Tuesday, July 19, 2005


SHADOWLANDS (1985, UK, Norman Stone, William Nicholson)
SHADOWLANDS (1993, UK, Richard Attenborough, William Nicholson from his own stageplay)

The pain now is part of the happiness then.

In 1993, Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger starred in Shadowlands, the heartbreakingly personal story of C.S. Lewis's fascinating relationship with Joy Gresham. It gave many North American viewers their first glimpse of a little-known chapter in the life of this revered Christian writer, but the episode was not new to British audiences: it had been dramatized for BBC television a decade earlier, then made into a highly successful London stage play.

North American film buffs and Lewis fans alike have had to put up with a certain level of frustration ever since. You'd no sooner start to praise the Oscar-nominated film version of the story than somebody would pipe up to tell you how much better "the original" was. Which, of course, was impossible to get hold of, so you'd just have to take their word.

What you could get hold of, though, was the playscript, and when a buddy brought me a copy fresh from the West End I saw right away this was a masterful piece of writing: indeed, it gripped me even more than the film I loved so much, and I resolved that I would play that role one day. (You see, writing about movies is just my obsession: there's no money in it, so – being practical by nature – I I realized right away I'd need to support my habit with a more lucrative day job. I picked acting.)

This spring I finally got my chance not only to put William Nicholson's amazing script onstage but also (finally) to view the original BBC production, which was released on DVD as we prepared for rehearsal. It's amazing to see how substantially different the three versions are – all written by the same man, William Nicholson. To compare them is a fascinating study in the evolution of a script.

Just as thrilling is the opportunity to watch veteran British actor Joss Ackland (his IMDb entry lists 139 movie credits!) create an interpretation of "Jack" Lewis that's profoundly different from better-known, widely-acclaimed Anthony Hopkins performance which followed. We'll never get a chance to meet this man we feel we know so well through his writings – at least not this side of the wardrobe – so it's a great privilege to have two such fully-realized portrayals provide a truly three-dimensional perspective of C.S. Lewis.

The 1985 teleplay begins with an extreme close-up of an eye, blinking. Eerie underscoring distances us from the laughter and conversation we hear as the camera pulls back to show High Table at Magdalen College. Forkfuls of food are thrust into mouths, fish heads are cut off, blotchy-faced Oxford dons cough and chew. We rise from the table and flee outdoors: "Why am I so afraid? I never knew that love could hurt so much, and I love you, and all I want is to love you. Beyond every door I hear your voice saying to me, 'This is only the land of shadows. Real life hasn't begun yet.'" Walking into a darkened doorway, we find ourselves traveling down the long, empty corridor of a house, into an abandoned spare room. The doors of a wardrobe swing open, we push through coats and furs until we come to a lantern, shining in the middle of a snowy wood.

In the first a minute and a half of this made-for-TV teleplay, we already know how close we'll be to the essence of C.S. Lewis – and we know where the coming love story will be headed. We see the world through Jack's eyes, but it's a world he's alienated from. And when he turns away, with Joy preoccupying his thoughts, it's his own childhood and the world beyond the wardrobe he goes back to. The story that's to come has been framed by childhood and bereavement, and we've glimpsed its two worlds – the clubby male environs of British academic life, and the crisp, cool magical world beyond.

We also sense how much this cinematic creation will be informed by the literary creations of the central character – not only in the Narnia reference and the image of the childhood home described in his spiritual memoir Surprised By Joy, but in the voice-over which is so close to the opening of A Grief Observed; "No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear..."

Then the title credits roll and we're immersed in the day-to-day bachelor's life of Lewis in the early 1950's – but already our ears are being tuned to what's coming. We hear Lewis give a radio talk on marriage, we see him chided by his university peers for his "plain Jack" talks on thing he knows nothing about. Ackland is wonderful here: he's got the intelligence, a willingness to engage in the argument at hand, but there's a tremendous humility as well. "Shouldn't I have said that I haven't been married?" is played with a winning sincerity: for all the public attention, this is a man who isn't always sure of himself. It's a warmth and humanity that permeates the entire performance, and seems so close to the heart of the Lewis we meet, for example, in the preface to The Problem of Pain, where he acknowledges not being a "real theologian," and openly admits not living up to his own principles on the subject of pain, admitting to a personal aversion to any sort of real suffering.

Essentially, Shadowlands maps Lewis's own journey from the intellectually impressive but not-lived-through and not-quite-convincing arguments of The Problem of Pain (1940) to the agonized heart's cry that is A Grief Observed (1961), which he began writing the very hour he returned home after Joy's funeral. The earlier book strives to construct answers and explanations, the later offers few. But it's the second of the books that Christians turn to in times of bereavement, and this film takes the viewer through the experiences that bring Lewis to his deeper humanity and wisdom. (The play makes this structure even clearer, opening not with a radio talk on marriage, but with an intellectually dazzling public address on God's responsibility for suffering in the world which plays like a distillation of his 1940 book – just as it ends with a monologue very close to the spirit of the 1961 volume.)

BBC director Norman Stone identifies himself as a Christian – a recent project, Man Dancin', is about a criminal released from prison who gets involved in a parish Passion play – and Stone's affection and affinity for Lewis is palpable, not only in the winsome performance he draws out of Joss Ackland and the warmth he finds in the romance with Joy, but in his honouring of all the literary and theological elements in Nicholson's original script. This script draws on a wide range of Lewis's works, and it's willing to give tremendous screen time to Joy and Jack as they get to know each other, in a literate conversation that ranges from conversion stories to theology and politics. Most significantly, while the teleplay takes Lewis in his grief to a point where God has slammed the door in his face, with "the sound of bolting and double bolting, and after that, silence," we also see him wake in the night and wander back out into those Narnian woods, where he finally can remember Joy and sense again something of God's presence.

And what a splendid Joy Claire Bloom gives us! As Jack and Warnie plod along a path by the River Chartwell, Joy darts in and out like an excited child on a day trip, peppering the stolid brothers with a barrage of opinions and questions, all inhibition and intelligence and enthusiasm. And if her American accent never gets any closer to New York than someplace in the mid-Atlantic, there's spunk and savvy and sass enough in this performance to provide all the Yankee brashness the role calls for. This dame is smart!

If anything, the subsequent stage version even more richly explores the world of words and ideas (naturally enough, since plays tell their stories in words, movies in pictures) while sharpening the moment-to-moment dramatic thrust of the story. Where the BBC film can feel talky at times, the play shows considerable dramaturgical development: the dramatic momentum is much stronger, the story is always moving forward. The argument at the Christmas party, for example, is much more developed, and there's real crowd-pleasing energy in the back-and-forth argument between Joy and Christopher. (That's another great strength of the stage play: Christopher Riley is a far more significant character, and far more nuanced, not merely Jack's snide adversary, but also a loyal and insightful friend, a wonderfully drawn "secular priest.") The play is also less bound by the movies' need to be "realistic," and incorporates a magical and deeply moving series of images drawn from The Magician's Nephew where Douglas enters the wardrobe and ultimately brings back a magic apple which he presents to his mother just after her marriage to Jack, just before her recovery, deftly suggesting the possibility that her remission is as much miracle as it is medicine, brought about by a child's faith.

The Attenborough version benefits from the stronger narrative craftsmanship of the stage play, and it also looks a lot better. Stone's Oxford is dreary as hell – specifically, that peculiarly British vision of hell Lewis describes in The Great Divorce – dismal, dingy, and always raining. (I guess if you think of that as a choice, it's a plus: I think it's mostly just a small budget and a shoddy DVD transfer.) But the bigger-budget version goes too far in the name of narrative drive, stripping out too much conversation, too much theology, too many ideas, almost all the literature – does Hollywood really believe people only know The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? More seriously, it also truncates the ending of the story in a way that almost suggests Lewis abandoned his faith by the end of his life. (I've long believed the Lewis estate has fallen into the hands of Screwtape himself – maybe this was their doing?)

