Exclusive Interview: Walden Media President Michael Flaherty on 'Dawn Treader,' the Liam Neeson Controversy, and the Franchise's Future

Walden Media is the production company responsible for "Waiting for Superman," "Amazing Grace," "Bridge to Terabitha," and many more titles most film-goers and especially parents are familiar with. The company is owned by Philip Anschultz who has made clear he wants the company's output to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message. Few would argue Walden's been successful at that and few would argue that Walden is one of the few film production companies able to make big-budgeted Christian-themed films that enjoy wide releases. Among them, the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' beloved and unapologetically Christian "Narnia" series.

With the third "Narnia" film, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," scheduled to land in 3500 theatres today a controversy developed this week that's probably dampened the enthusiasm of more than one member of the franchise's most enthusiastic and loyal supporters: we Christians tired of Hollywood's relentlessly bigoted and unfair portrayal of us and our beliefs -- those of us who look to the "Narnia" series as the rare and respectful allegory that lovingly portrays the beauty of our faith and what it truly stands for.


Unfortunately, two of the main players involved in "Dawn Treader," appear to disagree, not only with our interpretation of what the "Narnia series is all about, but also with C.S. Lewis, the creator of the source novels. Saturday we reported that Neeson, who portrays Aslan, the lion and obvious Christ figure in the story, said the following:
Aslan symbolises a Christ-like figure but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.

And Wednesday, no less than "Dawn Treader" producer Mark Johnson told the Hollywood Reporter he wasn't sure if the "Narnia" novels were Christian:
But Dawn Treader producer Mark Johnson agrees with the, shall we say, more inclusive analysis from [Liam] Neeson, telling The Hollywood Reporter that “resurrection exists in so many different religions in one form or another, so it’s hardly exclusively Christian.”

“We don’t want to favor one group over another … whether these books are Christian, I don’t know,” Johnson added.

So what are we in for this weekend. Has Hollywood twisted "Dawn Treader" into just another touchy-feely, multicultural, PC production that pleases no one in an attempt to please everyone?

Michael Flaherty is the President and one of the co-founders of Walden Media, and was good enough to reach out to Big Hollywood for an interview to discuss the controversy and set the record straight about the film.

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BIG HOLLYWOOD: Michael, first off thanks very much for reaching out and agreeing to do this. We're big fans of the first two films and I'm sure our frustration and disappointment regarding the above comments didn't escape you. Let me start by asking if these comments reflect what we can expect from "Dawn Treader." Have the allegorical aspects of the film been watered down to make the film less Christian?

MICHAEL FLAHERTY: Not one iota. While Lewis would argue that Narnia is not an allegory, rather a “supposal”, there are strong Christian themes in the book that were influenced by Lewis’ worldview. Further, Lewis’ main focus in writing "Dawn Treader" was “the spiritual life.” While every book encounters some changes from the page to the screen, we wanted to make sure that the themes that were important to Lewis – redemption, temptation, grace, and our yearning for our true home - were not only preserved, but amplified through the changes that we made with the script. There were a number of lines from the book that were important to preserve verbatim as well. Most important are Aslan’s lines at the end when he tells Lucy “In your world I have a different name. You must learn to know me by it. That is the whole reason you came to Narnia. By knowing me better here you would know me better there.”

We felt a sacred trust with this scene not only to be faithful to the book, but to be faithful to all of Lewis’ writing. The topic of longing was a theme in so much of what Lewis wrote. My favorite passage in all of Lewis’ writing comes from "Mere Christianity," where he delivers the famous insight that “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” In the Problem of Pain Lewis writes about desiring “something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside.”

Reepicheep is the very embodiment of this longing. At the beginning of the film, we hear Reep reciting his lullaby. He then talks to Lucy about his hope and desire to make it to Aslan’s country. When he finally arrives there at the end, the scenery is breathtaking. Reep delivers an incredibly moving speech to Aslan about his longing and desire for his country. I won’t ruin it for you, but it draws heavily upon the passage in "The Problem of Pain" where Lewis writes about something we “were born desiring,” and that even our greatest moments have been but “tantalizing glimpses” of it. When Reep abandons his sword and bravely sets sail in his little coracle, it will send shivers down the spines of all friends of Narnia.

