Films are an important feature of popular culture, but can they also be a vehicle for theological enquiry? Veritas thinks they can! Every month during the Year of Faith, we offer a Film of the Month,which we invite you to watch, reflect on and discuss. As an initiative for the Year of Faith, you might like to start a Year of Faith Film Club in your work, school or parish community where these films can be discussed and shared. Film reviews are kindly written by Rev. Dr John-Paul Sheridan, PhD.
Film of the Month for November: Shadowlands
This film tells the story of the growing relationship between the novelist and Oxford don, C. S. Lewis and the American writer Joy Davidman, and her subsequent illness and death from cancer. It began life as a television play in 1985, starring Joss Ackland and Clare Bloom as the couple. It was written by William Nicholson, whose writing credits include Gladiator (2000), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and the new film version of Les Misérables (2012). It was later turned into a stage play and was subsequently made for the big screen and released in 1993, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lewis, Debra Winger as Joy, Edward Hardwicke as Lewis’ brother Warnie, and Joseph Mazzello as Joy’s son Douglas. The film was directed by Richard Attenborough, whose film credits are too numerous to mention!
Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) also appears. It went on to be nominated for two Oscars, six BAFTAs and ten other awards, and it won BAFTAs for Best British Film and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins.
Clive Staples Lewis (better known as C. S. or Jack) was born in Belfast in 1898. He was educated at boarding school in England, sent there after the death of his mother in 1908. He went to Oxford in 1916, attending University College. Apart from mobilisation during World War I, he was to remain at Oxford until 1954. He then accepted the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance at the University of Cambridge. In the early 1950’s Lewis began a friendship and correspondence with the American writer Joy Davidman. This friendship grew when she left her husband, the novelist William Gresham, and moved to England with her two sons, Douglas and David. The friendship eventually lead Lewis and Davidman to enter a civil marriage in 1956, so that Davidman could stay in England. She was then diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and the couple were married according to the Church of England in 1957.
The cancer went into remission for a short time, but she died in 1960. Her sons continued to live with Lewis after their mother’s death. Lewis died in 1963, the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He is buried in Oxford.
Lewis and His Writing
Lewis is perhaps best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, although the bulk of his writing was philosophical, apologist and spiritual in nature. Three of his books have particular significance to this film.
In 1940, against the backdrop of the Second World War, Lewis published The Problem of Pain, which was an attempt to explain and reconcile the Christian belief in a just and loving God and the existence of pain and suffering in the world. In 1955 he published Surprised by Joy, an account of his conversion to Christianity in the early 1930’s; and while it had nothing to do with his future wife, the parallels were often noted by his contemporaries. Thirdly, he published A Grief Observed in 1961 under the pseudonym N. W.Clerk, in which he explored his grief at the death of his wife and how he recovered his belief in God.
With regard to the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis dedicated The Horse and His Boy to David and Douglas Gresham. The Last Battle (1956) has a final chapter entitled ‘Farewell to Shadowlands’, which is what Aslan calls human existence. The Magician’s Nephew (1955) tells the story of the creation of Narnia (in parallel to the Genesis story). At the heart of the story is a boy and his sick mother and the quest for a magic apple to heal her. Lewis’s mother had died when he was younger and he had been sent away to boarding school. The story might also have been significant to the Gresham sons.
The film explores relationships on a number of different levels. The first is the relationship between the two main characters, but there are also the relationships between Lewis and his brother, Joy and her son, and Lewis and the young Douglas. For whatever reason, Douglas is the only Gresham son portrayed in the film.
Death and Loss
For a film synopsis and questions for reflection, please click here.