Narnia Invades Schools and Churches

The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe is coming out on Friday, and in a no-day-of-rest mission to sell the $100 million-plus adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book to kids and parents – no less than their teachers and pastors – the Walt Disney Company and its co-producer, Walden Media, have made deep inroads into schools and churches. They are mounting a grassroots marketing putsch whose scope and overlap is unprecedented and alarming.

It has some educational professionals and constitutional watchdogs rightly outraged, particularly in Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush has a history of attempting to introduce faith-based programs and overtly devout officials into state agencies, and where Walden, which is owned by conservative Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz – he also happens to own the largest movie theater chain in the country – has formed a questionable partnership with the state’s board of education.

Disney is the larger name in the partnership, but the educational side of the strategy belongs to Walden, which has been hiring PhD’s and getting in with school boards and charters school companies since Anschutz got behind it in 2001. They’ve been successful.

In Florida, officials at statewide reading initiatives seem to be developing a habit of pushing books connected with Walden productions. Just Read, Florida, part of Republican Jeb Bush’s new Family Literacy Initiative, is sponsoring a writing contest for essays about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe called Florida’s Journey into the Lorld of Narnia. The winning child gets a 3-night stay at a Disney resort, a Starbucks gift certificate, and a copy of the book signed by Governor and First Lady Bush.

At the same time, Read Together, Florida, a state-run program that attempts to get as many kids as possible in Florida reading the same book at the same time, has made its latest choice Carl Hiassen’s children’s book Hoot. Coincidentally, Walden just finished shooting the film adaptation of Hoot – in Florida. The winner of the essay contest in this case got a walk-on role in the movie. Both programs are run by the state’s board of education with the approval of the governor’s office.

Anschutz, whose net worth is estimated to exceed $5 billion, is a prominent donor to the Republican party and a major influence in conservative causes. He owns Regal Cinemas, the largest theater chain in the U.S. Disney, meanwhile, is one of the largest employers in Florida.

Jeb Bush, like Anschutz a convert to conservative Christianity, has repeatedly tried to introduce faith-based programs into Florida’s public schools. He’s pushed for public funding of vouchers for parochial schools, a case which landed in the state supreme court last summer. Still, in June, Bush announced that he wanted public schools in Florida to host a Christian-based program designed to increase fathers' participation in their children's lives. In August 2004, Jerry Reiger, Bush’s very religious appointee for secretary of the Department of Children & Families, was forced to resign after writings of his arguing against gay couples forming families, emphasizing that husbands have the "final say in any family dispute", and advocating the spanking of children came to light.

“We see this book promotion as yet another faith-based initiative on the part of Jeb Bush,” said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “I don’t think it’s any secret this book is a Christian allegory. There are thousands of books that Governor Bush could have chosen that did not have a religious theme, especially when he’s setting up a contest aimed at students.”

Neither Bush’s office nor the Florida Department of Education would comment.

Walden is deeply entrenched in Massachusetts too. In July, the state’s Department of Education helped Walden put together a “film literacy content institute,” in which Flaherty’s executives showed public school teachers film clips to help them understand “the link between children’s films and literacy.” Flaherty’s success in the state is not surprising: before founding Walden he was a speechwriter for Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger, who went on to become president of the University of Massachusetts.

For years, Hollywood has been trying to figure how better to infiltrate two places we like to think of as sacred: the classroom and the church. From Paramount executives convincing clergy to push its sword-and-sandal epics of the 1920’s, to the advent of Channel One, it has been only intermittently successful. And usually these efforts have been small compared to the studios’ multimillion-dollar conventional advertising campaigns, not to mention distinct – still willing to sell their mothers for a hit, of course, studio heads nonetheless remain good liberals for the most part and value the separation of church and state.

With roughly 50 million impressionable minds, the profit opportunities among the K-12 set are vast. With 70% of Americans claiming they regularly attend church, the purchasing power of the pew is even larger, if more forbidding, but spurred on by the success of The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood has been going after it with abandon lately. Recent movies of every sort – from Cinderella Man to The Exorcism of Emily Rose – have set up church screenings and hired a new crop of religious marketing firms.

But none have enjoyed the massive outreach preceding Narnia. Disney and Walden have managed to enlist Reading is Fundamental, the American Library Association and the National Council for Teachers of English. With the help of Motive Marketing, the geniuses behind The Passion’s strategy, it is distributing hundreds of thousands of Narnia teachers guides, with exercises on such things as movie costume design. The hope is to get at least one copy into every grade- and high-school in the country, according to Walden’s executive vice president of marketing.

“We hope to build on this hybrid of education and entertainment for many years to come,” the vice president, Chris DeMulin, said.

The guides prominently display the 800 number teachers can call to order blocks of tickets.

The name Lewis seems to ring up nothing but cash signs in corner offices everywhere these days. Hoping the first installment will spawn a years-long franchise festooned with merchandising and worth billions (there are seven books in the series), Harper Collins is issuing or reissuing 25 books tied to the movie and 170 books by or about Lewis. Everyone from McDonalds to Oral-B, Kodak to Virgin Atlantic have tie-ins. Even the state-run reading programs in Florida have corporate sponsors: Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, the Florida Lottery and more.

