'A Poorer Story, but a Better Movie'So says Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis's stepson and producer of the upcoming Prince Caspian, in comparing it to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
by Mark Moring posted 04/08/08
In late 2005, Douglas Gresham was nervously looking forward to the theatrical release of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the film adaptation of the first book in the beloved Chronicles of Narnia.
Gresham had a dual interest in the film's success. Not only was he one of the movie's producers, but he's also the stepson of the books' author—C. S. Lewis.
Gresham needn't have worried. LWW would go on to be a box office smash, earning $745 million at the box office worldwide—a figure that has soared well past $1 billion with DVD sales.
Now he looks forward to the May 16 release of Prince Caspian, the second film in the series, in which the four Pevensie children—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—return to Narnia and find quite a different place than they'd left behind. They encounter a helpful dwarf, a corrupt king, and a young prince looking to take his rightful place on the throne—and to restore order, justice, truth, goodness and joy to the magical land.
We recently chatted with Gresham, 62, who had just seen a rough cut of the film—which he says might be better than LWW, even though it's adapted from what Gresham calls a "poorer" book. Gresham spoke to us by phone from his home in Malta.
What has kept you busy since The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe?
Douglas Gresham: We started thinking about Prince Caspian the day of the premiere of Lion/Witch. We had a short respite, and then really got into Prince Caspian. And we're already in preproduction on Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
I understand you recently saw a rough cut of Caspian. Your thoughts?
Gresham: It's a fabulous film. I'm very, very pleased. It's a film that portrays probably even more strongly than the book the essential message of Prince Caspian, which is a return to truth and faith and honor and justice after a millennium of corruption in Narnia. I almost hate to say it, but I think it's a better movie than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Prince Caspian started with a poorer story than Lion/Witch, but has worked out probably to be a better movie.
Why do you think Caspian is a poorer story?
Gresham: The book doesn't have the power of the story The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which is based on the greatest story ever told. You can't really top that. Prince Caspian, when you look at it from a filmmaker's viewpoint, is a story basically about a long walk in the woods with a battle at the end. As a movie that doesn't really work.
We had some difficulty figuring out how to make Caspian work as a film. In the book, the children arrive in Narnia, and they all sit down around the campfire and Trumpkin tells them the story of Prince Caspian—which means that the four Pevensie children vanish for half of the book. If you made it into a movie that way, your protagonists wouldn't be in half of the film. And that just doesn't work as a movie.
But Trumpkin's story makes for a thrilling flashback. Are you saying you didn't want to leave the Pevensie children while telling Caspian's backstory?
Gresham: The problem would be that you would have two entirely separate storylines going on, in separate timescales. You'd wind up with half a movie that's Prince Caspian's story, and all of a sudden you've got the Pevensie kids crashing back into the film. We had to find some way of integrating the Pevensies and Caspian together in a way that works for the story, and I think our scriptwriters did a wonderful job managing to do that.
So do they actually meet up with Caspian earlier in the movie than in the book?
I'm not going to give too much away at this stage.
I understand. But would it be accurate to say …
Gresham: I tell you what to do. Go see the movie when it comes out. Take all your friends and take your friends' friends. Take your enemies as well, because you're supposed to love your enemies. Take your enemies' friends. And then you can tell me if you think we've done a good job with it.
Many fans thought Lion/Witch was nice to look at, but that it was too much spectacle and missed some of the story's subtleties. Many also felt the film didn't capture the awe and majesty of Aslan—that he was far too "safe" of a lion.
Gresham: I haven't heard those criticisms. All of the people who talk to me about Aslan were awestruck by him in the movie. I don't know how I'd react to that criticism, because for me he's an immensely powerful figure in the movie—and I'm probably the severest critic in the world.
When the team first started looking ahead to Caspian, what was discussed?
Gresham: We were on a bit of a high after the success of Lion/Witch. So the big danger was that we might get the slightest bit complacent, and we had to make sure we didn't. We were all conscious of having raised the bar pretty high, and we knew we had to do better next time around. I'm glad to say that I think we've done that.
In the book, Caspian is a young teen, but Ben Barnes will be almost twenty-seven when this film comes out. Why wasn't a teenager cast for the role?
Gresham: We didn't think Caspian should be too young in this movie. Although Ben is older, he plays about 17 and does it very well. But we also need Caspian to be a bit older for the next movie because he becomes the master of The Dawn Treader, and to do that at the age of 17 or 18, with a crew of soldiers and sailors unto you, is not very believable. So I think he needs to be a bit older than he is in the book for the next movie. It was hard to find the very best Caspian, and we decided on Ben largely because of his amazing talent.
In the trailer, he looks so confident and in charge, and I think of a terrified kid running for his life from King Miraz. Does Ben capture that side of Caspian, too?
Gresham: There is a scene in which he flees for his life and he goes through some rather frightening experiences, but I'm not going to give too much away.
I'm not asking for the details. I'm just saying that the trailer depicts this sexy, handsome stud who has it all together. And I think of Caspian, at least at first, as a scared kid, and I wonder if that's conveyed in the film.
Gresham: He does go through that kind of experience, yes. But he does grow emotionally, intellectually, and, to some extent, physically very quickly during the course of the story and the movie. But of course that's what this movie is all about, the change in Caspian's personality.
interviewed you, they asked about the fate of Miraz's son in the film. You replied, "There's global warming, worldwide recession, dental cavities and facial blemishes and all sorts of things more meritorious of anxiety than the fate of Miraz's son." They asked you why another change was supposedly made from the book, and you replied, "Why not?" Your answers sounded a bit flippant to people who really love these books …
Gresham: They are a little bit flippant. People do take these things sometimes too seriously. This is, after all, when all is said and done, only a movie. But I know that when the fans see the scenes, they will understand immediately why we've done what we done, and they will also love it. So I'm not going to go into lengthy descriptions of why we made the decisions we made. I'm going to let the fans make up their own minds.
I understand. But I think the fear is …
Gresham: What do you do in a circumstance like that? All you can do is come up with something as amusing as you can, I suppose.
You said, "After all, it's only a movie." But if you said, "It's only a book," you would get a lot of hackles up because to a lot of people, including me, these are not "only books." I guess I'm trying to give you the opportunity to say, "Hey, I'm not really being as flippant as I might come across."
Gresham: I think anyone who knows my history will know that I've spent the last almost thirty years dreaming, hoping, striving, working and fighting to get these movies made. To suggest for a second that I don't take it seriously would really be rather ludicrous. But when you're backed into a corner and someone asks you a question you don't want to answer for their own sake, I think the best way to approach it is to be as amusing as you can. Not to say, "Mind your own damn business," which would just be rude and insensitive. You must be aware of the fact that I probably take the Narnian books more seriously than any other human being in the world.
Are you surprised that people ask you all these nitpicking questions?
Gresham: Not at all. I expect them to. But I'd also expect them to understand why sometimes I'm a little bit reluctant to answer. I just say, well you know, worry about global warming instead. I don't want to give away spoilers, but I don't want people to think I'm being nasty about it. As I say, it's for the fans' own sake when I refuse to answer a question. Instead, I answer it rather humorously rather than straightforward.
How has your role changed from Lion/Witch to this film?
Gresham: I'm playing pretty much the same role. I'm getting more involved as time goes by, and I understand more of how to do things. I hope sincerely that I'm becoming of more use to the production team rather than just being someone who sort of stands and watches and says, "Oh, we can't do this and we can't do that" or whatever.
What is your official title?
Gresham: Co-producer. But there isn't really any particular title that describes what I do, because I'm in a unique circumstance of being involved in all facets of the film and everything ancillary to it. I'm involved in the scriptwriting, the merchandise, the marketing—all facets. I think [producer] Mark Johnson put it well when we were filming in Prague, and I was introduced to the American ambassador. The ambassador said, "What does Mr. Gresham do for the project?" And Mark said, "Oh, he's to blame."
That's funny, but seriously, that must also mean you must be feeling enormous weight and responsibility to get it right.
