This weekend, a live-action movie based on E. B. White’s beloved book, Charlotte’s Web, arrives in theatres. The new version of the classic comes via Walden Media, which specializes in bringing children’s literature to the silver screen in an effort to promote reading. In a Q&A with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez, Walden’s vice president and general counsel, Francis X. Flaherty explains.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You just broke a Guinness book record? What’s that all about?
Francis X. Flaherty: After finally coming to grips with the fact that I would never break the world record for most push-ups in one hour, attention was shifted to what Walden Media is all about: getting kids excited about reading through film and related educational programs. The official record is “Most People Reading Aloud Simultaneously in Multiple Locations” and I am pleased to report that on December 13 over half a million readers gathered in over 2,400 locations in all 50 states and 28 different countries to read from E. B. White’s classic book Charlotte’s Web.
Lopez: Why are movie guys pushing books? You must have a stake in it, right? Movie-tie-in book, you get some of the profits? Good for business?
Flaherty: Our mission is somewhat paradoxical — we are a film company that wants to awaken in kids a love of reading and literature. Thus far the books that we have made into movies have been published by others — we derive nothing from the book sales other than the satisfaction that the film is driving kids back to the book. The National Endowment for the Arts recent study “Reading At Risk ” showed that readers of literature are more likely than non-readers to give to charities, to vote and generally to become involved in their communities. So we believe that our objective here is a sound one.
Lopez: How do you choose the books you do?
Flaherty: We are fortunate to have what I like to call the world’s largest development team. Our ideas come from teachers, librarians, and other educators — we are constantly in contact with these great folks as we attend dozens of educational conferences every year. It is difficult to think of a more important vocation than that of educator and we hope to serve their needs by listening as often as we can to their ideas and insights.
Lopez: Why did Charlotte’s Web need to be redone?
Flaherty: The story needed to be realized onscreen the way E. B. White himself first hoped it would be. When White was first approached in 1961 about the idea of Charlotte’s Web being a movie, White basically pre-figured CGI animation, hoping for a process that would permit a combination of live action and realistic animation (which we can now make happen through computer animation). Our movie embodies E. B. White’s vision for the film. That being said, I would be remiss as a longtime Hollywood Squares watcher not to point out the great work done by Paul Lynde in the original.
Lopez: I hate to be a plot spoiler, but…doesn’t the spider die? How is that an uplifting Christmas film for children?
Flaherty: The story’s virtues — selflessness, friendship, loyalty, and kindness — are beautiful and uplifting. Charlotte’s sacrifice in order to keep her promise to Wilbur and then Wilbur’s guarantee of the safety of Charlotte’s offspring are great lessons for kids as to the power of friendship, loyalty, and love. Not a bad Christmas message. Think of it as a barnyard version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Lopez: Still, doesn’t Happy Feet sound happier?
Flaherty: Being occasionally afflicted with painful arches I will acknowledge that the term Happy Feet has a certain appeal. But I am sticking with Charlotte and I would hope that as a writer you would as well — great writers like you and Charlotte should stick together.
Lopez: Whose inspired idea was it to cast Steve Buscemi as Templeton the Rat?
Flaherty: That idea, like the entire film itself, was the result of a great collaborative team consisting of our brilliant creative colleagues in Los Angeles who are led by Walden Media co-founder Cary Granat, the esteemed producer Jordan Kerner and the great director, Gary Winick.
Lopez: I have this problem where I keep spelling Web from Charlotte as Webb, as in Senator Elect James. Know anyone else with that problem?
Flaherty: No. Although to keep it in the political realm for a moment, I predict that in an age of increasing media fragmentation the day is coming when messages in spider webs will soon become the hot new political ad buy.
Lopez: You planning to break any other records at the box office?
Flaherty: Box-office prognostications are right up there with election predictions in terms of scientific accuracy. You work as hard as you can but once the theater doors open whatever will happen will happen. That being said, Charlotte’s Web has garnered the best reviews of any movie that we have ever done, so that is certainly a hopeful sign.
Lopez: How’s that next Narnia movie coming alone? Aren’t some of those kids’ voices going to be changing soon?
Flaherty: You mean Prince Caspian? It’s coming along great. In the book Prince Caspian, author C. S. Lewis points out that the four Pevensie children are a year older than they were in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And in real life, all the four kids are now a year older, so it works out perfectly.
Lopez: Correct me if I am wrong, but your next movie is on William Wilberforce. Why William Wilberforce? Is this the first movie you’all have done that you didn’t have to check a book out of the library to do?
Flaherty: The film about Wilberforce is titled Amazing Grace and it comes out next February. In fact we had to check out a ton of books to ensure the historical accuracy of the people and events depicted in the film. It was time well spent. The letters and writings of Wilberforce and his spiritual mentor John Newton are so powerful — in some cases it serves as actual dialogue in the movie. And, what lives they led. The story of the courage and persistence of Wilberforce and his friends as they work to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself in Great Britain is a story of which everyone should be familiar — and I hope the movie can help in this regard.
Lopez: Your brother and colleague, Micheal, has previously assured me that NRO: The Movie is in the works. As we are aging with each pound on the keyboard (that’s how I type anyway), can I have your assurance that you’ll cast based on when we were young, not based on when you get around to it?
Flaherty: That’s a promise. Far be it from me to give suggestions to the NRO crew given your great web traffic, but I think an online casting poll for NRO: The Movie could result in spikes typically reserved for the election season.