This is all moving in lockstep with appeals to churchgoers. Disney has invited leaders from groups like Focus in the Family to its Burbank, California headquarters to see the film and report back to the flock. They’ve scheduled a deluge of local church “Sneek Peek” events, promising, according to the website, to show “how churches, schools, and organizations across the country are planning to use the film for outreach.” In October alone, there were over 100 such events, from the Tempe Nazarene Church in Tempe, Arizona to the Coral Hill Baptist Church in Glasgow, Kentucky. And those were just the official ones. They’ve put out an album of Narnia-inspired Christian music. Walden’s president, Michael Flaherty, has been appearing on Christian talk shows and touring churches with C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Doug Gresham, who controls Lewis’s estate.

Gresham chose Anschutz to produce the film because “I believe he’s a man of faith, probably someone who’s had some realizations in his life and is trying to carry them out,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

In the same chat forum on the Walden site where school-teachers are exchanging ideas, Christian teachers are offering home-made Narnia curricula. The most popular thread in the forum belongs to a Texas man who’s concocted a 17-week Bible-study course to accompany the movie.

Thanks to Regal and his other holdings, Anschutz’s powers of promotion and distribution of his movies call to mind the heyday of the studio system, when MGM and Warner Brothers made the movies and owned the theaters. An example: in 2003, Walden convinced schools in thirty six cities to bring 20,000 grade-schoolers to Regal movie theaters to watch its movie Holes and participate in simulcast discussion with the screenwriter and director.

Walden’s mission, according to its website, is “producing entertainment that makes a real impact on young audiences, inspiring them to explore the world around them.” Formed in 2001, it is based in Los Angeles, where it’s run by Cary Granat, the former head of Miramax’s Dimension label. But its marketing braintrust, overseen by Flaherty and his older brother Chip, work out of a Boston office. They spend a good deal of time attending teachers and librarians conferences around the country. (Flaherty declined to be interviewed for this story, as did executives at Disney).

But much of what Walden passes off as “educational” material deserves no such name. In the case of the teacher’s guide Walden’s put out for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the claim is laughable. It is more a primer on big budget filmmaking than it is any kind of academic resource. There are sections on animation, scale model building and costume design. Quotes from the movie’s producer and director – even its make-up artist – far outnumber any passages from Lewis himself. One lesson plan recommends for 3rd – 6th graders is called Turning Words into Pictures: Make Your Own Storyboard. “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe will soon be a movie! As a movie is planned, but before it is filmed, scenes are imagined with drawings on a series of panels called a storyboard,” reads the teacher’s introduction. The lesson plan goes on to define close-up shots, long shots, POV shots and pans. The guide is a blatant promotional tool.

The Narnia lesson plans produced for Christian instruction, meanwhile, are downright meretricious. One guide geared towards 5th and 6th graders includes an activity in which the students have to match up scene synopses from the book and scenes from the New Testament. Thus “When the stone table breaks, Aslan comes alive again. Lucy and Susan rejoice at his Resurrection!” corresponds, of course, with “When the stone rolled away, Jesus came alive again, three women rejoiced at his Resurrection” from Romans 14:9.

In a teachers guide recommended for K-8 Sunday school students, the teacher is instructed to say the following to his or her class: “C.S. Lewis is the man who wrote the story of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe a long, long time ago, before any of you, were born. He loved Jesus very much, and we can learn things about the real story of Jesus when we read C.S. Lewis’ story about the make-believe world of Narnia. Lewis tells a pretend story of a great lion and his fight against the White Witch that can help us understand what’s really going on in our world where Jesus fights against the Devil. It’s a very clever story, and we’re going to see how The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe story can help us know the story of Jesus better. Are you ready? Here we go!”

Could the message of these guides be any clearer? In this movie lies salvation!

One of the oddest aspects of all of this is the involvement of Disney, which until recently has made a concerted effort to stay away from religion. Indeed, it was not long ago that far-right Christian groups called for a public boycott of Disney, claiming it had sold out family values by providing health benefits to same sex partners and producing immoral content through its subsidiaries. Apparently Disney has managed to get the dogs called off. Reached for comment, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, one of the organizers of the boycott, said “We are no longer boycotting Disney.” Disney’s appeals to the group, which included a special screening of the film for Focus’s magazine Plugged In months in advance of other critics, may have aided the decision.

Of course, Disney would be stupid to not try and mend its relationship with conservative Christians. The religious market is the new entertainment goldmine, and with six books still left to adapt, Walden and Disney are hoping to create a decade-long tent-pole by plugging into the same kind of yearning spiritual undercurrent that helped make the Star Wars franchise a more secular phenomenon.

The producers were clever in the book they chose to experiment with this kind of campaign. It is neutral yet fertile ground: beloved among children of many faiths for its clear spiritual overtones, as well as to children of no faith at all for its fantasy. (The books have sold over 95 million copies in 41 languages according to Harper Collins.) Still, it is hard not to imagine Lewis not turning in his grave at the site of the pandering and bald commercialism for which his work is being used.

If they pull it off – or even if they don’t, one must imagine; $5 billion can cover a lot of flops – schoolchildren and churchgoers will have plenty of promotions to look forward to. Walden has just finished shooting an adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and is going into production on How to Eat Fried Worms.