Gresham: That's true. I do feel it's a huge responsibility. I feel that I've inherited almost a sacred trust, and it's up to me to do the very best I can with it. But I have been carrying this particular task for the better part of 25 or 30 years in the C. S. Lewis Company, with the books themselves, trying to ensure everything Jack wrote is constantly kept available to the public.
As the representative of Jack and the Lewis estate, how often do you find yourself on the set or in the editing room asking, "What would Jack do?"
Gresham: That's not a question I ever ask. The question I ask is, "What would Jack have me do?" And, "What would the Holy Spirit have me do?" Jack, of course, is not alive today, but I sincerely hope he would be thrilled with what I've done with his Narnian stories in film. But I can't put myself in Jack's mind and say, "What would Jack do now?" It's "What would Jack have me do under these circumstances?" And more important—and Jack would agree—is, "What would the Holy Spirit have me do?"
When we talked before Lion/Witch, you were reluctant to use the word "veto power" in your role as a producer …
Gresham: I would still be reluctant to say that. We work very cooperatively; it's almost always a consensus decision. In both movies, there have been things I have disagreed with. So we've all sat around the table and talked until we come up with a decision. I am fairly powerful in personality and I put my point strongly, and I think people honor that. But we try to come up not with any one person's particular viewpoint, but with the very best solution for the sake of the film, the book, and the audience.
So it wouldn't be a matter of you saying, "No, we're not going to do that," but more of, "Let's try to reach some sort of compromise."
Gresham: It's not exactly a compromise. If there is something which I know simply cannot be in the movie, I will say so and I will say why.
Can you give an example?
Gresham: I can't remember one. I don't think there was one in Lion/Witch. And I can't remember one on Prince Caspian either, but that's what would happen if it came up. I'm dealing with people who know the material and who know the background to it. Everybody gets the impression that the Hollywood filmmaker's an ignorant kind of no-nothing individual. This isn't the case in my experience. The people I deal with on these films are extremely sensitive to the material and knowledgeable about it.
What about the transition from Andrew Adamson, who directed the first two Narnia films, to Michael Apted, who'll direct Voyage of the Dawn Treader (due in 2010)?
Gresham: I think I'm going to enjoy enormously working with Michael. Of course I'll miss Andrew, but I understand exactly why he's doing it. So while I'm losing someone I've worked with for six or seven years, I'm going onto another director who's going to be equally great. And I have high hopes that we'll have an even better film—though Andrew would probably hit me over the head for saying it—with Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
What's your understanding of why Andrew is leaving?
Gresham: For one thing, he's tired. Andrew has been working for us for a long time, and he has been working exceptionally hard. These aren't simple productions to make. These are hugely complex, extremely detailed, and demand absolutely everything a director has to give. When Andrew first joined us he was a young, newly married man with no children. Now he has two growing daughters, and he wants to spend more time with his family.
When I interviewed you
in 2005, you said you used to be an Edmund but that you were working on being a Lucy. Does that still apply?
Gresham: Yes, I think it does—certainly spiritually. Lucy is the character I always have most admired, but Edmund was the character I was for a long time. I'm still working at trying to get to the stage of faith that Lucy has.
I read somewhere that you "completely surrendered" your life to Christ in 1990. How would you describe your journey? Had you walked away from the faith and then come back to it?
Gresham: The problem is you have to define what you mean about "faith." We use that term
much too loosely. I always believed in God and in Jesus Christ, but so does the Devil himself. Faith in that sense is not sufficient to make you a Christian. I think the faithful Christian is the one who lives out his or her duty to God and to Christ, and demands a certain submission to the will of God.
My problem for many years was that although I believed in God and Jesus, I didn't want to submit my life to the authority of anyone but myself. And therefore, in a sense, I was worshiping myself and, therefore, had a fool for a deity.
What changed that in 1990?
Gresham: I tried to help someone, but because I was living my life based in my own intellect, I got it very badly wrong and a lot of people were hurt. I was forced to take a good, long, careful look at myself. And I realized that what I was really doing was living my life in arrogance, conceit and pride, and that I wasn't qualified to run a human life. So I realized I'd better hand it over to someone who is. And who better qualified to run a human life than the Person who designed it in the first place?
Movie images from Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media
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