Seen any life-changing movies lately?

February 1998

points on 10-point scale Winger and Hopkins play Joy and Lewis.Several movies over the years have affected me profoundly. Though I have no idea what the storyline was, for example, a movie seen in childhood titled The Wake of the Red Witch awakened a fascination with deep-sea diving and things nautical that stayed with me for years. My neighborhood friends and I frequently replayed our made-up Wake of the Red Witch story in which our barn was the ocean and we "dived," swinging on the block and tackle used for lifting hay into the lofts. In my teens, I saw Samson and Delilah and from it developed a fascination with biblical stories that started me on my first entire read-through of the Scriptures.

But no movie has affected me more profoundly than Shadowlands, which literally changed my life four years ago. Released in this country in December 1993, I saw it the next month, and before the end of 1994 had been chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church as a convert from the evangelical Protestantism I’d embraced for nearly 50 years. My conversion was largely a result of immersing myself in the writings of C.S. Lewis, the evangelical Anglican author who is the film’s central character. I’ve chronicled elsewhere why an Anglican’s writing would turn me toward Orthodoxy, but in brief I’m convinced that steadfast Orthodoxy is closer to the Christianity Lewis espoused than either the decadent Church of England or the faddish evangelical Protestant mainstream of today. (Others, of course, see both of these bodies differently, and I have no quarrel with them; this is just the telling, not intended as selling, of my own perception.) If a movie could affect me so profoundly, it behooves me to recommend it to others.

Shadowlands is not a movie focused on Lewis’ religion, but on the man as the film’s writers perceive him (in key ways different from how his biographers perceive him, incidentally), and his love relationship late in life with the American poet and author Joy Davidman Gresham. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an Oxford don with a number of popular works in print, including his best seller, The Screwtape Letters, and the children’s series The Narnia Chronicles, when Mrs. Gresham (Debra Winger), on a visit to England to gain perspective on her husband’s lurid affair, asked if she could meet him, apparently as a fan. She and her nine-year-old son Douglas (in real life there were two sons) ended up spending Christmas with Lewis and his brother Warnie, and later, after her husband divorces her, Lewis marries Joy simply as an arrangement so she and her son can stay in England. The rub comes, and the plot starts thickening, when Joy is diagnosed with incurable cancer and the two actually start falling in love.

There’s a hokey line in the movie that is nevertheless its profoundest thought, and it’s also what impressed and changed me most. It’s hokey because it isn’t even attributed to Lewis but comes from a student of his who probably never really existed. The student quotes his father as saying, "we read to know that we are not alone." Lewis is struck by it and quotes it back to the student later when he learns of the father’s death. It struck me because I knew I hadn’t been doing enough real reading (wasting my time reading newspapers, mostly), but till then I hadn’t had a compelling enough reason to change my habits.

But if we read to know that we are not alone, reading books can be on the same level as making and spending time with friends. We don’t really know people from our interaction with them as well as we do from reading their lives and innermost thoughts (I was married, for example, for 14 years to a role a woman was playing, without ever knowing the real person). So I started by reading Lewis seriously, reading at least 50 books mostly by—and some about—him over the next six months. Then someone challenged me, as a newspaper religion columnist, to read a couple of books about Orthodoxy and I readily agreed, thinking I needed more rounding in that area as I knew far more about Catholicism—even Judaism—and, of course, Protestantism, than Eastern Orthodoxy.

Your perception of Shadowlands may differ, of course. You may see the movie only as a great love story, which it is, or as the story of a crisis of faith which, to a lesser extent, it is also. Joy's son Douglas Gresham, who now conducts a kind of retreat center in Ireland, consulted on the movie and says he thinks it tells the story well, and as its sole survivor in a manner of speaking, he’s the one best qualified to do so. I hope Shadowlands will get you reading Lewis as it did me, but if you never read anything, it’s so much better than an average evening of television that you'd be impoverished to miss it.

1998 Jon Kennedy