Will the Real C. S. Lewis Please Stand Up?

lewis3As I mentioned in my “Theodicy at the Movies” post about Shadowlands (1993), there is an earlier version of Shadowlands, made for television in 1985 by the BBC. This version stars Joss Ackland as C. S. Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy. It was written by William Nicholson, just like the other versions, and I was quite surprised by how different it was from both the stage version and the later film version. So, who does it better? Which version captures the “real” C. S. Lewis? My overall impression of 1985’s Shadowlands (retitled C. S. Lewis Through the Shadowlands to avoid confusion) is that it’s a better biography, but an inferior film. On further reflection, it occurs to me that these two things may be related.

The BBC Shadowlands is around 40 minutes shorter than the 1993 Shadowlands, but it felt much longer. The DVD I had even gave me the option to watch an “abridged” version that was 20 minutes shorter still, but even though I was interested to know what had been cut, I didn’t particularly want to sit through even that much of it again. But that makes the movie sound worse than it is. The main problems, to me, are the structure and the pacing.

I probably don’t need to say very much about the pacing. If you’ve seen anything produced by the BBC during the mid-to-late 1980s (including their Narnia series), you have a good idea of what this is like. It just kind of plods along, placing one scene after another until there aren’t any more scenes. In each scene, characters say things to each other, and then the scene changes to another location and they say some more things. And then it ends. Action neither rises nor falls in any particularly intentional or organized way.

The BBC Shadowlands also seems to lack the thematic through line that tied the 1993 Shadowlands neatly together. Perhaps the latter is a bit too neat, particularly for something based on real life, and that lends this version, with its rough-edged messiness, a good bit of verisimilitude. I’m just not sure that was worth the sacrifice of a clear narrative arc. There are many scenes that feel randomly, even clumsily, inserted, and serve no obvious purpose. Scenes often begin and end with intrusive musical cues, which makes them stand out all the more when they only last long enough for the characters to have a brief conversation before moving on.

One idea that is very clearly and consistently presented throughout the movie is the notion that inspired the title. Lewis and a few other characters (mostly Joy) repeat the idea that “this is all just shadows” an awkwardly large number of times during the movie. The phrase pops up so often, beginning with the very first lines, that it begins to lose its impact. By the time Douglas asks Lewis whether he believes in heaven, in the penultimate scene, and Lewis replies, “Yes, I do. This is all just shadows,” I could barely refrain from rolling my eyes, which is sad, because I’ve always loved Lewis’s conception of life and afterlife. I’m not quite sure how this movie managed to make it seem so trite.

The 1993 Shadowlands is clearly about how it’s protagonist, a character who happens to be named Jack Lewis, arrives at a more mature understanding of pain and suffering after experiencing a personal loss. The BBC Shadowlands is simply about some stuff that happened in C. S. Lewis’s life, particularly his romance with Joy, but it’s hard to pull a single, coherent thread out of the jumble of life presented on-screen.

However, it is a good deal more faithful in the details: it includes both of Joy’s two sons, David and Douglas, and there are a few scenes that reveal Lewis’s difficulty in finding someone who will agree to officiate his marriage to a divorced woman, for example. It also spends more time on the friendship, and then the romance, between Joy and Lewis. That makes their relationship feel significantly more fleshed out and real, and it lends a lot of emotional weight to the tender moments they share later on. Claire Bloom doesn’t really play up Joy’s American-ness the way Debra Winger does, which makes sense, since Bloom is British, not American.

Some of the minor characters come across quite differently as well, particularly Jack’s friends Harry Harrington, the chaplain, and Christopher Riley, the professor. Christopher, the atheist, is portrayed much more sympathetically in this version, while Harry, the Christian, is even less sympathetic. Harry, while just as annoying in his attempts to comfort Lewis, has an additional scene where he refuses Lewis’s earnest request for his help in marrying Joy. Later, when he advises Lewis to take comfort in his faith after Joy’s funeral, Lewis actually replies in this version: “No, it won’t do, Harry. This is a mess, and that’s all there is to it.”

