Good books prepare us for more than interesting conversations – they actually prepare us to face real crises that we encounter in life, argues American filmmaker Micheal Flaherty.
At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy assume their rightful thrones as Kings and Queens of Narnia.
Lewis dedicates only one sentence to describing how they governed during the Golden Age of Narnia, but it is interesting to hear his summary of their most important accomplishments.
Lewis tells us that they “made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live”.
Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with a memorable introduction of a new character: “There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
In introducing us to Eustace, Lewis believes the best way for the reader to understand him is to know the kinds of books he read. “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” In other words, he didn’t have time for the types of stories that Lewis adored – stories about heroism, knights and talking animals.
As a result, Eustace is at a significant disadvantage when he first arrives in Narnia and finds himself in a dragon’s lair. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair,” Lewis writes, “but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
The situation worsens when the dragon begins to stir: “Something was crawling. Worse still, something was coming out of the cave. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognised it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books.”
Clearly Lewis is telling us something about more than dragons and talking mice. He is giving us a simple instruction: You are what you read. We are shaped and influenced by the books that we read. They prepare us for more than interesting conversations – they actually prepare us to face real crises that we encounter in life. Few people would dispute this simple statement, so let’s ask a simple related question: What are we reading today?
The short answer is: Not much. A few years ago, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts released a report entitled Reading at Risk. Its findings? For the first time in modern history, less than half of America’s adult population now reads literature. The decline is across all races, all education levels, and all age groups. In just 20 years, young adults have declined from being those most likely to read literature to those least likely.
The report went on to show that the decline in literary reading strongly correlates to a decline in cultural and civic participation.
Literary readers are more than twice as likely as non-literary readers to perform volunteer and charity work, nearly three times as likely to attend performing arts events, and nearly four times as likely to visit art museums.
Before you begin to think that this is limited to highbrow events, literary readers are even substantially more likely to attend sporting events than non-literary readers. And before you begin to think that the group of people making up literary readers is a group of Luddites that has sworn off electronic media, the report found that literature readers still managed to watch close to three hours of television each day!
In other words, people who find time for Law and Order can still find time for Crime and Punishment.
The report concludes on a rather sombre note: at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century. This decline will not be reversed by any one solution. In fact, it will require a number of innovative ones from a number of different groups.
Cultural restoration, Russell Kirk said, begins at home. Certainly the same is true of literacy. And in today’s media-saturated culture, I dare to say that it may also begin at the movie theatre.
Walden Media was started several years ago by myself, Cary Granat and Phil Anschutz. We wanted to create a company dedicated to recapturing imagination, rekindling curiosity, and demonstrating the rewards of knowledge and virtue.
All of our films would be based on great books, great people, and great historical events. They would be made by the best talent in entertainment and they would all be linked to educational materials developed by some of the best talent in education.
We were taking Henry David Thoreau’s famous advice – to march to the beat of a different drummer – to Hollywood, which is why we decided to name our company after Thoreau’s most famous book, Walden.
In launching Walden Media, our greatest challenge was in identifying the stories that we wanted to bring to the screen. We did not want to waste our time making films out of “the wrong books” that Eustace Scrubb wasted his time reading.
So rather than turn to the usual parade of agents and Hollywood producers, we launched an unusual campaign that continues to this day. We enrolled in as many educational conferences as we could find. We spoke to tens of thousands of teachers and librarians and asked them what books they most enjoyed teaching and recommending.
After seven years, the only thing that seems odd about this strategy is the fact that our company is the only one doing it. After all, who knows stories better than teachers and librarians?
Our teacher and librarian friends introduced us to a whole new world of authors and books that publishers like to classify as “young adult” literature. But we were surprised to see that the books – while accessible to a younger audience – were every bit as profound and meaningful as the books I had read as a literature major in college. The books deal with real issues – death, racism, divorce, alcoholism, alienation, war.
But similarly they all deal with the common theme of redemption. And many deal with faith respectfully, as a critical and transformational force in people’s lives.
Our project has opened up a fair debate about whether children should read books that have such frightening content. C. S. Lewis tackled this issue head-on and offered some good advice that informs how we select our projects:
“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.
“If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the … atomic bomb.
“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”
|Ioan Gruffudd as|
in Amazing Grace.
In February we release two films. Our first, Bridge to Terabithia, follows our traditional model of a film based on a popular book – in this case Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Award Winner. And the following week we are releasing Amazing Grace, a film based on a great man – William Wilberforce – and a great event – the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.
After a powerful conversion experience, William Wilberforce dedicated himself to what he called his two great objectives – the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of society. This very month of March, we celebrate the 200-year anniversary of his greatest victory – the abolition of the British slave trade.
After decades of defeat, through faith and perseverance, Wilberforce and his friends of the Clapham Sect accomplished what everybody thought was impossible.
Today we desperately need more leaders like William Wilberforce and the Kings and Queens of Narnia who will fight to make good laws, keep the peace, save good trees from being cut down, and encourage ordinary people who want to live and let live.
We are all familiar with the problems that good people face, both nationally and globally. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr Martin Luther King wrote that we have two options when faced with such problems. We can act like a thermometer and merely make a record. Or we can act like a thermostat and correct what is wrong.
Let’s dedicate ourselves to making the types of sweeping changes that William Wilberforce and his colleagues accomplished. And let’s work in their same spirit of cooperation – finding “co-belligerents” from all types of backgrounds and beliefs. Let us play a role in creating our own great stories of bravery and heroism to give hope and joy to our children.
– Micheal Flaherty is co-founder and president of Walden Media which, in association with the Walt Disney Company, produced the Academy Award-winning film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and has recently released Amazing Grace. This article is reprinted (in abridged form) by kind permission from Imprimis (February 2007), the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu.