Walden’s Big Idea

I’ll be forever grateful to my parents, authors both, for teaching me to read. Not how to read, just to read. In a simpler time, before the internet, before the electronic video games, before cable, before Ipods, this was not the challenge it is today. We lived in the country with rabbit-eared television sets with access to less than a handful of stations, half of which crackled with snow, and it really didn’t matter anyway because we were allowed only two hours’ viewing per week – so we read.

Hollywood is in the business of entertainment. It has befuddled me forever why this industry, which in a by-gone era registered extraordinary financial success simply by putting great literature on the silver screen, all but abandoned that formula in the past 40-50 years in favor of, well, junk. I’m looking at today’s movie listings in my nearby multiplex: “Norbit,” “Hannibal Rising,” “The Messengers,” “Epic Movie,” and “Daddy’s Little Girl.” If any of these are books, they would be the kinds of books the Bozell children were not allowed to read.

Then along came Walden Media in 2000, and in seven short years this new studio has taking Hollywood by storm with its commitment to re-telling great literature, especially the most popular and well-loved children’s literature. The visionary behind Walden is business tycoon Philip Anschutz. A deeply private man, Anschutz hasn’t given a press interview in 30 years, but you just have to like how he summed up before a Christian school audience in 2004 his decision to enter the gates of Hollywood: “I decided to stop cursing the darkness.” Rather than complaining how Hollywood isn’t making good movies, he decided to make them himself.

As Walden President Mike Flaherty points out, “We have a paradoxical mission statement which is to use films to get kids reading.” While many parents think movies and television are replacing the printed word, Walden is employing the delight of visual media to create delight in great stories between bound covers.

Walden is most serious about this task. The studio is in contact with more than 100,000 teachers and librarians every year, always looking for what Flaherty calls “the canon of literature that everybody has read.” C.S. Lewis, meet Hollywood. “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the first of the Narnia series, was a blockbuster success, grossing over $750 million, and two sequels now are in production. “Charlotte’s Web” was another commercial success. The newest Walden movie, “The Bridge to Terabithia,” won the Newbery Medal as the best children’s book of 1977.

Flaherty cites how Lewis talked about the paradox that “great fantasy heightens the readers’ sense of reality and responsibility.” J.R.R. Tolkien said the same about his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Heroes give children a more heroic imagination and worldview, a joy “beyond the walls of the world.”

That’s not to say that the Walden folks are lost in a fantasy land. Asked to define the Walden brand in one word, Flaherty responds: to “inspire.” Walden not only strives to deliver product parents can trust, but also produce movies that “spark conversations about big ideas.” Hence the Walden interest with inspirational films about history.

It is a sad reality: Very few adults, and virtually no child can recognize the name William Wilberforce, the man Abraham Lincoln claimed was known to “every school boy” in America in 1858. Then there’s this: “Amazing Grace” is the most recognizable hymn in the land ? but how many people can tell you its origin? To the rescue comes Walden again, with the movie “Amazing Grace,” which tells the true, and beautiful story of William Wilberforce, the brilliant British orator and parliamentarian who fought relentlessly to ban the slave trade in Great Britain and who ultimately succeeded, against all odds, decades before the United States fought a bloody civil war to do the same.

The movie title pays homage to John Newton, the English slavemaster-turned-Anglican clergyman who became Wilberforce’s minister and inspiration. Newton had participated in the transportation of more than 20,000 slaves and converted to Christianity after being saved from death on a sinking slave ship. He not only converted, but dedicated himself to the abolition of this practice, even in declining health and facing the loss of his sight. The movie is typically Walden — a celebration of courage and the human spirit, leaving the viewer in stunned appreciation with the understanding, finally the understanding, of the words we’ve sung so many, many times. “I once was lost, but now am found/ Was blind but now I see.”

[Bozell’s Entertainment Column]

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