Michael Flaherty is a devout Catholic homeschool dad of three. He created Walden Media as a movie, television, publishing and internet enterprise whose goal is to teach and entertain kids. Walden Media has created such films as Bridge to Terabithia, Charlotte’s Web, and all the Narnia movies. After screening his most recent release, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I spoke to Mr. Flaherty about Narnia, his Catholic faith and other passions.
I read that you first discovered the Christian themes in the Narnia books while teaching a CCD class.
I had just moved to New York City after living in Boston my whole life and there’s a program there called “Narnia.” A couple of guys I worked with at National Review magazine introduced me to the program because I wanted to teach CCD. I asked the woman who was running it, “Why do you call it Narnia? I love those books!” I hadn’t picked them up in a long time, so she explained it all to me. From that, I was able to understand Mere Christianity and really start reading a lot more of Lewis. That was the brilliance of Lewis– as a kid, I could just enjoy [his books] as great stories, and then when I grew up I could understand and appreciate them at a whole new level.
C.S. Lewis has stated that he did not write the Narnia Chronicles with the intention of telling a “Christian fairy tale for children,” but that the Christian themes evolved as he wrote. Since you heavily market the Narnia films to Christian groups, do you view the films as entertainment or as evangelization opportunities?
It’s interesting because I think in our culture right now that there’s this “either/or” idea— that it’s either Christian or it’s not. I’ve never seen it that way. My favorite musical is Les Miserables. One of my favorite bands is U-2. I love Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Christian themes and symbols drive and dominate all of those things, but I don’t think people necessarily consider that Christian entertainment. Ditto with Lewis. There’s so much in there that’s rich that Christians can enjoy and appreciate. One of my favorite people on the planet is Dorothy Day and she used to say, “I don’t think Our Lord minds if we see Him in places other than His book.”
The theme of Temptation is especially prevalent in this film. How do you think children who see the movie will relate to this theme?
Well, we have a great test group with my three little homeschooled kids. As any parent knows, you’re amazed every single day at how much your kid can perceive and how much they can understand and appreciate even the deepest of themes– even ideas like grace and temptation and that we weren’t built for this place. We’re built for another world, for heaven, and hopefully one day we’ll make it there. All of that is in Narnia, but at the same time the six year-olds just love the adventure. It really works for all those ages.
Eustace is such an interesting character. The scene where he changes back from a dragon to a boy certainly has a Christian element. Why does he need Aslan’s help?
Because he can’t redeem himself. In the film and in the book, Eustace is turned into a dragon, and he realizes that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. He desperately wants to be a boy again and he does everything he can to rip that dragon skin off himself. Each time he rips it off and thinks he has succeeded, it grows right back. He gives a beautiful description to his cousins when he says, “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it myself. I had to ask Aslan to do it. It hurt, but it was a good hurt, like pulling a thorn from your foot.”
You started Walden Media as a way to get more children to read by making movies based on great books. My family has seen and enjoyed most of your movies, after first reading the books. What is your secret to bringing these books to life?
Get out of the author’s way! I’d love to say we batted a thousand and that we’ve always done a good job. But we talk about temptation and pride and these other things. Sometimes we’ve forgotten that North Star, and we thought we knew better. We got away from the real themes the author wanted to tell, and the audience has spoken unequivocally anytime we do that. They just have no interest in the film– that’s not what they wanted to see. Of course anytime we adapt something, you have to make changes from the book to the screen. The key for us is to keep those key characters and key themes intact.
One of my favorite C.S. Lewis books is The Screwtape Letters. The movie adaptation has been on, then off, now I hear it’s back on. Can we expect to see it in theaters soon?
I’m hoping! It has a great producer, Ralph Winter, who produced the Fantastic Four movies and the X-Men movies. He’s working with Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ stepson, and they’re trying to get it right. There’s a lot of interesting questions to ask there. Should it still be set in World War II era London, and should it just be a single patient? I’ve always thought it would be more interesting if you could focus on several patients and see the clever work of the Enemy and the different ways he’s working on people through several different folks. I have high hopes for that one.
Do you have a patron saint or a favorite Catholic devotion?
Of course my devotion is to the Blessed Mother. My father is Francis Xavier and my brother Chip is Francis Xavier, so St. Francis is quite a big deal. I love this idea that we weren’t named by accident, so the Archangel Michael is definitely my “go to guy.” Although the day St. John Newman became a saint, I could not find my socks before a baseball game. My mother told me, “The day a saint is canonized, if you pray to him, you’ll get whatever you pray for.” I am not lying to you, Peggy. Those socks were not in the dryer. I said a prayer, and I opened it up, and they were there! Ever since, I’ve been a big believer in the intercession of the saints.
Tell me more about your devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Well, in film, we talk about “Show, don’t tell.” The Stations of the Cross have always moved me. Mary had to see her son fall and be ridiculed. What Mel Gibson did with [The Passion of the Christ] where there’s a flashback and Mary remembers when Jesus fell when he was only a four or five year-old boy. At that point, she thought it was the end of the world. Every little thing that happens to our kids, we just feel awful. You really get to see her sorrow truly through her eyes in the film. That really is Mary’s movie.
Who is your favorite character in Narnia?
My brother Chip used to read the Narnia stories to me. We’ve always loved Lucy. It’s so amazing to think of that name, Lucy. There really is something magical. Lucy really does have that special ability to see things that many of us can’t see.
And to think that she doesn’t think that she’s beautiful in the movie!
You know Lewis writes about that. It’s never enough for us. He said that pride is the worst of all the sins. Pride isn’t saying, “I’m really happy that my kid did such a great job at the baseball game.” Pride is saying, “My kid needs to be the best kid on that baseball team,” or “I need to be prettier than everyone else.” That leads to problems.
Have the Narnia books helped you in homeschooling your children?
My daughter is a budding Pentecostal. At the young age of five, my son asked for a second bag of potato chips. He said, “I won’t need another one after I have that.” My daughter, little Eileen Kelly Flaherty, declared, “That’s just what the Enemy wants you to think. Then you’ll have a second and then you’ll have a third and a fourth, and it will never be enough!”
Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, December 10, 2010. The film is rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.