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How Hollywood Reinvented C. S. Lewis in the Film Shadowlands

It is understandable why the film “Shadowlands” (now available on videotape) won rave reviews from almost everybody. The acting is splendid, the script is literate, and the production design is first-rate. All things considered, the film is a wonderful piece of cinema and well worth seeing. For those of us who never had the rare privilege of meeting C. S. Lewis in person, “Shadowlands” brings Lewis and his world to life in a new way.

Nevertheless, despite its beauty and its pathos, “Shadowlands” is not without major failings in the realm of accuracy. Unfortunately, many people seem to take at face value the film’s opening claim that “this is a true story.” The reviewer for Christianity Today, for instance, wrote that although “the filmmakers have taken some liberties with facts … and simplified some of Lewis’s complex musings… the film is generally true to Lewis’s life.”

As a matter of fact, it isn’t. The names of the principal characters are the same, but much of the plot has been contrived to fit the point of view of scriptwriter William Nicholson.

I’m not complaining about the numerous small inaccuracies. I expected those. After all, it doesn’t really matter that Joy had two sons instead of one (though it might matter if you were the son who was left out). Nor does it really matter that the marriage between Joy and Jack went on a lot longer than the film indicates (more than three years in reality). Such errors are minor and certainly fall within the domain of legitimate dramatic license.

What is more difficult to accept are the two huge errors on which the whole plot seems to hinge.

The first of these errors is the depiction of Lewis’s life before he met Joy. The film portrays Lewis as leading a cloistered existence in which he avoided women, children, and — above all — commitments to any relationship or situation that offered him the potential for risk or pain. This depiction of Lewis is a convenient way to set up him up for the film’s subsequent love story. But the portrayal invents a C. S. Lewis who never existed.

Contrary to the storyline of the film, Lewis had lived a life that was anything but cloistered or free from pain or commitment. During World War I, the supposedly cloistered Lewis served in the trenches in France, where he was wounded in action. After the war, the supposedly sexless Lewis apparently became infatuated with Mrs. Moore, a widow old enough to be his mother. When the affair ended and Lewis became a Christian, Lewis the uncommitted somehow felt obliged to support Mrs. Moore for the rest of her life, and she lived with Lewis and his brother until she had to be moved to a rest home (where he visited her every day). Meanwhile, the Lewis who did not associate with children had three children come and stay with him during World War II (they had been sent out of London because of the air raids (just like Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Similarly, the Lewis who supposedly avoided women also developed a close friendship with English poetess Ruth Pitter; he even told a friend that were he the kind of man to get married, he would marry her! And the Lewis who walked through life without painful experiences had to deal with his rejection by Oxford’s academic community, which never saw fit to select this brilliant scholar for a professorship (Cambridge finally did in the 1950s).

The second huge error of the film is its suggestion that Lewis’s faith in God was undermined by Joy’s death. While the film shows grief-torn Lewis saying (quite tentatively) to his stepson that he still believes in heaven, there is little indication in the film that Lewis still believes in a loving God. Indeed, in an outburst before his friends, Lewis is shown railing at the brutality of a God who acts as cosmic vivisectionist. Although this scene is invented (Lewis’s grief was intensely private), the speech against God that William Nicholson puts in Lewis’s mouth is actually inspired from a passage in Lewis’s A Grief Observed. The problem is that Nicholson is slipshod in the thoughts he chooses to lift from Lewis: He appropriates Lewis’s struggles from A Grief Observed but doesn’t bother to give any sense of the reaffirmation of faith found in the rest of that book — or in the many other letters, interviews, and articles by Lewis during the rest of his life. It seems that Mr. Nicholson wasn’t interested in portraying an orthodox Christian who experienced intense grief and yet maintained both his faith and his intellect.

Here is where the pernicious aspect of Shadowlands becomes evident. Lewis’s writings — including his intimate confessions in A Grief Observed — were largely efforts to vindicate God’s often unfathomable ways to man. Lewis sought to remove the obstacles that separate us from a living relationship with the One who truly loves us. “Shadowlands” does precisely the opposite by setting up Lewis’s faith as a straw man and then proceeding to knock it down.

The film repeatedly shows Lewis delivering a simplistic speech about how God uses painful experiences to make us listen to Him. The facile confidence with which Lewis delivers the speech is gradually contrasted with personal hell he goes through during Joy’s sickness and eventual death. By the end of the film, Lewis has presumably recognized that his simplistic theological dogmas won’t wash. He doesn’t find God in suffering; he finds a silent void. Thus is the most cogent defender of Christian orthodoxy of the twentieth century transformed into a modern champion of anguished doubt.

I tend to think that most people who view “Shadowlands” will overlook the underlying contempt the film displays for Lewis’s faith because Lewis is portrayed so sympathetically. And make no mistake: Despite the biographical inaccuracies mentioned above, Lewis is portrayed sympathetically. This film is not anti-Lewis. But perhaps that is because the villain in this story is not Lewis, but God.

The great irony of “Shadowlands” is that it even as it draws people closer to Lewis, it may drive them further away from the One in whom Lewis found the meaning of life. What a tragedy it would be if those who see the film come away thinking that Lewis’s earlier faith was somehow refuted by reality. Mind you, I am not claiming that this will be the result of “Shadowlands.” One can only speculate about the effect of the film on individual viewers, and this sort of speculation is rather dubious anyway. I can only suggest that given the film’s script that some viewers may conclude that Lewis’s defense of Christianity could not stand the scrutiny of real life.

There is another possibility, of course: The film may inspire those who see it to read Lewis’s writings for themselves and discover the reality of the faith to which he pointed. I hope that this second possibility will turn out to be the reality.

The article is the revised version of an essay that originally appeared in The Lewis Legacy.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.