Review: Shadowlands


I forget how much of my news you and your mother know. It is wonderful. Last year I married, at her bedside in hospital, a woman who seemed to be dying: so you can imagine it was a sad wedding. But Aslan has done great things for us, and she is now walking about again, showing the doctors how wrong they were and making us very happy....

C.S Lewis: Letters to Children

I'd been building up to Shadowlands with some trepidation. Richard Attenborough has made a career out of sentimentalising the lives of well known historical figures. (Don't you think that Ghandi would have been improved if we'd been allowed to hear about what he liked to do with naked women...?) The thought of him getting to work on one of my personal heroes was not an inspiring prospect. The Hollywoodized publicity campaign didn't make me very hopeful. 'He thought that magic only existed in books.... then he met her.' Oh dear.

So I was relieved to find that what we had was a pretty good movie, with Hopkins almost managing to be convincing as Lewis although he looked nothing like him, and Deborah Winger pulling off a very nearly perfect Joy Gresham. When you've read practically every that's been written about a pair of people, you get a very fixed idea of what they were like, and its impressive when actors manage to personify that idea. And the visuals, full of mists and sunrises and scenery and churches and crowds of undergraduates could hardly have been better.

In fact if Mr Attenborough hadn't removed the point of the story and twisted its meaning, I would be in a position to recommend it.

Shadowlands, in its three versions—TV, stage and now screen—is unashamedly a work of a hagiography rather than biography. It is selective about what it tells us about Lewis. The TV version didn't mention that C.S Lewis's brother, Warren, was an alcoholic, or that Joy Gresham's American abrasiveness made her very unpopular with Lewis's friends. Both of these were incorporated into the stage play, improving it enormously. Other awkward themes were ignored. We learned nothing of Lewis's alleged sado-masochism, nothing of his quarrel with Tolkien, and nothing of the mysterious Mrs Moore, who may or may not have been the lover of this 'confirmed bachelor'.. Nevertheless, it seemed to me to be a valid account of this part of Lewis's life: partial, yes, somewhat idealised, yes, but capturing some of the spirit of the man (or at any rate, that part of it which we know from his books.) Douglas Gresham (Lewis's stepson) told Lewis's biographer A.N Wilson 'how authentic it all felt, apart from the fact that so many of the details were untrue.'

Bill Nicholson, playwright of all three versions, said that in some biographies you have to work quite hard to find the patterns, the connections that can make the facts of someone's life into a story. In C.S Lewis's case, he found the work done already. Certainly, it seems as if Lewis was forced, at the end of his life, to live out a parable of everything that he had ever written—about Christianity, about children, about love, about death, about suffering. Doubtless over-simplistic biographies have made it all seem more clear cut than it actually was, but the bare bones of the story seem to be entirely true. A crusty old bachelor has a purely platonic friendship with an outrageous American; he enters into a marriage of convenience so she can stay in the country; she turns out to be suffering from cancer; their friendship turns into sexual love; there is a death-bed marriage, a three year remission: they are happy, she dies. Alone again, the Christian scholar has to re-assess everything he ever believed.

Is there a more painful book in the English language than A Grief Observed, Lewis's diary of the month's following Joy's death? It has been said that in those months he lost his faith: what actually happened seems to have been rather worse. In the TV version of Shadowlands, Nicholson has him say 'I still believe in God, but what kind of God?'. His beliefs still seemed intellectually valid to him: but he doubted that God was good, or feared that a truly good God might be more dreadful, more terrifying than a malevolent deity. He rebuilt his faith, and his final books (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm and The Great Divorce) are probably his best: less smug, more considered, more pious, more concerned with searching for the truth, less with winning the argument.

The BBC's play concentrated on what might be termed this theological plot. Despite its omissions, it was full of convincing, pointed scenes. We are shown that David and Douglas Gresham were the same ages that Lewis and his brother were when their mother died. We see Douglas reading the passage from the Magicians Nephew about Aslan bringing the magic apple back from Narnia to save a mother's life; and Lewis realising the absurd naiveté of the stories he had been feeding children. The play shows us Lewis's loss of faith—overstates it, according to some who knew Lewis—but culminates with his mystical experience, quoted directly from A Grief Observed—in which he realises that God is still there, unchanged.

The stage version improved the characterisation of Joy Gresham—we could finally see why Lewis's friends at Oxford might have disliked her. It incorporated a series of long monologues from Lewis, derived from the Problem of Pain, about the nature of suffering in the world. It removed David Gresham from the story altogether (ostensibly for reasons of dramatic economy, but one wonders if this was at the request of the adult David, who seems not to have shared his brother's hero-worship of Lewis.) It foolishly spends a lot of the second act on a series of rather inept tableaux of Joy and Jack being happily married, and incorporates their 'honeymoon' in Greece. Not good theatrical material, I'm afraid. It also made a lot more of the psychological element, arguing that Lewis was a screwed up kid, who never got over the death of his mother, and had been emotionally frozen by the experience.

The film manages to cut much of what was interesting in the two plays. Warren Lewis's alcoholism is touched on, but to nothing like the extent that it was in the stage play. Strangely, the off-stage character of Bill Gresham (Joy's first husband) is whitewashed. In both plays, we are told that he used to fire loaded guns to work off his anger, and once broke a bottle over Douglas head. On the screen, Douglas briefly complains that his dad shouts too much. Viewers who are not very familiar with Lewis's life and work are likely to miss entirely the symbolism of the attic, so nicely brought out on the TV. Lewis's emotional coldness since his mother's death is reduced to a single conversation between him and Joy. His antipathy to women vanishes altogether: the common room bore who explains that men have the intellect where women have souls (and is demolished by Joy) is expressing a view that Lewis himself might well have put forward. 'Why on earth marry a woman' he was supposed to have said 'All the topics of conversation would be used up in a fortnight.' But Lewis the (very chivalrous) misogynist wouldn't fit Shadowlands according to Attenborough, so out it goes.

