Several popular children's books have recently been adapted for the big screen—"Holes," "I Am David" and now "Because of Winn-Dixie"—and these faithful adaptations have the same driving force behind them: Walden Media.
An upcoming screen adaptation of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is due in December 2005. (ww.narnia.com)
Walden's co-founders, Cary Granat and Micheal Flaherty, are also sitting on the granddaddy of children's literature—C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia—which they'll unveil in theaters this Christmas with a live-action version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
As Hollywood continues to catch flak for distributing sex and violence to multiplexes, and as various watchdogs scream and point, Walden Media has dependably stuck by its 2001 founding mission of producing entertainment that inspires youngsters to learn about their world.
Walden's modus operandi is painfully simple: Talk to educators, families and religious and community leaders to find out which books kids love at the moment, and then faithfully adapt those books for the silver screen, thus pushing more children back to a love for literature and learning.
"We try to use film to introduce kids to great books," Micheal Flaherty, Walden's president, told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from his office in Boston. "The hope is that that will lead kids back to the book and to other books."
Walden's first feature film was "Holes," a 2003 film based on Louis Sachar's 1998 book about a boy at a detention camp who must figure out why the residents dig holes. The book won the Newbery Award, National Book Award and Reader's Choice Award, and the film grossed almost $70 million domestically.
Walden's partnership with Disney to adapt the Jules Verne classic Around the World in 80 Days was a box-office disappointment in the summer of 2004, even though it featured the blockbuster appeal of Jackie Chan.
The smaller, more intimate film "I Am David" went into limited release at the end of 2004, having enjoyed a terrific festival run where it earned numerous honors. Based on the children's novel (originally called North to Freedom) by Anne Holm, "David" tells the story of a boy who escapes a Bulgarian concentration camp in the post-World War II years and gets his first taste of freedom. "I Am David" will be released on DVD this spring.
"Because of Winn-Dixie" was released Feb. 18, earning more than $10 million opening weekend. Based on a 2001 Newbery Award winner by Kate DiCamillo, "Winn-Dixie" shows how a girl and her new dog bring a disparate group of lonely locals together. Walden partnered with Twentieth Century Fox to bring "Winn-Dixie" to the screen. The two companies entered a five-picture production and distribution deal last summer.
Walden is already in development on other projects that adapt favorite children's books for the screen. The books include Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, Nim's Island and Hoot. Walden also owns the rights to the comic book series Biblionauts and is working on real-life film adaptations about Jim Thorpe ("Carlisle School") and Wilbur Wilberforce ("Amazing Grace").
Flaherty described the last two projects as historical dramas and added that Walden hoped to publish its own books about the stories. "Carlisle School," about Jim Thorpe and how a group of Native Americans achieved success on the football field, is being scripted by John Sayles, the filmmaker behind "Eight Men Out," "Lone Star," "The Secret of Roan Inish" and "Passion Fish."
Though most of Walden's projects are literary adaptations, the company has also teamed with filmmaker James Cameron (who wrote and directed "Titanic") to produce several IMAX films meant to spark children's interest in math and science. It has already produced "Ghosts of the Abyss" and "Aliens of the Deep" with the filmmaker whose own love for scientific exploration is well known.
Walden's biggest triumph, however, is probably on the horizon: the December 2005 release of the most popular installment in Lewis' beloved Narnia series. Andrew Adamson, director of "Shrek," is at the helm of this live-action adaptation that is using the New Zealand special effects shop behind "The Lord of the Rings."
Walden has successfully optioned all seven installments of Lewis' fantasy work, with Disney on board to distribute the films.
"We have full creative control," Flaherty said, "but they've been doing a great job on the marketing and distributing side."
When asked how Walden scored the project, Flaherty simply replied, "Grace." He followed it with lots of laughter. "Obviously, it was a dream and we never thought it would become a reality."
It has become a reality, however, largely due to Walden's ability to convince the C.S. Lewis Company that Walden would faithfully adapt Lewis' tales.