Finally, there is the critical scene of Eustace’s undragoning. We had a nice workshop during the script development about grace being something that cannot be earned – it can only be given. So we wanted to make sure that this critical concept was conveyed with the undragoning, but we added a battle between Eustace the dragon and the sea serpent.

Here is the way it plays out: Reepicheep encourages a very reluctant Eustace to do battle with the Sea Serpent. Reep makes it clear in a way that only he can – that there must not be any retreat or any surrender. To do so would spell certain death for everybody aboard the Dawn Treader. Yet after some initial fighting, Eustace retreats to protect himself, despite Lucy pleading to him to come back to help them and despite his knowledge that he is most certainly leaving them to die.

He makes his way back to the safety of an Island, defeated and ashamed. He tries desperately to rip off his dragon skin, but he realizes that he cannot do it himself. That is when Aslan approaches Eustace to rip off his dragon skin for him. It is clear in the film that this in not being done in return for anything that Eustace has done – but in spite of it. At a time when Eustace feels more friendless than ever, he realizes that Aslan is the one person who will never abandon him. It is a great illustration of grace.

Later in the film Eustace recounts the episode and says “No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. It hurt – but it was a good hurt. Like pulling a thorn out of your foot.”

So, as you see, we not only went to great pains to make sure that we had the themes from the book right, but we did our fair share of cross-referencing with Lewis’ other great writings.

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BH: A theory being floated about is that Johnson and Neeson represent some sort of cynical marketing move on either Walden's or 20th Century Fox's part; the idea being to attract a broader audience by running away from the Christian element and subtext.

MF: For us, the emphasis was always on getting the story right and making sure that the characters on the screen delivered the lines that were delivered in the book and that all of the crew was on board to make a faithful adaptation. When it comes to lines being delivered in an interview by the cast and crew, that is something that we don’t control.

Lewis’ books have appealed to a broad cross section of readers for over half a century from all different backgrounds and traditions. Lewis often commented that he was more than fine with people enjoying the stories simply as stories, and that if they didn’t understand the subtext that was fine with him.

We hired Mark [Johnson]because he is one of the best producers in the business and he has produced some of my favorite movies – "The Rookie," "The Natural," "My Dog Skip." The best way to be faithful to Lewis was to hire the best possible producer, and that was Mark. He has done a great job with the series and he has given the better part of a decade to making them happen.

The same goes for Liam. We searched for months to find the right actor who could be authoritative and forgiving and comforting. He has hit it out of the park for us and I can’t imagine a different actor playing Aslan. These guys are at the top of their game in film making. But I don’t think that they are about to get an M Div from Dallas Theological Seminary any time soon.

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BH: Another theory is that both Neeson (an actor I very much like) and Johnson, two extremely talented individuals who have successfully worked in the wide world of Orwellian Hollywood for decades, felt the need to publicly inoculate themselves after being involved in what you might call a Red State film. The idea being to remain in good standing within an industry openly hostile to all things Christian and Middle America. I know you can't speak for them and may even disagree with the premise of the question, but I think we can agree that C.S. Lewis could not have been clearer about what the "Narnia" series means and it's hard to imagine that escaped Neeson and Johnson.

MF: Lewis was certainly clear, and everybody in the production is proud to be a part of his legacy. But they were not asked what Lewis thought, Liam and Mark were asked what they thought personally. The most important part of Liam’s quote is “for me.” It’s no surprise to me that a couple of well-meaning folks got caught tongue-tied on issues of faith with the secular media. So many of these questions are asked with a “Gotcha” line of questioning to try to trip up the interview subject and generate controversy. There is no interest in a thoughtful and patient discussion on faith, the kind of discussions that Lewis had with Tolkien and others that eventually led him from atheism to Christianity.

I have done a lot of these interviews as well, and I always laugh when an interviewer asks me “So, is this a Christian film?” It’s not an “either or” question. We all know that question is designed to narrow the audience and pigeonhole it. Lewis himself hated this type of questioning. He used to always say that we don’t need more Christian writers, but we need more writers who are Christian.

It is amazing to look at the entertainment landscape and see the number of properties and performers that have have strong Christian themes and symbolism at their center yet appeal to people of all beliefs and backgrounds. "Les Miserables" is one of the most popular musicals of all time and Jean Valjean sings about “My soul belongs to God I know, I made that promise long ago, he gave me hope when hope was gone, he gave me strength to carry on.” Linus abandons his blanket to read "Luke 2" directly from the "King James" in the "Charlie Brown Christmas." Bono is always singing about Christ, and Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor are always writing about Him. But I don’t think people call "Les Miz" that "Christian musical” or "Charlie Brown Christmas" that "Christian cartoon” or Bono a Christian rocker.

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BH: It is perfectly understandable for an event film such as "Dawn Treader" to want to attract as many customers as possible, which means marketing outside the Christian community to those in the ticket-buying public who might be turned off by what they see as a "religious" film. Thematically, as with most things Christian, this is a story that can appeal to everyone and obviously the "Narnia" series isn't anything close to overbearing or preachy (which I would argue has a lot to do with its longevity), but what would you tell our non-religious friends to assure them they're in for a good time at the movies this weekend.

MF: This is a great action adventure, but it has very strong relationships at its core. Michael Apted is great when it comes to relationships. That is why we hired him on "Dawn Treader" – he did a great job directing "Amazing Grace" for us. Visually, the film is breathtaking.

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BH: And what will Christians find affirming in "Dawn Treader"?

MF: Eustace’s undragoning is a powerful scene, but the best scene is at the end when Lucy has to say goodbye to her beloved Aslan, and Reep asks Aslan if he can see his country with his own eyes. His conversation with Aslan is my favorite scene in all of the films, because it has the quality of the “Well done, my good and faithful servant” greeting that we all hope awaits us one day.

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BH: If it's anything like "Prince Caspian," which was one of my favorite films that year, we're in for a rousing adventure. How would you compare "Dawn Treader's" action/adventure elements to "Caspian?"

MF: We get into the action faster in this movie than in any of the others. The kids are all in Narnia within the first ten minutes, and they are quickly batting Slave Traders, being kidnapped by Dufflepuds, transforming into dragons, and fighting Sea Serpents. That is what makes the film great – it is not entirely battles between opposing armies like PC. There are a number of different challenges and creatures.

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BH: Not having read the novels, I don't know whether or not this was the case, but one of the complaints about "Caspian" was that it wasn't as faithful to the source material as the first film, 2005's "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." If true, I'm sympathetic to Walden on this one because I thought "Caspian" was a much more compelling adventure than the first and realize that rigidly faithful adaptations don't always make for compelling cinema *cough* Harry Potter *cough*cough*.

Fair or not, with those criticisms in mind, what can fans of the novel expect from "Dawn Treader?"

MF: I loved "Caspian" as well, but as Andrew Adamson once said, the book was “a long walk followed by a short battle.” There is a small but vocal group of fans that don’t want a single change from the book to the film. And with Narnia, these fans are really loud. We homeschool our three kids and if you want to meet a group of people who have memorized every line, simply find a homeschool mom and her kids. They take us to task on everything.

But most people realize the difference between a literal adaptation and a faithful adaptation.

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BH: I believe the next in the "Narnia" series is the "Silver Chair," what can you tell us about that? Where is "Narnia 4" in the pre-production stage?

MF: It all depends on the box office for "Dawn Treader." But we are hopeful and while most signs point to "Silver Chair," there also is a possibility of "Magician’s Nephew." That is a great story because it is an origin story that explains in great detail the origin of Narnia, the lamppost, the wardrobe and other iconic images. It also has the White Witch in a strong role.

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BH: I've read that 20th Century Fox -- "Narnia's savior, so to speak, after Disney bowed out -- has already agreed to distribute "Silver Chair," but is it fair to say that could all change if the box office for "Dawn Treader" disappoints?

MF: There have been a number of cheesy nautical references throughout the production of VDT, but we truly are sunk in making any more films from the Chronicles if this one falls short of expectations.

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BH: Thank you again for offering to do this. My personal frustrations with Neeson and Johnson aside, Walden is a ray of light in Hollywood, as is a "Narnia" series that remains true to its source material, and we wish you nothing less than a box office blessing in the coming weeks.

MF: Really appreciate it John, and I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. It is nice to have a journalist interested in a real discussion rather than trying to generate controversy with a throw-away line. I am now calling my Irish Catholic mother to start praying the Rosary that readers will be kind in the talkbacks, and that they judge the film by the film itself, not by a press conference.

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