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.
Then along came Walden Media 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
As Walden President Mike 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
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
The movie title pays homage to John Newton, the English slavemaster-turned-Anglican clergyman who became Wilberforce's minister and inspiration.