Hollywood has been turning best-selling novels into movies for decades, as far back as “Gone With the Wind.” But publishers have usually had nothing to do with it. They watched and hoped the movie would drive up sales of the book. Sometimes it did, but just as often it didn’t.
That whole disconnect is disappearing. The best new example is the Dec. 9 release of the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” based on the C.S. Lewis children’s classic. Far from sitting back and watching, publisher HarperCollins is working closely with filmmaker Walden Media, unleashing a massive worldwide marketing drive for the books, timed to coincide with the film – and not only for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but most of Lewis’s other books as well.
“This is a giant blockbuster for us,” said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. ‘ “The Chronicles of Narnia’ was already important and big for us, but now with the movie, it’s taking on a new life of its own. We have 25 movie tie-in editions – it’s a huge event.”
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The movie is produced by Walden Media and Disney Pictures. Directed by Andrew Adamson and starring Tilda Swinton and the voices of Rupert Everett and Liam Neeson, it tells of four English children, sent to live in an old professor’s country house during the bombing raids of World War II, who stumble through the back of a bedroom wardrobe into the fantasy land of Narnia. It’s a world of winter, populated with dwarves, a faun, talking beavers, an evil witch, and the heroic lion Aslan. The forces of evil, led by the witch, are attacked by Aslan with the four children as allies. There are seven books in the series.
Sales of “The Chronicles of Narnia” have been rising since last spring, when the movie trailer of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was released. The box set is No. 2 on The New York Times children’s bestseller list. “We’ve been happily surprised by how strong sales of ‘Narnia’ 1/8books 3/8 have been,” said Joe Monti, children’s buyer for Barnes & Noble. But it’s not only Lewis’s children’s books, Monti said: “It’s also 1/8his 3/8 nonfiction. It’s surpassed our expectation at every stage.”
HarperCollins, the publishing arm of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, is pumping out 170 C.S. Lewis-related book titles in more than 60 countries – 140 related to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The number represents a vast variety of editions and companion volumes. Lewis’s own books are only the beginning. Besides various editions of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” there’s a six-volume box set of Lewis’s mostly Christian books for adults, including “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “Miracles,” and “The Problem of Pain.” There’s also a new adult biography titled “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” by Lewis scholar Alan Jacobs.
Then there are the extras. To mention a few: “A Year With C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings From His Classic Works“; “Mere Christianity Journal,” a faux-leather-bound study guide with excerpts and blank pages for reader reflections; “Beyond the Wardrobe: The Official Guide to Narnia“; and “Companion to Narnia,” an alphabetized reference book to the world of the “Narnia” books. And there are not one but two glossy photo books about the making of the movie.
“We’re talking millions of books,” said Mary McAveney, director of hard-cover marketing for HarperCollins Children’s Books.
HarperCollins and Walden Media have been working closely together on the project, sharing artwork and promotional plans and coordinating timing. “The more they are able to get people to read the books,” said Cary Granat, chief executive officer of Walden Media, “the bigger the base to grow the film. As more people want to see the film and read the books, it will extend the franchise. It’s a cultural phenomenon that needs to be managed at all levels.”
They’re also working together on the movie of E.B. White’s children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” with the voices of Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts, due to release next year. Well before the film appears, expect new editions of the book and various add-ons to appear, packaged with artwork and photography from, and promotion of, the film.
However well planned, it’s doubtful such a sprawling program could work with anyone but Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), who published more than 100 books. An Oxford don and medievalist, his uniquely diverse output makes him, if such a thing is possible, a potentially bigger literary phenomenon than his Oxford friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Unlike Tolkien, Lewis wrote for a wider range of readers, both children and adults, including a science fiction trilogy and an agonized memoir of the death of his wife, “A Grief Observed.” (That love story has already been made into a movie, 1993’s “Shadowlands,” with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.)
Lewis’s Christian writing makes him uniquely marketable. In addition to general booksellers like Barnes & Noble, national Christian book chains such as Parable Christian Stores and Family Christian Stores are also heavily promoting the movie tie-in editions of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The “Narnia” books are a Christian allegory, but not so overt that most kids would notice or that non-Christian parents would mind. Children can enjoy the story just for the drama and fantasy.
Fortunately for HarperCollins, Lewis was not a sectarian, cleric, or theologian, therefore not readily identifiable with any particular Christian group. “He is incredibly widely accepted,” said Mark Tauber, deputy publisher of HarperSanFrancisco. “Catholics like him, and evangelicals, and even the Mormons use ‘Mere Christianity’ in their Sunday school. He’s probably the most important Christian writer in English of the 20th century.”
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is not the first coordinated publisher/filmmaker effort. Boston-based Houghton Mifflin – US publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien – worked closely with New Line Cinema on the three blockbuster movies based on “The Lord of the Rings” cycle. Houghton began to see a huge bump in sales as soon as the first movie trailer was released in 2001.
“A great movie can have a phenomenal impact,” said Bridget Marmion, director of marketing for Houghton Mifflin’s trade and reference division. “Tolkien’s books have sold about 80 million copies, going back to ‘The Hobbit’ in 1938. About 25 million of those were sold between 2001 and 2003, when the three movies were released.”
Of course, no one knows how big C.S. Lewis book sales will be, but if the Tolkien explosion is any indication, it may be hard to overestimate. “I don’t think you can point to anything else that comes close to this,” said Granat. “There will be other Harry Potter books, but nothing comes close to the hundreds of millions of ‘Narnia’ books that have sold worldwide” since the books were published.
“This may be the last classic fantasy fiction for kids that hasn’t been done by Hollywood,” said Tauber. “Lewis has never really been replaced.”