Retro Review: Shadowlands (1993)

Distributor: Savoy Pictures (theatrical), Home Box Office Home Video (HBO) (DVD), Universal Pictures (video/streaming)
Director: Richard Attenborough
Writers: William Nicholson (screenplay), William Nicholson (play) 
Composer: George Fenton
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger
Genre: Drama/Romance/Biography

Following the success of his 1985 BBC-TV teleplay, William Nicholson’s Shadowlands became a cult phenomena and drew a lot of acclaim for its well written story about the later years of author and theologian C.S. Lewis. Just eight years later, it was adapted for the screen again by the great Sir Richard Attenborough, with Anthony Hopkins playing the role of the late 20th century’s greatest theologian. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A woman falls and breaks her leg.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual drinking and smoking. 
Sexual Content: Kissing.
Spiritual Content: Significant discussion of God and the nature of human suffering.
Other Negative Content: None
Positive Content: Themes of love, acceptance, and Christianity. 

Review

The life of Clive-Staples “Jack” Lewis was one of great tragedy and loneliness. He had a very long walk to faith following the death of his mother as a child, his service in World War I, and eventually the loss of his wife, Joy Gresham. His life in-between these moments of tragedy was one of great banality and hard work. He was an Oxford University Academic at Magdalen College, and when he wasn’t doing his day job he wrote literary criticism and books on Christian Apologetics.  

Lewis’s faith has inspired generations of Christians with his immense talent for understanding Christianity and contextualizing it for the modern world. As such, he’s seen as a somewhat tragic and melancholy figure. In his 1947 Time Magazine interview, he was famously quoted as saying, “I like monotony.” He was a simple man with a complex ideology and a taste for the simpler pleasures of life. The most famously tumultuous period of his life following his difficult upbringing ended up being his late romance with his wife. From 1952 to 1960, the two endured a long period of deep emotional chemistry before Joy’s slow decline into cancer. Lewis would die just three years after her. 

In 1985, writer William Nicholason adapted this tumultuous romance into a TV movie for the BBC called Shadowlands. The story immortalized Lewis’s tragic romance with Joy. After being adapted for the stage in multiple productions, it was subsequently adapted again for film by Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far) with the great Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Thor, Westworld, etc.) in the role of Jack Lewis. The movie won multiple awards and was nominated for the 1994 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, losing to Schindler’s List

Shadowlands picks up in the early 1950s, just as Lewis and Joy were beginning their correspondence. The film ends shortly after her death with Jack and his stepson, Douglas, coming to acceptance of their shared loss. The story condenses much of the actual history out of the narrative. For one, both of Joy’s sons are bizarrely combined into a single person. Much of the history is condensed to keep the narrative moving and to focus on the fundamental question of the play. 

At the core of Shadowlands is a thoroughly challenging question; what is the relationship of love and pain? What is the cost of allowing yourself to love another person? 

Anyone who’s read C.S. Lewis’s book, A Grief Observed, can tell you what the cost was. Following the death of his mother as a child, Joy Gresham was one of the few people in his life he truly opened up his heart to, with her death from cancer sending him into a brief tailspin of despondency and rage. He poured that frustration into his writing and came away from it with an honest depiction of lived suffering from the Christian perspective. 

Shadowlands is less interested in the religious perspective on pain. To the degree it is interested, it’s merely keen in contrasting the difference between saying that God allows suffering the world and feeling that suffering for yourself. The movie simply comes to the conclusion that a life worth living is one in which you can honestly feel and process the extremes of life. 

The screenplay can be fairly brutal on Lewis at times. It’s clear he’s the one that’s central to the story’s lesson. Joy all but spells it out in one scene, where she castigates him for building a safe life where he can’t be wounded or seriously challenged. Despite the comfortable existence he’s built where he’s able to spar on theological issues with his fellow Oxford professors, he’s living an otherwise quite cozy and boring life where he’s allowed to focus on his reading, his teaching, and his creature comforts. It’s clear in the narrative that this was an effect of losing his mother at such an early age that clearly hurt his brother just as dearly. The movie affirms that his brother and secretary, Warner Lewis, was an alcoholic. 

Thus is the challenge of actually opening his heart to love and suffering, regardless of the consequences. Joy turns his world upside down and dredges the depths of joy, intellectual challenge, and pain he’d previously closed himself off to for his entire adult life.

Theologically speaking, it’s a shame we don’t get to see him come to terms with these emotions in the context of his faith. The movie is quite adamant that he’s a Christian and shows him exploring and explaining his faith numerous times throughout the film. Interestingly enough, it contrasts the final scenes of him grieving and suffering with a poetic scene in the opening scenes of the film where he explains the nature of human suffering from a Godly perspective. In a sense, the movie is playing a trick on Lewis. It’s feeding him the same script he’s fed to others through his Christian apologetics and asking him if it’s somewhat inadequate or shallow in face of real loss and tragedy. 

Still, that hardly matters. The Christian understands that human life is nothing but pain and suffering. Even if the story is trying to dress down Lewis of some sort, it comes to a deeply human and honest depiction of what it means to suffer in the world while living for God. As a prequel and a companion piece of sorts to C.S. Lewis’s body of work, Shadowlands is necessary viewing material. It puts a needed frailty and humanity to the voice of modern Christianity’s favorite writer and confronts him with the same questions we all face. 

Positives

+ Great performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger + Nuanced and smart script by William Nicholson + Profound themes about love and suffering

Negatives

- Somewhat theologically disinterested themes - Some overly condensed history

The Bottom Line

Shadowlands is a gentle yet beautiful romance film that highlights some of the interesting flaws and moments of the life of C.S. Lewis. Anyone who is a fan of his writing ought to seek it out.

 

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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