Views & Reviews
No. 20 Copyright (c) 1994 Biblical Horizons March, 1994
reviewed by John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary in California
C. S. Lewis . . . . . . . . . . Anthony Hopkins
Joy Gresham . . . . . . . . . . . . . Debra Winger
Warnie Lewis . . . . . . . . . . Edward Hardwicke
Prof. Riley . . . . . . . . . . . . . . John Wood
Rev. Harrington . . . . . . . . . Michael Denison
Douglas Gresham . . . . . . . . . Joseph Mazzello
Dr. Craig . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Peter Firth
Savoy Pictures presents a _lm directed by Richard Attenborough. Produced by Attenborough and Brian Eastman. Written by William Nicholson, based on his play. Photographed by Roger Pratt. Edited by Lesley Walker. Music by George Fenton. Running time: 133 minutes. Classi_ed: PG (for thematic elements).
"Shadowlands" will have to be counted in the very small list of recent _lms that present a largely accurate and sympathetic view of protestant Christians who are serious about their faith. That list is so small that I can almost repeat it from memory: Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful. In that respect, this _lm is perhaps not as strong as the other three, as I shall indicate below. But it is worthy to be included in that small group, and that is a signi_cant fact.
Like the others, this is an excellent _lm, well acted, directed, photographed, scripted. Everything feels authentic, and the dialogue is always intelligent: witty in the early intellectual repartee, profound in the ending sadness. Winger is a tri_e inconsistent in her Jewish accent, but that is a quibble. The supporting actors are excellent, a trademark of the English _lm industry.
The story is of C. S. Lewis, known as "Jack" to his friends, Oxford literature professor, Christian apologist and writer of many books including the children’s Chronicles of Narnia fantasies. In 1951, he meets an American woman named Joy Gresham who has been corresponding with him. She is of Jewish background, a poet, converted to Christianity from a history of atheism and communism. She is also unhappily married (later divorced), trying to raise her ten (?) year old son Douglas (who loves the Narnia books). At _rst, the relationship of Jack and Joy is an intellectual duel, with increasing respect and a_ection.
After her divorce, she wants to remain in England with her son, and Lewis marries her in a civil ceremony, merely to facilitate that desire; still, they continue to live apart and to relate to one another only as friends. Lewis tells nobody of this marriage of convenience except his brother and housemate Warnie.
But Joy discovers she is dying of cancer. In caring for her, Lewis discovers real love, and in the hospital room he marries her for real, before a clergyman, with a ring. Eventually she does move into his home and they enjoy brief periods of marital happiness before the end comes. The ending is bittersweet in a way somewhat reminiscent of Love Story, though more profound because (in my view) the couple in the present _lm has far more spiritual substance.
Narnia readers will be moved by the scenes in which Douglas discovers an old wardrobe in Lewis’s attic and pushes his way through the garments seek-ing the magic land of Lewis’s Chronicles. His disa-ppointment upon _nding only a solid wall on the other side pre_gures the _lm’s sad ending.
The _lm shows us Lewis several times lecturing on "The Problem of Evil," the question of why a good God permits evil in his creation. In these lec-ture scenes, the _lm seems to be telling us that Lewis is all too smug about it all. One of his colleagues early on says half-seriously that Lewis is in the business of _nding easy answers to di_cult questions, and the _lm seems to validate that estimate. Essentially, Lewis’s lectures in the _lm make the point that su_ering is God’s "megaphone," to challenge us to move from our sel_sh preoccupations to greater things. Actually, Lewis’s treatment of the matter was more complicated and more nuanced than that, as can be seen in his The Problem of Pain.
The _lmmakers try to make the point that when Lewis himself endured tragedy all the glib assurances of his lectures left him and he saw nothing in Joy’s su_erings except tragedy and pain. Like the boy in the wardrobe, Lewis loses his illusions. Did Joy really need a "divine wake-up call?" Did her son? Did anybody pro_t in any way from her su_ering?
