Entertaining and enduring: Quality storytelling can make values-based media both meaningful and enjoyable
Courtesy 20th Century Fox
At the conclusion of C.S. Lewis' "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the majestic lion Aslan is bidding farewell to Lucy and Edmund Pevensie. The children are leaving Narnia, but Aslan assures that he will be with them in their world. He is just known by a different name.
"You must learn to know me by that name," the lion tells them.
For believers and those familiar with Lewis' religious writings, including the unmistakably Christian "Chronicles of Narnia," the line is a clear reference to Christ.
But did it belong in the movie adaptation, which was sure to be seen by an audience beyond just Christians?
For Walden Media, the answer was yes.
Micheal Flaherty, who is the president of Walden Media, remembers reading that line growing up. As a devout Christian, there's meaning beyond the surface. But religious considerations aside, it's always important to stay true to the story.
"When you are making a film based on a book that people love, the tie should always go to the book," Flaherty said. "If there is a disagreement about a line of dialogue or a scene, and you can point to the fact that this is a story that people have enjoyed, in the case of 'Dawn Treader,' for over half a century, business-wise, why would you make new Coke out of it if you want to give them that experience that they're used to?"
Walden Media chose not to strip away the layers of meaning from Lewis' Narnia stories in its three movie adaptations. In the case of Big Idea Entertainment, which produces the long-running animated series "VeggieTales," meaning is infused into every story told. But there is more to creating quality family entertainment than adding messages from the Bible, co-creator Mike Nawrocki says.
"For stuff that's going to be entertaining and truly engaging, it has to … be crafted well and be something that you want to watch," Nawrocki said. "Not something that you throw in the DVD player and run out of the room just for your child to watch, but actually to be interested in watching with them and then talking about it afterward."
Whether it's coming from a talking lion or a talking cucumber, family entertainment doesn't have to be shallow and devoid of meaning. At the same time, values-based media can still be entertaining and engaging.
For media innovators like Flaherty and Nawrocki, what's important is telling the story — and telling it well.
"Story has always been so important in cultures, and particularly in ours," Nawrocki said. "We live in such a media- and story-saturated culture, and kids get so much of their information on how to be and how to live from the stories that they're exposed to."
As Nawrocki has watched television with his two children, he's found plenty of programming that's educational and teaches good values.
But since 1993, when he and co-creator Phil Vischer introduced VeggieTales, Big Idea has been producing family entertainment with an additional layer of meaning — namely, a biblical world view "that assumes that there's a god who made us, who loves us and wants a relationship with us," Nawrocki said.
It's a perspective he felt was lacking — and still is.
"Our culture is so saturated with media, but so much of it doesn't even have that as a consideration and doesn't even approach that subject, when it is so important for people who go to church, who have that relationship with God who want to pass that idea and those values on to their kids," he said. "One of the reasons we started VeggieTales was we thought there would be a need for it because we really felt at the time … that there was a real lack of it.
"I personally don't think there's enough of that reflected in the media today."
Big Idea's approach is to explore what's behind values like sharing, gratitude and forgiveness.
"I can tell my child, 'I want you to share,' but what's the foundation of that? Why should we share?" Nawrocki said. "For a person of faith, there's a much deeper reason behind that."
But when it comes to Hollywood and film, is there room for such depth?
Flaherty thinks so. While they may not take on a biblical world view, great movie franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars encompass "the themes of all the great faiths, especially redemption, reconciliation and sacrifice," Flaherty said.
"They might not be films with people holding up John 3:16 or opening with scripture, but these themes are part of the greatest story ever told," he said. "They run through all the greatest that we have."
Successful entertainment doesn't have to be scrubbed free of spirituality. Flaherty pointed to Star Wars as an example. Had the story come from a decades-old book, would the phrase "May the force be with you" have been too new age or spiritual for audiences?
There's no reason to mess with a classic, Flaherty said. Walden Media's three Narnia adaptations combined for more than $1.5 billion gross earnings worldwide.
"You realize, what's the big deal?" said Flaherty, who points out that Lewis himself said that the level of symbolism in his stories could either be accepted, rejected or ignored. "I think that sometimes we get too nervous and have heart attacks over these things, where as long as we are entertaining people, I don't think they are going to parse those words as much as we do.
"Where you get hung up is when you try to rewrite and revise and you think you know better than someone like C.S. Lewis who taught at Oxford. That's when I think you run into a problem, when you change it rather than stay faithful. … There are lines in these books that people love and enjoy and that they expect."
Good storytelling provides the best of both worlds — entertainment and meaning.
VeggieTales is not so much episodic storytelling as it is a traditional three-act structure that takes a hero — and by extension, the viewer — through what Nawrocki referred to as "the protagonist's arc."
"Every well-told story has a theme that it's really trying to emphasize," Nawrocki said. "Before we go into any story, we say, 'What is the hero going to learn here? What are they struggling with and how are they going to go through a story that really helps them deal with what they're struggling with and come out on the other side of it having learned a lesson?'"
Big Idea has sold more than 54 million videos, 13 million books and 7 million CDs. Among those offerings are 40 original productions.
But there's a standard of excellence to honor.
It takes about a year to make a single VeggieTales feature, Nawrocki said. Half of that time is spent "fighting with the story." Before production, the question is asked: "Why would somebody want to see another VeggieTales episode when there's been a lot already?"
"For us the answer is, a good story is a good story, and humor is humor and music is music," Nawrocki said. "If the folks expect it to be good and you deliver on that, then we can continue telling stories. That's always our challenge.
"We really try hard with every story to make it the best story it can be and to really enjoy it ourselves and to be proud of it before it goes out there. … For us, it's crucial to continue doing that to stay relevant, to keep making shows that people want to watch."
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