Shadowlands: A Review

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 fine 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 film'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 confirmed bachelorhood, and violating the decorum of stiff-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 sniffling through the last third of the movie as Jack's valiant wife first 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 more 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 together - which are certainly as dramatic if not more so than those fictionalized ones that primarily comprise the movie. My frequent quip to those who have asked me about the movie has been, "I thoroughly enjoyed it. I 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 figures.

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 Christianity - herself a convert to Christ during a crisis of conscience and worldview similar to his own, and herself the author of poetry and nonfiction 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 suffering - ironically in one of the few places the script actually quotes Lewis's own words - creating 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 suffering, 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 fiction-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 large--either 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. However, there is simply no evidence that Joy is responsible for a "new, improved" Lewis "able to show his feelings" for the first 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 nurture 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 final 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, Chiefly on Prayer.

While Shadowlands has many merits as a movie, it contains too many flaws 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), an 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 (Crosssway), the best currently available and balanced treatment of Lewis's life.