Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shadowlands


The allegorical children's books of C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, are enjoying an unexpected vogue since the release of the films The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2008), Prince Caspian (2008), and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). Like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Lewis's books have been the beneficiary of advances in CGI that enable filmmakers to realize, in ways that neither writer could have imagined, all the fantasy elements that, for Lewis, were integral to the religious messages in the books. I'm not at all confident that those Christian messages are getting across to the audience of infants, big and small, who have flocked to watch these films. But perhaps it is enough of a miracle, even for an unbeliever, that the films were made at all.

Perhaps even more unexpected was the brief interest in Lewis's private life that was inspired by William Nicholson's 1985 TV drama, Shadowlands, with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, subsequently rewritten by Nicholson for the stage in 1989, and adapted to film (again by Nicholson) in 1993. The film, directed by Richard Attenborough, is a splendid achievement, easily Attenborough's best film, despite the much bigger splashes made by some of his other films, like Gandhi (1982).

In the 1940s, Lewis was a quite popular lecturer on theology, so much so that his lectures were broadcast on radio, transcribed and published. Based on the writing and thinking to be found in these lectures, I was not at all enthusiastic about seeing Shadowlands. Lewis was one of those Christian apologists who apparently found pleasure in baiting atheism and debunking its philosophical and political foundations. There is a long tradition for this kind of reactionary thinking, going back to the intellectual ferment provoked by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The film concentrates on a period in Lewis's life during which his religious faith was severely tested by his love for - and loss of - Joy Gresham. The film, to be sure, takes liberties with the play to which some critics, who knew far more about Lewis's religious life than I care to, took exception. Richard Alleva, in Commonweal, commented at the time of the release of Attenborough's film:

The stage version is made of sterner stuff than the new film. In the play's first scene, Jack Lewis, delivering a lecture, addresses the question of why God makes or lets us suffer. His answer, "the blows of God's chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect," is something that Lewis believes intellectually but doesn't feel with his entire being. By the final curtain, because of the suffering he has undergone, Lewis faces the audience as a transfigured man, prepared, even longing to undergo his own death because only death can release him from the "shadowlands" of earthly life into the higher reality of heaven where he will be reunited with Joy. Head knowledge has become heart knowledge. The stage play, when well performed (as it certainly was on Broadway with Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne), provides a deeply spiritual experience. . . . This movie indicates how a spiritual experience has been yanked sharply down to earth. [It] is no longer the story of the romantic union of two equally life-perplexed, God-seeking individuals, perfectly matched in intellect and mettlesome high spirits. It is now the story of an overgrown teddy bear, lovably bookish and unworldly, who is rescued from emotional suffocation and his own virginity by a warmhearted, tough-tender earth mother who shatters his routine, skewers his narrow-minded colleagues, and takes him on a motor tour of the English countryside. Let's face it: this Shadowlands is really the latest rendition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

I have mentioned before how recent adaptations of two English novels, The End of the Affair and Brideshead Revisited, betrayed their sources by refusing to honor the religious plot elements that Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh evidently thought were vital enough to their stories. While Shadowlands, Alleva argues, avoids much of the overtly religious content of the play, I, for one, am delighted at the outcome. Lewis was a minor theologian who liked to demolish ideas that refused to accommodate his narrow theories about life and death. As played by Anthony Hopkins in the film, Lewis is not so sure of himself or his faith. and all the more sympathetic for it. He would rather that his insular life were not disturbed, and who can blame him? But he finds himself drawn to a brash American woman whose son loves The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I suppose it would be too easy to suggest that Lewis was attracted to her precisely because he saw in her opportunities not for happiness but for suffering - that terrible Christian justification for human experience? Pablo Neruda summed it up as "the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out."

Joy Gresham comes from a place that is foreign to Lewis, since it is fraught with direct experience of living, rather than abstract theories about it. Lewis doesn't seem capable of resisting the humanizing process that being close to Joy offers him. After her death, Lewis says to his brother, "So afraid, never seeing her again, thinking that suffering is just suffering, after all. No cause. No purpose. No pattern. Nothing. There's nothing to say. I know that now. I've just come up against a bit of experience. Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, you learn."

A colleague tells him: "Life must go on." To which Lewis replies:
"I don't know that it must, but it certainly does."
"Only God knows why these things have to happen," his colleague says.
"God knows but does God care?"
"Of course. We see so little here. We're not the creator."
"No. We're the creatures, aren't we? We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory. I've no doubt the experiment is for our own good, but that still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn't it?"

Anthony Hopkins plays Lewis as a fully realized man replete with conflicts and contradictions. He may not represent an accurate portrayal of the real C.S. Lewis, but I think he is more interesting for that. But Debra Winger, as Joy, steals the show. She is completely there, substantial and utterly convincing. The real Joy was an atheist (later repented), a Communist (also repented), poet and literary editor. A little of this is mentioned in the film (Winger recites a short poem to Lewis), and Winger appears to contain all that living and exude it in her performance.

Alleva concludes his review of Shadowlands rather peevishly: "So, by all means, go see Shadowlands but be prepared to take it on its own terms. This is a C.S. Lewis biopic for secular humanists in search of a good cry. I believe they constitute a sizable audience." Too bad such a sizeable audience would rather not know all the details of Lewis's inner life. Perhaps the audiences for The Chronicles of Narnia films are being similarly short-shrifted of the religious significance that Lewis tried to give them. But I found myself moved by this fictional Lewis far more than I am by the real one. Further proof that art doesn't imitate life, it improves on it. "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

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