Once upon a time, an Oxford professor, who also happens to be magnetic public speaker (and the two do not necessarily go together), has developed a comfortable life for himself teaching mostly attentive students, speaking to adoring audiences, and even writing a series of children's books whose many readers send him letters telling him how magical the stories are. "Pain," he trumpets with easy authority to assembly after earnest assembly, "is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." His name is C.S. Lewis, but his scholarly, witty friends at the pub call him Jack. So does his brother, "Warnie," Major Warren Lewis, with whom he shares late middle-aged bachelor digs.
Then one day, Jack meets face to face with one of his more strident fans, a woman named Joy Gresham who steams into his life, leaving behind an abusive husband and towing in her wake a wounded, quiet son whose one enthusiasm appears to be Jack's "magical" stories. Jack finds himself becoming friends with this uncouth Yankee. Then he falls in love with her. She and her son, Douglas, become woven inextricably into his life. When tragedy in the form of a long, excruciating illness takes Joy from Jack, he finds he must come to terms with his own pain, pain that no longer seems to be a welcome, bracing call from God after all.
Shadowlands, originally a 1985 TV film, then a stage play written William Nicholson, then directed as a film in 1993 by Richard Attenborough, is a lovely, poignant story. As an Anglophile American, I revel in the details of Oxford in the middle of the last century. I enjoy Jack's English reserve; his relationship with his brother, which has reached the comfortable stage when hardly a word needs to be spoken for communication to take place; the rapid-fire banter of the pipe-smoking group of pub friends; and the bemusement they all experience when a divorced Jewish-American poetess bursts into their midst.
The pain of illness and parting here are wrenching. Jack's angry grief at the death of his wife and friend, discovered so late and lost so quickly, is believable. Douglas's younger grief at the loss of his mother is even more so. The ending leaves me satisfied but melancholy and thoughtful, as every good tragedy should.
Attenborough has assembled a superb cast for his film. Anthony Hopkins is the perfect choice to play Jack Lewis. He manages to convey Lewis's confidence as a speaker and juxtapose it perfectly with his bewildered, mannered dodging in the face of Joy's barrage of importunate questions and observations. Hopkins is also one of the few actors I've seen who can weep convincingly. When Jack breaks down after Joy's death and cries with Douglas, his awkward, broken sobs are ugly. His body shakes. I myself feel stricken, and find myself half turning away, instinctively wanting to leave them privacy for their grief.
I do happen to disagree with almost every other reviewer I've read about Debra Winger as Joy Gresham. When she is playing the scenes in which Joy is brash, outspoken, or pointing out the elephant in the room that no one else will mention in polite conversation, I find her acting to be wooden. It looks like she takes a breath, squares off, and "delivers the line." She doesn't at all let it flow from Joy as a natural part of her personality. This is, however, not an overwhelming negative in an otherwise well-acted role. When Winger is portraying Joy's generosity of spirit, or her amused tenderness with Jack, she does so with delicate balance: a slightly raised eyebrow, a gentling of voice. It makes it possible for me to believe that reserved English Jack could fall in love with this brassy, loud American divorcée.
Edward Hardwicke and Joseph Mazzello also shine in their supporting roles as Warnie Lewis and Douglas Gresham, respectively. Hardwicke's Warnie watches with quiet amusement as Jack struggles with his growing attraction to Joy, and kindly takes Douglas off to play while the two spar and circle one another warily. Later, he comforts Jack as only a brother can, not offering any platitudes or encouragement but simply saying, "I'm so sorry, Jack." Mazzello as the preteen Douglas, all arms and legs, too old for silly games but not old enough not to need his mother, brings a lump to my throat. When he goes into the attic of the Lewises' house, opens the door of the wardrobe there, and pushes on the back of it with frustration on his face, I'm with him all the way.
I must also confess a wicked glee in the character of Christopher Riley, played by John Wood. As Jack's atheist friend cum critic, Riley's dry, sarcastic comments make me laugh every time. He can't stand Joy, and she knows it and goes toe to toe with him in one of the funniest scenes in the film. "Do women have souls?" he wonders aloud at a party, in the plummiest of plummy accents, all innocent speculation and scarcely veiled malice. Joy raises an eyebrow and responds in her flat Yankee twang, "Are you trying to be offensive, or merely stupid?"
As a story, Shadowlands is good cinema, no doubt about it. But of course, there's another dymanic entirely at work here also.