Flaherty mentioned legendary stories that circulate about how previous screenwriters had wanted to adapt the books. One version had the kids entering Narnia not through the wardrobe, but through a crack in the bottom of a pool. Another version wanted one of the book's characters to enjoy not Turkish delight, as Lewis wrote, but hamburgers.
Flaherty said people are free to write their own stories, but Walden is in the business of faithful adaptations.
Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint told reporters covering the release of "Winn-Dixie" that the faithfulness of the adaptation really drew her to the script.
"When I read the script, I realized it was so close to the book, and they didn't invent characters, which so often they do," she said. "I think children are disappointed because if they really love the book, they visualize—as we do as adults sometimes. We see something made into a movie and we're disappointed because it doesn't follow the book."
"I think they did such a good job following the book," she continued.
Flaherty holds a degree in English and history from Tufts University, where he and Granat were roommates. After college, Granat went to work in the entertainment business, heading up Dimension Films, which was enormously successful producing horror movies.
Flaherty, meanwhile, focused on improving education programs and systems. Flaherty co-founded the Frederick Douglass Charter School and also implemented other innovative educational programs in troubled areas of his hometown, Boston.
As the two friends were themselves starting families, they decided to try to form a company that would focus on learning-oriented films. Flaherty, who used to work for the president of the Massachusetts senate, said the most significant absence in educational reform he had seen was the inability to motivate children to learn.
He and Granat believed, however, that moving pictures were simply one means to inspire a love for learning. They drew up a business plan and, Flaherty says, "proceeded to get laughed out of every venture capital office" from one coast to the other.
Every office but one, that is. Their fortune changed when billionaire entrepreneur Philip Anschutz got interested. Anschutz helped finance and shape Walden, making the company part of his Anschutz Film Group, along with Bristol Bay Productions (which produced Academy Award nominee "Ray").
Anschutz, who keeps his media profile to a minimum, has a stated interest in putting more family friendly entertainment out for public consumption. Granat and Flaherty had found a willing partner.
Right Place, Right Time, Right Message
It appears that Anschutz, Granat and Flaherty have been ahead of the curve. A recent Variety article noted that PG films out-grossed R films in 2004: $2.3 billion to $2.1 billion. It is the first time in 20 years this has happened.
Various theories are afoot to account for the change, but it's happening all the same. All of Walden's films have earned either a G or PG rating—there's not even a PG-13 in the bunch.
When "Holes" was released, director Andrew Davis told EthicsDaily.com its PG (as opposed to PG-13) rating was important.
"We wanted young kids to be able to see the movie," said Davis. "And it does have some strong themes in it. And it's got some real drama in it. At the same time, we didn't want it to scare kids."
One of the more interesting qualities of Walden's work is the lack of sugar-coating in its products. Their films aren't necessarily topped with cherries; rather, they actually engage life's realities and seek to illuminate the human condition in ways suitable for children as well as adults.
"What better way to entertain than to show joy triumphing over adversity," said Flaherty, who sits on the advisory board of the Center on Media and Child Health and lives close to Henry David Thoreau's famous Walden Pond, which gives the company its name.
As Thoreau says in Walden, "Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."
Flaherty and Granat are carving a niche in Hollywood that is filling up not just with family entertainment, but learning-based entertainment. Their mission is clear and their method straightforward.
"Too many times Hollywood will cynically market to schools and churches and exploit them as a distribution channel," Flaherty said. What makes Walden unique, however, is that it starts with the audience instead of pandering to it after the fact.
Walden keeps in close touch with children, families and their community leaders through concept, development and distribution. That's distinctive, Flaherty said.
And no doubt, it's the sound of a different drummer.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Walden Media is here.
MOVIE REVIEW: Holes
MOVIE REVIEW: I Am David
MOVIE REVIEW: Because of Winn-Dixie
INTERVIEW: Bridging Gaps With Holes: An Interview With Andrew Davis
INTERVIEW: Shooting Outsiders: An Interview With Paul Feig
FEATURE: Human Connectedness Vital, Says 'Winn-Dixie' Cast
FEATURE: 'Winn-Dixie' Actress Mature Beyond Years