I’m a fan of Lewis,” Flaherty continued, “and in particular of Mere Christianity, because he puts the emphasis on what unites us rather than on what divides us. There are things that all audiences can enjoy, and that’s where we like to put our focus.”

Journalists like me, of course, like convenient labels—precisely because they’re convenient. Companies like Walden Media (and executives like Flaherty) that defy easy categorization give us fits. Perhaps that’s as it should be, and it’s a good thing.

Toward the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children stand on a remote train platform in the English countryside. Like thousands of other bombing-raid refugees, their mother has sent them off to a host family in a safer part of the country. Young Edmund, though, begins to suspect that no one’s coming to meet them. He picks at the tag on his coat and grouses, “Perhaps we’ve been mislabeled.”

Flaherty appears to have had just about enough of labels himself. “I just want people to see the movie,” he sighs, “and then talk about the movie.”

Flaherty will get his Christmas wish tomorrow.

Images Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Walden Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


Our Narnia Team's reviews of the film are up! It's a mixed bag—check 'em out.


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