Instead of Harry, Lewis actually turns to Christopher for comfort in multiple scenes, and seems to place a great deal more stock in his opinion. Christopher, for his part, mostly plays the role of sympathetic listener, which is what Lewis clearly needs more than his other friends’ platitudes. The conversation about prayer which takes place with Harry in the later film happens with Christopher here, and it is Christopher who reminds Lewis of things he has previously told Christopher about prayer.

The conversation that Lewis has with Warnie in the other movie, in which he worries that suffering is meaningless after all, is transferred to Christopher here as well. And while Christopher may indeed believe that suffering is meaningless, he doesn’t take the opportunity to tell his grieving friend that. I greatly appreciated this portrayal of friendship and mutual respect between an intelligent Christian and an intelligent atheist, highly unusual in Christian and secular films alike (see the recent God’s Not Dead for a particularly egregious example of how these relationships are usually portrayed).

That leaves us with Lewis himself. Ackland certainly looks the part, a bit more than Hopkins anyway, and there is a twinkling joviality about him that is absent from Hopkins’s caustic sharpness. The film begins (after a very strange voice-over during what is apparently a dream sequence of some sort) with Lewis delivering one of his radio addresses, this one on marriage.

The movie then cuts immediately to a gathering of his friends and colleague, where they are all laughing at him. They make fun of him for being a marriage expert who has never been married, lecturer on romantic love who believes it to be a medieval invention, and author of children’s books who has never had any children (all things conveyed more subtly in the later version). Lewis defends himself, saying, “The spectator sees more of the sport!” but they’re having none of it.

This film also saves most of its discussions about God and suffering for the final scenes, after Joy has passed away. Unlike in the 1993 version, Joy doesn’t provide Lewis with the guiding thought that he ultimately accepts after she is gone: “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.” The closest the movie comes to this idea is a moment when Lewis tells Warnie, “It doesn’t seem fair, does it? If you want the love, you have to have the pain.”

We do get to see Lewis working through his pain as he writes the work that will eventually become “A Grief Observed,” and he shares aloud one of the more famous quotes from it: “But go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Lewis also tells Harry that his experience hasn’t shaken his faith in God, just led him to question his conception of who God is, leading him to ask “What sort of God? He wasn’t very loving to Joy.” Again, this is expressed in the 1993 film, but in a different way (though Lewis also repeats here the idea of God “experimenting” on people like “rats in a cosmic laboratory,” but with a less embittered tone).

Jack and Warnie also briefly discuss how they might proceed if they were in God’s place. Jack asks Warnie whether he would allow humanity to love and then lose, or keep them safe from both love and pain. Warnie says he would allow humans to choose, as God does, and asks whether Jack wishes he had chosen differently. This film, like the other, suggests that Jack does not.

The BBC Shadowlands ends very much like the other film, with the scene where Jack and Douglas break down and cry together, followed by a scene where they are out walking together, seemingly content. However, the later film sets this final scene on a bright summer day, and the two are filmed from far away while Jack delivers a final monologue in voice-over. In this version, Jack and Douglas are taking a walk in the dead of winter, and they talk about nothing in particular. Jack asks Douglas if he knows how to dive, then promises to teach him once the weather turns warm. They use their walking sticks to playfully fling patches of earth or dead grass into the nearby river as they walk away together.

The scene suggests that the two have found peace after Joy’s passing, but it doesn’t provide any larger thematic conclusion. I suspect it will be a matter of personal taste whether you find this or the other final scene to be the more fitting ending. I can see valid arguments for both, but my subjective personal preference is for the 1993 version, both the ending and the movie as a whole. It’s a tighter, sharper script. The production values, obviously, are much higher. It knows what it wants to say, and it has Oscar-caliber performances to say it (both the writing and the Winger’s performance were nominated for Academy Awards). The only real complaint one might have, I think, is that “Jack” in Shadowlands isn’t the “real” C. S. Lewis. But then, that’s not actually the point.


~ by Jared on May 1, 2014.

One Response to “Will the Real C. S. Lewis Please Stand Up?”

  1. As a huge fan of both Lewis and the ’93 film, I so appreciate the detailed comparison here, and within it a review of the later film that I think is mostly spot-on. I haven’t seen the earlier version, but have wanted to, now more than ever. Wouldn’t mind seeing the play, either.

    Thanks for the good work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: