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The Stepson, the Billionaire and the Walt Disney Co. - New York Times- 11/6/05


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  • The Stepson, the Billionaire and the Walt Disney Co. - New York Times- 11/6/05

    Computer technology, Disney money, fidelity to the book and gut trust among collaborators helped bring to fruition "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which opens Dec. 9.

    AT the beginning of 2001, Perry Moore embarked on a forbidding quest. Mr. Moore, an executive with an untested movie company called Walden Media, dispatched an impassioned letter to the chief executive of the C. S. Lewis Company, seeking movie rights to the much-loved "Chronicles of Narnia" fantasy novels.

    He vowed that Walden would be able to accomplish what one of the most prolific and successful producing teams in Hollywood - Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall of "Jurassic Park" fame - had already failed to do: turn "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first book published in the series, into a movie. Over the previous seven years, in a time before "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" had shown the profit potential in family-friendly sorcery epics, every major studio in town had turned down the project, some even twice.
    Almost five years later, Mr. Moore's promise will be kept, thanks to an unlikely cast of collaborators, including a former Tasmanian sheep farmer, a media-shy billionaire disgusted with much of Hollywood's cinematic fare and the Walt Disney Company.
    The march of technological progress and the country's shifting social currents have played their roles in bringing this saga to a resolution. But, fittingly for a book and series in which Christian themes of sacrifice and resurrection are more than mere subtext, less quantifiable factors also featured prominently.
    "This was a three-way leap of faith, frankly," Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said.
    The movie that is emerging, with a production cost near $150 million, definitely provides epic sweep, to judge from about 10 minutes of nearly completed film. But beginning Dec. 9, the audience will make the ultimate determination if the faith was justified.
    A scholar at Oxford and Cambridge, Clive Staples Lewis was a prolific writer of literary criticism, poetry, science fiction, novels and muscular defenses of Christianity. But nothing he wrote has captured the imaginations of more children and adults than the seven books that make up "The Chronicles of Narnia."
    Beginning in 1950 with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he conjured a world of talking fauns and beavers in which the four young heroes - thrust into the endless battle between good and evil - must confront demons without and within. Since then, more than 95 million copies in 41 languages have been sold.
    If that seems perfect fodder for a movie, Lewis's view of film was nonetheless ambivalent. Underpinning his confession that he was "rather allergic to films" was a concern that a steady diet of visual images on screen could embalm the imagination, particularly of the young.
    Yet Lewis did not sneer at popular culture as a whole. "He recognized that there was great power here, but an irresistible tendency to make things vulgar, of playing to the simplest emotions," said Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College and author of "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis."
    Until this year, video renditions of Lewis's fantasies were confined to television. There were two British series, an animated one in 1967, followed by a live-action version in 1988. In 1979 a full-length animated feature made by the Children's Television Workshop and the Episcopal Radio-Television Foundation appeared on CBS and won an Emmy for outstanding animated program.
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