But the films greatest sin is the way in which Attenborough marginalises all the specifically Christian ideas in the story. We lose a conversation between Lewis and his friends about the meaning of Christmas, and gain an explanation of the symbolism of the Wardrobe. (Is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really the only Lewis book that anyone has heard of?) Later, he asks another bachelor friend if he feels a sense of waste. 'Of course.' replies the friend, and the scene ends. In the play, he was allowed to add 'I don't have your faith in divine recycling.' To be fare, we keep the Problem of Pain monologue from the stage play, which presents something not a million miles from what Lewis's beliefs actually were. 'I'm not sure God particularly wants us to be happy . . .Pain is God's megaphone for shouting at a callous world.' He says that we all long to take each others pain on ourselves but does not add, as the real Lewis undoubtedly would have done, that we can't do so, whereas God can, and did.

These are fairly trivial points. The loss of Joy's account of her conversion from communism to Christianity, and Lewis's account of his own conversion from paganism seems more serious. A longish talk drawn directly from the couple's correspondence becomes a single gag about them both being 'lapsed atheists'. A very nice scene, created specially for the film, in which the embarrassed Lewis shares a bed with Joy for the first time, has him commenting that each night he kneels at the end of the bed and says his prayers. 'Like a little boy' comments Joy. Lewis might have said that as a little boy he was a humanistic atheist with leanings towards paganism and the occult. He doesn't. The film makes his Christianity something childlike and Anglican, which it wasn't.

Most seriously of all, the meaning of Joy's remission is changed beyond all recognition. In the two plays, the clergyman, having pronounced them man and wife and stumbled touchingly over expressions like 'in sickness and in health' and ''till death do you part' says 'I thought I might say a brief prayer of healing. Would you object if I laid hands on you?' This happened in real life: Lewis wrote in 1959—

I have stood by the beside of a woman whose thigh bone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones as well...The doctors predicted a few months of life: the nurses, who often know better, a few weeks. A good man laid hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, though rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying 'These bones are as solid as rock. It's miraculous.'

Lewis believed that Joy's remission was a miraculous act of God. In stage and TV, as in life, this was the point of the story.

In the movie, no prayer-of-healing is given by the clergyman, and we jump straight from the wedding to scenes of Joy undergoing chemotherapy. The chemotherapy replaces the prayer. Attenborough could hardly have put it more strongly than that. True, we hear Lewis's own parish priest saying that he knows how hard he has been praying. However the film has Lewis say that he does not pray to change God, but for the effect it has on him. This would not have been the real Lewis's view. I don't say that Attenborough, who is not, I think, a Christian, should have turned the movie into a piece of religious evangelism. You may not believe that Joy's remission was miraculous. Peter Bide, the clergyman in question, doubted that it was. What is important is that Lewis thought so. If Attenborough was worried about the film turning into a piece of polemic, he could have introduce a sensible atheist for Lewis to talk to. He could have had Lewis meet Bertrand Russel or A.J Ayer, who were both around at the right time. He could have re-staged the famous debate about miracles in which G.E.M Anscombe ripped holes in Lewis's argument, to the extent that he never wrote another book of theological argument. But instead, he simply shunts any specifically Christian,—or Lewisian—God off to the sidelines.

I didn't see Chaplin. Maybe they played down the fact that he was a comedian.

I could go on, and on. TV left Joy's final moments to our imagination; screen shows it to us. In real life, Lewis reports Joy's last words were 'I am at peace with God'. The screen gives us 'You have to let go, Jack.' TV let us hear the dreadful, poignant conversation that Lewis reports in A Grief Observed ('If it is allowed, will you come to me when I too am on my deathbed?' 'Allowed? Heaven would have a job to stop me, and as for Hell, I'd smash it to pieces.') Film cuts it.

As in all previous versions of the story, we end with Lewis talking to Douglas Gresham, and the old man and the little boy crying together. Lewis, on this view, was emotionally frozen, and, in particular, couldn't bare to show emotion in front of other men. Hence, in the play, being able to embrace his stepson and weep was the culmination of a process which started when he met Joy. Douglas is represented as being in the same position that Lewis was in at his age: not believing in heaven, but wanting his mother back. It is an extraordinarily affecting scene. In the play, it pulled the two themes of the story—Lewis's childhood, Lewis's faith—together. In the film, it loses its point (though not its emotional punch) since the themes of motherhood and Christianity have been so played down. It is no big thing for Lewis to hug Douglas when we have already seen him kissing him goodnight; no big thing for him to cry when we have already seen him do so. And no big thing for him to say 'I believe in heaven' when we haven't been shown any significant loss of faith.

So what are we left with? A film about a man who wrote children's books (and little else, apparently) and gave lectures to old ladies; who married late and lost but was pleased he had done so. It has genuinely moving moments: the death bed marriage; Jack and Douglas crying in the attic; Jack haranguing the priest. Genuinely moving moments: but do they carry their power because of my memories of other, better version and of my reading of the works of the man himself? I don't know.

I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from seeing what is in the final analysis a good movie: Hopkins really is phenomenal, particularly given some of the lines he has to work with. But I do hope that the BBC take the opportunity to repeat the original: and that when audiences have put their hankies away they read A Grief Observed, maybe the best Christian book written this century.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

C.S Lewis, 'Epitaph for Helen Joy Davidman'