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Defeating Dragons with Open Minds

Defeating Dragons with Open MindsTwo former Tufts roommates seek to entertain while they educate, capturing children’s imaginations through film adaptations of classic books.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.25.07] Family films, despite the crowd-pleasing name, sometimes don't hold much interest for even the youngest members of a family, let alone the adults. But Micheal Flaherty and his former Tufts roommate Cary Granat believed they could put the thrill-and the education-back into the Saturday matinee. In 2001 the pair launched Walden Media, a small company that "creates faithful movie adaptations of classic children's tales," according to the Wall Street Journal. As Flaherty told the newspaper, "our idea is to get kids back to loving stories."

Walden, which has offices in Boston as well as Los Angeles, has released a string of successes, from "Holes" in 2003 to the big-budget, special effects-laden "Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in 2005. Soon they will add titles like "The Doubtful Guest" and "The White Giraffe" to their repertoire.

Flaherty, who studied English at Tufts, told the newspaper that he realized the educational potential of entertainment after the release of James Cameron's mammoth "Titanic" in 1997. Working as a teacher in Boston at the time, he watched his students take a sudden interest in learning more about the sunken ship by reading books and visiting museums. "I saw a big idea there," he told the Journal.

From that big idea Walden emerged. After enlisting Granat, already a Hollywood producer, Flaherty was one step closer to realizing his dream of creating meaningful big screen material for kids. The pair pored over business books and pitched their idea to uninterested investors for a year before finding Philip Anschutz, a billionaire media mogul who kick-started the company and still annually invests in it.

"My friends think I'm a candidate for a lobotomy, and my competitors think I'm nave or stupid or both," Anschutz said in a February 2005 speech, according to the Journal. "But you know what? I don't care. If we can make some movies that have a positive effect on people's lives and on our culture, that's enough for me."

Flaherty, too, believes in the power of his films. "[Our movies are based on] books where kids can really experience something life-changing, and transformational, and can rise above their circumstances," he told the Journal. Flaherty added that Walden's movies differ from the standard family fare because they don't portray children's situations as "hopeless." Paraphrasing a comment by English writer G.K. Chesterton about fairy tales, Flaherty explained to the Journal: "We don't write about dragons just to write about dragons. We write about dragons to show that they can be defeated."

Though some parents are concerned about their kids watching violence, Flaherty defends Walden's choices. While he agrees that children shouldn't be exposed to the kind of violence "that keep[s] them up late at night," he told the Journal that parents shouldn't "insulate our kids from knowing they are born into a world of good and evil." According to Flaherty, "The best thing we can do for kids is to teach them that though they may encounter cruel enemies, they will also encounter brave knights."

Walden will continue to work toward that goal, even if it means expanding beyond film. Already distributing existing books and other educational materials to schools across the country, the company will begin publishing new books with Penguin, the Journal reported. Some work in video games might be in future as well.

Flaherty asserted hat his project is "platform neutral" and that all media hold the potential to educate-though perhaps some better than others. As Flaherty joked with the Journal, "People can get their ‘Crime and Punishment' and their ‘Law and Order' in the same day."

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