There is probably some truth in this account. One might compare The Problem of Pain with Lewis’s later A Grief Observed, in which he deals with Joy’s death. Such comparison, plus the biographical literature on Lewis, suggest that Joy’s death did change his perspective on evil to some extent. Certainly it is legitimate to observe that The Problem of Pain is not a book to give someone in the midst of a personal tragedy. Yet its reasoning is not worthless for all of that. Even the idea of su_ering as "God’s wake-up call" contains much truth. It bothers me somewhat that the _lm belittles apologetics as much as it does. In my view, that evaluation fails to distinguish su_ciently between pastoral counseling on the one hand and apologetics as an intellectual discipline on the other. Still, The Problem of Pain would certainly have been a better book had there been in it a clearer view of divine sovereignty and therefore a greater acknowledgement of mystery.
Although I’m properly thankful for the sympathetic treatment of Christians here, I cannot help but observe that this movie is about someone whose Christian theology fails him at a crucial point. I grant that that does happen, and I don’t deny that it is a _t subject for drama. But why don’t we ever see movies about how someone’s faith, his theology, sustains him through temptation and trial? What of Lewis’s conversion, so dramatically depicted in his book Surprised by Joy? (The title of the book, ironically foreshadowing his romance, was written long before it.) Why couldn’t there have been a movie about that, rather than about a theological failure in his life? Indeed, why do we have to go back to Beckett and Man For All Seasons to _nd any sort of triumphant faith?
Another problem I had in the _lm was the treatment of Joy. Although we are told she is a Christian, we learn nothing much about her own personal faith. How did she come to Christ, out of such an unlikely background? How did her own faith bear upon her su_erings? In the _lm, she is very intelligent, witty, forthright, honest, patient, and, in the end, loving; but it is not clear how these qualities emerge from, or interact with, her religious commitment. We learn something of Jack’s religion, but almost nothing of Joy’s. Indeed, Joy seems most often to present a kind of challenge to Jack’s religion, forcing him to rethink his assurances, reinforcing the somewhat negative theological thrust noted above.
Is it conceivable that a woman who had been moved by Lewis’s writings enough to want to visit him, who could identify passages in his books word-for-word, would after meeting him never talk at all about God or Jesus? The _lm seems to rather secularize the story in a way that is hardly plausible to those of us who know C. S. Lewis through other channels. One reviewer mentioned that when Lewis married Joy in the hospital, there was a church healing rite performed, and her long remission followed this. The movie omits this entirely. It does observe that Lewis prayed for her recovery; but when someone remarks that God is answering his prayers, Lewis objects: he is not praying to change God, but to change himself. Does that mean that he doesn’t actually expect God to answer, and that he didn’t think God was actually answering him? Typical of Hollywood, the nuances of Christian devotion rather escape these _lmmakers.
On the whole, however, the _lm is excellent, a truly edifying experience for Christian believers, and a witness to unbelievers of one authentic Christian life. For all my quibbles, something of the real C. S. Lewis does shine through. Anyone who thinks that Christianity impoverishes one’s intellect and depth of feeling ought to see this _lm.
reviewed by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
Bowling Green State University
Shadowlands, a movie (very) loosely based on the life of C. S. Lewis and his marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, was released in the United States on Christmas Day, 1993. A stageplay of the same title by William Nicholson had been produced by the BBC in 1988 and has been shown on PBS in America since then. The movie script represents an adaptation and an expansion of the play by its original author and is depicted in the opening credit as "a true story." The movie has since gotten national attention in ever-widening circles by virtue of its cast, particularly the _ne performances by Debra Winger as Joy Davidman Gresham and Anthony Hopkins as Lewis, and its novelty, a story of an unlikely romance between an aging "Oxbridge" don and a divorced American Jewess who became a Christian. In the view of the _lm’s rather surprising popularity, and Winger’s Oscar nomination, many Christians and admirers of C. S. ("Jack") Lewis may be curious about its authenticity as a treatment of the last decade or so of his life and the vitality of the script’s witness to his and his wife’s Christian faith . Herewith is a review of the movie-as-a-movie and as a would-be biography of the later years of Lewis’s life.