Hopkins' portrayal of Lewis also raises qualms. This actor, one of the greatest of our time, was at the top of his game – think Silence Of The Lambs (1991) and Remains Of The Day (1993). His Lewis is a brilliant portrayal of a brilliant mind, but there is also a brittle unconcern that seems at odds with the Jack of history – or of the preceding two versions. Which is not just Hopkins' doing: the 1993 screenplay adds a sub-plot about a personality clash between Jack and an inattentive student, and focuses Joy's relationship to Jack on some pretty abrasive conflict over Jack's insistence on winning every argument, surrounding himself with people who are either worshipful or weak. How do these elements strengthen the essential thrust of the story? They feel more like the knee-jerk iconoclasm of the times, when it's assumed audiences won't believe characters who are too "good," too nice. A shame.

Maybe it sounds like I want hagiography, and maybe I do. But to miss Jack's warmth and generosity is to miss something essential in the man: biography after biography shows us a man who, while he certainly loved a no-hold-barred debate and may have alienated some, was also much beloved. Indeed, if there is a missing element in these two cinematic interpretations of C.S. Lewis, it may be his largeness of spirit. As Douglas Gresham himself writes, "even within the first hours of meeting him, the enormous vibrancy and vitality and charm and humor of his personality completely expunged any physical deficiencies that I might have seen in him. He was a very humorous man... If Jack was in a room, there was laughter. If he was sitting by the bedside of someone dying of cancer, there was laughter. If he was talking to his colleagues, his peers, there was laughter.”

I suppose these performances may have been crafted the way they were to leave room for dramatic contrast and character development: if Joy was to be the spark that lit Jack's world ablaze, perhaps they felt she ought to be the one that brought the laughter and life. But I'm convinced that Jack's vitality and heart can be shown right from the outset without losing a bit of the story's shape: the contrast is between Jack and the world around him, and when Joy comes into his life, we recognize two people who are profoundly right for each other. There's still plenty of emotional terrain to be covered as the bachelor becomes a friend then a lover and a husband, as the two of them ride the waves of hope and despair that marked their years together. But a bigger Jack is a truer Jack, and makes for a greater and truer story.

That said, each film is in its own way a gift, and I wouldn't do with out either of them. I suspect that the real Jack Lewis was somewhere between the warm and self-effacing man Joss Ackland brings to the screen – much preferred by Christians and Inkling-o-philes – and the brittle, brilliant mind Anthony Hopkins has etched in our memory. And if the latter Lewis is too disconnected, too detached, too domineering in the early going, it certainly sets us up for a powerful reversal when his world falls to the ground late in the film. Who will ever forget the raw vulnerability of that attic scene with Douglas? That one moment places this film, and this performance, very close to my heart indeed.

And without Shadowlands – in any of its incarnations – how many of us would ever have met Joy Davidman? What a gift she is! Films rarely present us with such characters, yet we all have them in our lives and count ourselves blessed – these opinionated, forceful, courageous woman who don't give a damn about being ladylike, whose breathtaking femininity is all in their wit and their passion and their uncompromising authenticity. No guile, no quarter, just heart and mind and fiery commitment. When I first saw Debra Winger in the role, I had my qualms: she seemed too young for Lewis, too brashly American, a shade too cantankerous. Now I realize how perfectly this actress fulfilled the role: mine were exactly the reactions of Lewis's crusty and protective friends when the real Joy showed up in his life! (Winger and Hopkins couldn't have been more suitably cast with respect to age. During shooting, he was 54 and she 37, precisely the ages Jack and Joy would have been when they met in the fall of 1952.)

And whatever with think about the nuances of these interpretations, the fact is both films offer the magnificent gift of making Lewis and his time real to us. We journey to Oxford – the Attenborough film in particular makes this place into a central character in its story, which is as it should be – we get to know Warnie and Douglas and Joy, we experience the difficulties all of us face eventually when our faith in a loving God comes up against the reality of suffering in our world. And if we don't come away with answers, we come away larger, having passed through some very dark shadows indeed, but reminded that even the brightest things in our pale world are nothing but a shadow of the life to come.


The 1993 version is available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies