CS (Jack) Lewis, an Oxford don who died 40 years ago, is in the news because the latest filmed version of his famous children's novel, "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" (filmed in New Zealand, of all places) has become a box office success. Norman Stone, who in 1985 directed "Shadowlands", an excellent TV movie based on Lewis's relationship with his American fan and eventual lover Joy Gresham (with Joss Ackland and Clair Bloom in the leading roles), has given us a re-run of that film but this time as a dramatized documentary with Anton Rogers as an elderly Jack Lewis taking us through his story. And it is an interesting story.
Jack Lewis came from a prosperous and happy Belfast protestant family (his father was a solicitor) but at the age of 10 his mother, who he adored, died of cancer. He and his brother Warnie were sent away to a succession of nasty boarding schools, until their father decided a private tutor might be the answer and sent Jack to his former headmaster, the elderly but dynamic "Knock" who was a teacher of genius. Wounded in the trenches in WW I, Jack went to Magdelene ("Maudlin") College Oxford and racked up an almost unheard of triple first in Moderations (Greek & Latin Literature), Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) and English.. He settled down to the comfortable life of an Oxford don, but his early atheism gave way to deep Christian belief and he produced some notable works on Christian themes, as well as the allegorical children's stories, "Chronicles of Narnia.". He had a long and stormy friendship with another great fantasy writer, JRR Tolkien, also an Oxford don.
His personal life was a little less comfortable. For 30 years he lived with and supported the difficult and demanding mother of Paddy Moore, Jack's best friend, killed in WW I. Then in 1952 he met Joy Gresham a brash American divorcée in her 30s he had corresponded with, and her sons Douglas and David. At first just friends (though he married her in 1956 so that she could stay in Britain) he fell in love with her after she became seriously ill with cancer. They married again, this time for real. She went into remission and they had a couple of happy years together before she died in 1960. At 62 Jack was a widower with two teenage step-sons to look after.
The story is told in flashbacks, with Jack to camera, radiating sincerity, providing the links, and occasional contributions from biographers, scholars and friends, including Joy's son Douglas. Given the producers of the film are the Faith and Values Group, a certain amount of religiosity is present though it would have to be described as a soft sell. What is interesting is the comparison with the earlier "Shadowlands" the play by William Nicholson, Nicholson and Stone's 1985 TV movie mentioned above, and the 1993 movie directed by Richard Attenborough from Nicholson's script. The early works tend to concentrate on the personal story of Jack and Joy, while this version gives more of Jack's life and beliefs. In fact it is vastly more informative.
Being a fine writer ("The Screwtape Letters" is a masterpiece of persuasion) Lewis became a very influential Christian figure in the 20th century. He is, via the Narnia stories, as widely read as ever. If you want to know what it is to be a Christian he's your man.
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