Let it be said at the outset that the movie is thoroughly enjoyable. I cheered with most others when Joy came "bounding" (almost literally) into Lewis’s life, interrupting his con_rmed bachelorhood, and violating the decorum of sti_-upper-lip British masculine society with her exuberant, feminine quest for knowledge, and her brash American sense of humor. And I found myself teary-eyed and sni_ing through the last third of the movie as Jack’s valiant wife _rst rallies against, then succumbs to bone cancer. Further, the movie well depicts the vagaries and eccentricities of academic life in Britain and I found several classroom scenes exceptionally good in the way they depicted Lewis as formidable teacher/interrogator. All in all, both Anthony Hopkins as Jack and Debra Winger as Joy are wonderfully evocative of the spirit if not the presence of this unusual and unlikely coupling; I can’t imagine two more capable actors doing a better job of authentically capturing the sparks and energy, the emotion and keen intellectuality of the relationship between these two gifted children of God.
What I can imagine is a script that would more carefully respect the biographical facts of Joy and Jack’s life togetherwhich are certainly as dramatic as if not more so than those _ctionalized ones that primarily comprise the movie. My frequent quip to those who have asked me about the movie has been, "I thoroughly enjoyed itI just wish it had been about C. S. Lewis."
Please understand my response as more than just a series of quibbles about one or two facts out of place in an otherwise chronologically and biographically adept script. Ten years of Lewis’s actual correspondence (begun in 1950), initial meetings, and eventual "courtship" and marriage with Joy are unartfully compressed into two years in the movie; Joy’s two actual sons, David and Douglas, inexplicably merge into one; Lewis’s boisterous and opinionated friendships with other Brits like J. R. R. Tolkien and even Dorothy L. Sayers are ignored, and characters are invented to "represent" them and Lewis’s "public"; Lewis’s disdain for modern machinery, particularly automobiles, is laughably ignored in several egregiously misconceived scenes. One laments, simply as a moviegoer, the lack of verisimilitude represented here. Still, these kinds of compressions and consolidations occur in most biographical movies and one could expect some of this.
What cannot be easily forgiven is the virtual absence in the script of any strong articulation of the real Lewis’s obvious, even notorious championing of the Christian faith in both his literary and critical works, his university life, and his public persona as a BBC radio personality. By the time Joy Gresham enters Lewis’s life, he is certainly what most of us would call a "media celebrity," and a Christian one at that, in a time, unlike ours, when there were few such _gures.
By the early 1950s, Lewis was well-known on both sides of the Atlantic because of his WWII BBC broadcasts urging his countrymen to remain steadfast in their faith and because of his reasoned defense of Christianity and its cardinal doctrines; his reputation was secure (if sullied, among his Oxford and Cambridge colleagues) as a Christian communicator and "theologian" (though he demurred when the word was applied to himself). One of the key reasons Joy had sought Jack out in the early 1950s was to talk with him about Christianityherself a convert to Christ during a crisis of conscience and worldview similar to his own, and herself the author of poetry and non_ction informed by a vibrant faith. This motive for visiting Lewis, however, is barely hinted at in the movie; one must already know this or be listening very carefully and/or read between the lines to discern that these were two adults who shared the most important common ground a couple could ever occupy: belief in the Gospel.
Whenever the movie depicts Lewis at one of his frequent public lectures, he is invariably talking about su_eringironically in one of the few places the script actually quotes Lewis’s own wordscreating unwittingly the impression that Lewis was utterly preoccupied with God’s wrath or discipline and spoke of nothing else. The truth is, Lewis wrote his only sustained treatise on su_ering, The Problem of Pain, in 1940, and in the early to mid-1950s was focusing on other topics and emphases, fully-engaged as he was in writing the Narnian Chronicles and the work he considered his masterpiece, Till We Have Faces. Because the script inadequately introduces Lewis’s apologetics and _ction-writing career and fails to contextualize Joy and Jack’s mutual faith, the audience is left to conclude that his Christianity was some sort of hobby or legacy of being Irish that served no sustaining purpose in his life before or after Joy entered it except in the most intellectualized, abstract way. Such was decidedly not the case. A movie about Jack and Joy that downplays or ignores the centrality of Christ to their lives is analogous to scripting the life of Michael Jordan with little reference to basketball.
Further, because the running theme of Shadowlands is that Joy is somehow able to disarm Lewis and call forth from him some depth of feeling and emotion that previously was suppressed or absent, the audience is led to believe that somehow Lewis lacked authentic experience in the world at largeeither by isolation from it as an academician or in retreat from it by his mother’s death when he was nine. It is true, of course, that Lewis was not a particularly emotional or sentimental person in the manner of the modern "sensitive" male of Hollywood myth and ruin. He was, in fact, a quite private man, as evinced in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, which contains, by modern standards, very little gossip, very little preoccupation with personal detail, and little else that does not contribute directly to the story of his conversion. There is, however, simply no evidence that Joy is responsible for a "new, improved" Lewis "able to show his feelings" for the _rst time in his life; Lewis was no stoic, philosophically or otherwise. No man with Lewis’s sensibilities could have failed to be moved by Joy’s determined faith and courage in the face of terminal illness and the movie does a credible job of depicting his genuine compassion toward her struggle. Most regrettable, nevertheless, is the movie’s climactic scene that depicts a broken, even hopeless Lewis inconsolable and bereft of any nurturing comfort from his Christian faith, weeping uncontrollably with Joy’s young, "orphaned" son. That such a scene once happened, there is no doubt; that it was the _nal statement about Lewis’s life with Joy and faith in God is sheer nonsense. The real Lewis emerged from the shadowlands of grief and despair to a restored and invigorated faith that energized his last authored and perhaps most reassuring volume, Letters to Malcolm, Chie_y on Prayer.
While Shadowlands has many merits as a movie, it contains too many _aws to be a reliable guide either to the real Joy or Jack Lewis, or to their well-articulated commitment to Christian faith. There was great drama in Joy’s life leading up to her encounter with Jack that goes untold in the movie, just as there is even greater poignancy and moment in their lives together before and during her illness which is unnecessarily displaced by tendentious scriptwriting. I remain happy that the movie was made at all, yet discontent that more reliable uses of biographical fact were not employed. My earnest hope is that the movie will bring people into the bookstores to discover more about the Lewises, and thereby be privileged to come to know two who had an undisguised and public trust in the God of the Bible and the Redeemer who saved their souls.
For those who wish to know where to start, I would suggest these four books: And God Came In, Lyle Dorsett (Crossway), a reliable account of Lewis’s relationship with Joy Davidman Gresham; Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis (Macmillan), Lewis’s own account of his early life and adult conversion; A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis (Macmillan), Lewis’s plaintive, painful diary of his grief and struggle with faith after Joy’s death; and Jack, George Sayer (Crossway), the best currently available and balanced treatment of Lewis’s life.
Afterthoughts by James B. Jordan
Professor Frame teaches Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and as a hobby reviews _lms. We intend to publish more of his work in this area in the future. Dr. Edwards is an expert on the life and work of C. S. Lewis. I have just a couple of thoughts to add to theirs (to _ll up the space in this newsletter).
From what I could perceive the _lm ends with no indication that Lewis emerged from his dark night of the soul with renewed and deepened faith. About the last thing we hear Lewis say about God is that He must be a sadist. The earlier BBC television production was more faithful to Lewis’s life in this regard. Yet, I did notice that in the scene where Lewis weeps uncontrollably with Joy’s son, there is a light mysteriously shining from behind the disappointing wardrobe.
Thus, the _lm is rather inconsistent. Yes, the wardrobe has a back wall and does not lead to Narnia or heaven. Yet, when Lewis seems to have lost all hope, light shines from behind it. (Remember that virtually nothing you see in a movie is accidental; the _lmmaker had to place a light behind the wardrobe.)
In another curiosity, when Joy is in the hospital Lewis says that he would gladly change places with her and su_er for her. "Why doesn’t God feel the same way?" he asks. Well, of course, taking our place and bearing our su_ering is exactly and precisely what God has done. Here is a hint of the Christian message in the _lm, yet it runs by so fast that few will catch it, and is not picked up again or followed through with.