C.S. Lewis, as most viewers will already know, was a real man, an author perhaps best known for his Chronicles of Narnia. He did indeed meet and marry Joy Gresham, and their short, bittersweet love became the source of some of his most profound and moving writings on love, suffering and loss. Shadowlands the play/film takes some liberties with Lewis's life story, and has provoked much discussion among Lewis fans, some of it quite heated. In my research for this review, I encountered one discussion that speaks of "protecting the real C.S. Lewis."
The discrepancies are numerous. Joy Gresham had two sons, not one. She had a rather longer remission than the film suggests, hence a longer time of married life with Lewis, but she then died in hospital, not at home. I could go on and on. Instead, I'll quote the playwright himself.
"Shadowlands is based on events that occurred in the lives of two real people -- C.S. Lewis and Joy (Davidman) Gresham -- but it is not a documentary drama. I have used parts of their story, not used other parts, and imagined the rest. The love affair was real enough, but they were both intensely private about it. No one knows exactly how and why they fell in love. It is in this uncharted region that I have created a story." -- William Nicholson, as quoted by The Theatre of Western Springs
While I am certainly a devoted Lewis fan (I was raised with his writing, and as a child thought of him as a sort of older uncle), I tend to fall on the more liberal side of the discussion about the liberties Shadowlands has taken, and on whether or not the film does justice to the great author. I can accept it as a story, one that helps me feel even more deeply about a man I love without disturbing my knowledge of his actual life.
There was one aspect of "the real C.S. Lewis" that I do miss
profoundly, however, and that is his friendship with another famous author,
J.R.R. Tolkien. If people know anything at all about Lewis, most of them know
that he and Tolkien were close friends for many years. Granted, at the time
in Lewis's life covered by this movie, it's possible that Lewis and Tolkien
had drifted apart a bit (according to the biographies I've read), but "Tollers"
should still have made an appearance or two. Why doesn't he? Could it be --
I wondered to myself -- that the film makers didn't want to, or couldn't,
come to an agreement with Tolkien's estate about how to include him? I couldn't
find an answer to this question during my research, so I turned to the Mythopoeic
Society (through a colleague who is a member), an organization which
studies and celebrates the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other "Inklings,"
who were a group of writing friends. David Bratman, sometime editor of the
Mythopoeic Society's magazine Mythprint
and an acknowledged Inklings scholar, says,
"Lewis's 'friends' in Shadowlands are completely unlike the Inklings. For one thing, they scoff at his love of religion and fantasy, and Christopher Riley, the (entirely fictional) character played by John Wood in the theatrical version, who as a professor of English might be presumed to be based on Tolkien, says he's an atheist, which of course Tolkien was not, nor were any of the Inklings. And the clergyman character was even worse.
In real life, Lewis had long since given up socializing with people like that, though he'd certainly met plenty. This may make for more conflict and better drama, but it's entirely unrelated to reality. I'm sure that Shadowlands was written that way because the author wanted to write it that way, not because of legal constraints. I don't even know if the author had permission from the Lewis estate, let alone anything else, to write it: neither the stage play publication nor the novelization contain any notice to that effect that I could find."
Given all the discussion to and fro, the chief question seems to be, "Is Shadowlands a good story, drawing on real life for inspiration and force, or a deceptive attempt at biography?" I suppose it depends on your perspective, and what you know about the film and expect beforehand. I think many people in the original audience expected the film to be a lightly fictionalized biography of Lewis. This may have been a fault of marketing, but word of mouth may have contributed as well. After all, it's easier to recommend the movie to a friend by saying, "It's about C.S. Lewis!" than by saying, "It's a drama loosely based on certain events in Lewis's life."
Even knowing about the factual discrepancies, I find myself believing utterly in the scene where Douglas tries to get into the wardrobe, hoping against reason that it really is the way into Narnia. A few months ago, I visited the Wade Center, a repository for a growing number of the Inklings' papers at Wheaton. In their visitors' center they have the actual wardrobe. The one C.S. Lewis's father made, the one that C.S. Lewis had in view when he began The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. They haven't roped it off. Visitors can touch it, open it, reach inside. There are fur coats hanging there, and I pushed them apart and put my hand on the back of the wardrobe and stood there for a long time.
Near the end of the film, Jack comes to realize that something one of his students said to him earlier is true: "We read to know we're not alone." This film does a bit of that for me, as well.
David Bratman, mentioned above, has a very
containing reviews of a selection of biographies of C.S. Lewis,
for anyone interested in learning more about Lewis's life.