I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the upcoming movie about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Universally my correspondents are hoping that it will “do justice” to the real men and their story. Every indication is that it will be as loosely “based” on the real people as the earlier movie Shadowlands, about the romance between Lewis and Joy Davidman, was–which is to say, very, very loosely. For example, Tolkien will apparently have trouble finishing LOTR not because of his perfectionism but because of PTSD unresolved from WWI with accompanying “psychotic dreams.” (The film will be set in 1941.) Nonsense, balderdash, fishfuzz, and horsefeathers! To help with realistic expectations, I resurrect my old review of Shadowlands.
LIGHT ON SHADOWLANDS
This review was originally published in The Lamp-Post 29:2 (Sum. 2005, pub. June, 2007): 18-20.
One of the most significant movies of 1993 was “Shadowlands,” the story of the marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is a wholesome family movie and a rich experience, with excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as “Jack” Lewis and Joy. Any new interest it stirs in Lewis and his writings will be all to the good; but viewers should remember that they are watching, not history, but historical drama. They are not the same thing, and in this movie especially it is important to be aware of the difference.
Historical drama always distorts history in the interest of simplicity and theme. Characters are conflated and time is compressed (“Turning the accomplishment of years / Into an hourglass,” as Shakespeare put it) to make the presentation accessible to the audience. This is unavoidable and is to be expected as part of the genre. In “Shadowlands,” for example, Douglas Gresham’s brother David disappears altogether, and events that took place over eight years are compressed into what appears to be only one or two, as the ten-year-old Douglas who meets Lewis at the beginning appears to be the same age at the time of his mother’s death instead of being a young man in his teens. None of this should bother us. The real problem comes in the simplifications of the story for the sake of the movie’s theme, for they conspire to create a serious distortion of the man that C. S. Lewis actually was.
“Shadowlands” is the story of a stuffy, self-assured, emotionally sheltered ivory-tower British intellectual who is “humanized” by his relationship with the brash young American divorcee who storms into his life. It begins with Lewis lecturing church ladies groups on the meaning of pain, “God’s megaphone” to reach a deaf world, and ends with a chastened man who “no longer has any answers” after experiencing the pain of loss himself. Some reviewers I have read show no knowledge that the movie depicts people who actually lived. So far as that portrait of Lewis goes, they are ironically right.
This false impression of Lewis is created, not merely by simplifications, but by blatant historical inaccuracies as well. The ivory tower in which the early Lewis is sheltered is created partly by omission. We never see the avid hiker who enjoyed nature with gusto (a figure prominent in Lewis’s diary) until after the marriage. Joy accuses Lewis of being surrounded by intellectual inferiors so that he “never loses” the debates he relishes. Yet the friends who were his intellectual peers—people like J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers—are conspicuous by their absence in the film. Lewis did not always see eye to eye with these friends (who were much more important parts of his life than the colleagues portrayed). His long friendship with the anthroposophist Barfield was jokingly referred to by them as “the great war.” But there are plain falsehoods as well as omissions. When the movie-Lewis takes Joy to see the Mayday celebration at the Magdalen Tower, he admits to her that he had never been before; he just never saw the point. But the real Lewis had been—on May 1, 1926, according to his diary—and apparently enjoyed it.
The most serious distortion of history comes at the end of the film, when a chastened Lewis seems to repudiate faith in general and the now seemingly glib pronouncements of The Problem of Pain in particular, saying that he no longer has answers—only life. It is as if the scriptwriters had read only the first half of A Grief Observed, which records Lewis’s real struggles in accepting Joy’s death from cancer, and not finished the book. Some distortion of history is inevitable in the transition from the real world to the stage or screen, but this distortion is inexcusable, for it reverses the real meaning of everything that happened.
A Grief Observed ends not with the repudiation of The Problem of Pain but with a reaffirmation of its content that adds to it the depth of a faith that has now been severely tested. Here’s how the book ends: “She said, not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornio all’ eternal fonatana (‘So she turned to the eternal fountain’).” The last words are a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, the moment when Beatrice turns from the task of helping Dante to the vision of God back to re-absorption in the contemplation of that vision herself. Such was Lewis’s final conclusion about the meaning of his wife’s death. Joy’s last words were, “I am at peace with God.” The real Lewis died that way too, on the day President Kennedy was shot.
I am glad that I have seen “Shadowlands,” and I recommend that you see it too. It contains some of the truth about the Lewises’ relationship; it wonderfully helps us to visualize the setting and the culture in context of which these things occurred; and the portrait of Lewis’s brother, Warren, is delightfully true to life, judging from Warren’s own published journals. But we must see it, not as reality, but as an often distorted interpretation of reality.
For the reality, the following are indispensable. Primary sources: C. S. Kilby, ed., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren H. Lewis (Ballantine, 1982); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1940—source of the early lectures in the movie); C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961); Warren H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966); Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (MacMillan, 1988); and Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-27 (Harcourt Brace, 1991). Secondary sources: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 1974); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994)—but not A. N. Wilson’s biography, exploded as tendentious fiction by eyewitness Douglas Gresham.
Let us hope that the movie-renting public will be intrigued enough to discover the real Lewis, who, in Aslan’s Country now as he did in life before, probably finds all this attention a source of great amusement.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. For more of his work on Lewis and Tolkien, order his book Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) or check out his works at Lantern Hollow Press.