This column was reprinted by permission of L. Brent Bozell and Creators
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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.
But now there is - finally - an alternative. Walden Media was launched in 2000,
and in seven short years this new studio has taken 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 Michael 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."
No good movie can compare to the great literature on which it is based. But it
can inspire the soul and maybe, just maybe, inspire a child to crack a book and
delve "beyond the walls of the world." Treat your family to "Amazing Grace" on
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