Monday, November 15, 2021

The Reluctant Lewis

Last month, I talked about the stage play C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce by The Fellowship for Performing Arts. They released their first film this month, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert, and what was originally going to be a one-night-only release continued to get extended as theatres saw the interest C.S. Lewis brings. 

Though the film is based largely on Lewis's book Surprised by Joy, they also bring in other of his writings. And they did change the angle or focus slightly. After all, I wouldn't call this one of Lewis's better books--it's not only a fairly dry read, but he spends much of the time talking about the late Edwardian English school system. While that's all good and well to learn about, it's also not necessarily what I was expecting when I went to read the autobiographical book that describes Lewis's conversion from atheist to theist. So if the film focused less on describing the social dynamics of the schools Lewis went to, well, I can understand.

I do think that perhaps this film, which is based on a play, would have worked better as a play. It's narrated by Max McLean, who also wrote the original play; Norman Stone wrote the screenplay and also directs. Norman Stone also directed Shadowlands, which tells the story of C.S. Lewis's relationship with Joy Gresham. That is, he directed the 1986 one, not the 1993 one with Anthony Hopkins (I've watched both and remember that I liked one and not the other, but I'm not sure which was which). But back to this film. 

The format of having one actor narrate makes sense given that this is a non-fiction book describing not just events but also concepts. It isn't Lewis's life story: it's his way of going through certain points in his life to describe his changing perspectives and the various things that influenced his ideas. This monologue-like style would probably have worked well as a live play. In a movie, though, it worked but also sometimes felt like it detracted from the action onscreen. 

For instance, you will see a scene playing out with characters while Lewis is narrating. Instead of observing everything for yourself, you get him telling you what's happening or interrupting what's happening. There's some rich content in his life, so you kind of just want to sit back and watch it all unfold. But instead, you have the narration. This is what grade school teachers would call showing rather than telling. Now, I did say that it works. It just makes this more of a niche film. Films reach a wider audience than plays, so it would have been nice to have a less niche approach so that more people (who are only aware of Narnia) could enjoy learning about C.S. Lewis's story. 

Yet I'm aware that I'm critiquing them making an intellectual film about a very intellectual book. The whole point of Surprised by Joy is that Lewis was engaging in philosophy and intellectualism that he thought did not allow for the existence of God--until he found that intellectual thought in fact cannot deny the existence of God. Even the very existence of intellectual thought proves the existence of God. So perhaps it would have been worse to try and not make a very intellectual, even niche, film out of this story. 

Here's one thing I was a little thrown off by at first. The very title of the original book describes what Lewis refers to as "joy," something that he caught glimpses of at various times in his life through nature or fantasy stories, something that awakened a longing in him, a longing that he only wanted to feel more and more. He came to realize that it was this longing feeling that he wanted, not the things that created it. Nature itself did not satisfy, the more he learned about the literature the less he encountered the feeling, and romantic entanglements were also empty. Essentially he comes to realize that the feeling is a longing for something outside of one's self--what we might call a longing that only God can fill. 

Yet it took a while for the film to introduce this concept and even then it didn't seem so much the focus. The focus is more on a general sense of atheism turned into a slow, reluctant willingness to accept that atheism does not make sense. This might make sense as an artistic choice in order to, well, make the film less niche and give it a broader theme. But the concept of joy is so tied into Lewis's other writings that I regret to see it lose any focus.

Besides his non-fiction, it's all over Narnia, that with which the casual audience-goer is most likely to have familiarity (even if they haven't studied its themes). Lewis writes Narnia as fantasy because to him fantasy awakens that awareness of the spiritual realm and creation and God's presence. So Surprised by Joy touches on very core Lewis concepts, even if I did call it one of his drier works. Granted, though, it's also more difficult to focus on in the film because the book makes mention of many literary works that most people today have not read, if they've even heard of them. They did work in the main points, but I suppose it also makes sense that there was less focus on what young Lewis read.

All of this sounds like I'm grilling the film. I don't mean to: I enjoyed it, and it's definitely one for the Lewis fans. Even though his trademark was to make things simple and understandable, C.S. Lewis dug into deep concepts--and you can see that in this movie. So that's why I'm nitpicking their handling of this or that theme or chewing through their decisions to do this or that: an intellectual film invites intellectual discussion (not that you would call a rambling blog post intellectual discussion--but it's angled in that direction at least). So if you enjoy Lewis and haven't yet seen the film, I'd recommend trying to make it over to the theatre in the next couple days while it's still out. 

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