The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story Of C.S. Lewis
I come to a movie like this with the perspective of one who voraciously reads (and watches) just about anything on C.S. Lewis as I can. Like many people, I first became acquainted with C.S. Lewis through his Narnia novels as a child, but before I was very far into my young adulthood–largely thanks to the C.S. Lewis Society based out of Central Florida, where I grew up–I was familiar with his apologetic works and rapidly moved from there to his essays, autobiographical material, Space Trilogy, literary criticism, and plenty of books about him and his friends in the Inklings. It is not as if the story of how it was that C.S. Lewis became a late-blooming convert to Christianity after a long and torturous process has not been told. Lewis himself told it in several different ways–it formed the context of his early work The Pilgrim’s Regress, and the screenplay to this particular movie is based closely on Lewis’ own writings in The Weight Of Glory and especially Surprised By Joy. But it is true that this is not a story that people tell about C.S. Lewis, even if he told it himself.
There are often difficulties in turning a stage play into a successful movie, but this book does a good job by playing into the staginess of the stage play. In fact, this play makes the staginess of its setup a strength rather than a weakness, a way of building a rapport with the audience while also adding layers of meta and theatricality to what is going on. The movie itself is framed at its beginning and end with filming the filming of the teleplay, drawing attention to the sets, the direction, the takes, and the stage crew. In between the plot is told via voiceover, where the older C.S. Lewis (played ably by Max McLean, who wrote the stage play and also serves as an Executive Producer for this project) narrates the thoughts and feelings of his younger self (played by two separate actors, who also do a fine job of the child and teen/young adult Lewis). Some dialogue is present, but one never loses sight of the staged nature of Lewis’ recollections of youth, which is told rather unsentimentally and with stark honesty. The staged nature of the proceedings provides an analogy to the way that God and Jesus Christ stand outside of their Creation but simultaneously intrude upon it to have a personal relationship with us, providing a vivid example of the complex interplay between objective reality and the subjectivity of memory, between the verisimilitude of cinema and the editing and selectivity that is involved in the filming process, as well as in the nature of memory.
As far as the plot of this movie goes, it is a pleasant docudrama that shows an older C.S. Lewis looking unsympathetically at his early life, discussing his conversion to Christianity in its slow and painful and gradual manner. The script shows a good deal of honesty about Lewis’ intellectual doubts and the way that he characterized his lusts, but it stays away from possibly the most salacious aspects of Lewis’ young adulthood, namely his live-in relationship with his dead best friend’s mother, who he stayed with until her death, and the film in general takes a respectful attitude with Lewis’ family in general, not showing Warnie as alcoholic either. It is strikingly ironic that in telling an untold aspect of Lewis–namely the fact that he was a reluctant convert and not someone for whom Christianity came easily–it still leaves much about his life, namely his rather nontraditional family life, untold still. This is perhaps unavoidable given the focus of the film on matters of faith and philosophy, but it is still intriguing nonetheless.