Soon after the smashing opening weekend of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the Rev. Bob Beltz had a vision of what his Hollywood colleagues might be doing someday just before his funeral.
"They could end up holding the first screening of 'The Last Battle' just before my funeral service. That's about how long it may take us to do the whole series," quipped the 55-year-old Presbyterian pastor, referring to the seventh and final Narnia novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
Pre-production work has begun on "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and its creators are shooting for a pre-Christmas 2007 release.
Using a best-case scenario, it would take two years to make each movie, said Beltz, director of special media projects for the billionaire media entrepreneur Philip Anschutz. That would mean 12 more years and the last film would appear in 2017. But what if there are snags?
"Seriously, when we started seeing those first really big numbers roll in at the box office, that's when it hit me," said Beltz. "Some of us worked on this first movie for a very long time and now it seems like we may literally get to work on the Chronicles for the rest of our lives."
Of course, Anschutz and his Walden Media associates were convinced that the Narnia novels -- with 100 million copies sold over the past 55 years -- could turn into the kind of family-friendly franchise that makes Hollywood insiders see visions of "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." That's why Walt Disney Studios helped pour $180 million into creating "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Within days of the movie's release, Beltz and other members of Narnia team knew that they had a green light. At the beginning of this week (Feb.28), the global box office for first Narnia movie was nearing $664 million. And for fantasy fans that are keeping score, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has rung up $288,193,914 at the U.S. box office since its Dec. 9 release, while "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which came out three weeks earlier, is a nose ahead at $288,733,970.
Director Adam Adamson of New Zealand will return for the next film, along with the young quartet of British actors at the heart of the first film -- Georgie Henley, 10, Skandar Keynes, 14, Anna Popplewell, 17, and William Moseley, 18. In "Prince Caspian," the four heroes return to the land of Narnia soon after their first adventure, only to discover that centuries have passed in Narnian time. With the help of the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure in the series, the children fight to bring the young Prince Caspian, the rightful heir, to the throne of Narnia.
The clock is already ticking. With the interconnecting plots, the actors playing the Pevensie siblings cannot look radically different even though they will be two to three years older than they were while filming "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." To further complicate matters, the two youngest children -- the characters Lucy and Edmund -- are featured in the next novel, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."
The key to the whole project is the response of the millions of readers who have shared the novels with their children for decades, said Douglas Gresham, the 61-year-old stepson of Lewis and co-producer of the first film. He stressed that he will work on the Narnia movies as long as he is able to do so.
As important as the movies are, he said, the ultimate goal is to faithfully deliver the author's stories, symbols and themes. The books must have the last word.
"The challenge for us as filmmakers, and I have had to become one, is that everyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia ... has a firmly cast picture, a precise visualization, in their mind of what Narnia looks like, what the creatures look like, how they should behave and how they should seem," said Gresham.
"We must produce films in which we equal or exceed every single one of those visual imageries. If we do that, then I believe that readers who love the books will keep going to theaters and we'll be able to complete the series."