The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis

Title:

The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis

Director:

Norman Stone

Writers:

Screenplay by Norman Stone, from a stage play by Max McLean

Production Company:

Fellowship for the Performing Arts

Website:

https://www.cslewismovie.com/home/

OVERVIEW

C.S. Lewis continues to be one of the most well-known Christian thinkers of the 20th-century, with his books continually selling today. Unlike many well-known Christian thinkers, he was an atheist for many years and his journey from doubt to faith was unusual. In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis calls himself “the most reluctant convert” when he finally came to believe in God. This film tells the story of Lewis’ spiritual journey, from his loss of faith as a child to his return to Christianity in his 30s. Max McLean plays an older Lewis, with Nicolas Ralph (best-known for playing James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small) as a younger Lewis and Eddie Ray Martin as a child Lewis.

The film developed from Max McLean’s one man play of the same name, and takes an unusual approach. Rather than use the play as a guideline and create whole new scenes, or use McLean as narrator with actors or animation showing different scenes, it maintains the one man play aspect. We start with McLean getting dressed for a performance, then he starts talking in character as Lewis on a stage. Then he steps out of the stage and into a British museum, talking to the camera as he walks, passing people in 1940s-1950s period costume. He spends the rest of the movie walking in and out of rooms (Lewis’ childhood home, the Kilns, an Oxford pub, etc.). As he talks, the camera either shows characters around him who act out important scenes – a 10-year-old Lewis seeing his mother die, a 30ish Lewis walking with J.R.R. Tolkien around Oxford – or cuts to those scenes with McLean narrating what happened. Many times, McLean’s older Lewis walks past Ralph’s younger Lewis, who doesn’t notice him – like Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his younger selves. It’s not until near the movie’s end that we get a scene in a church where Ralph’s younger Lewis looks around and possibly sees the older Lewis – as if now that he’s come back to faith, he really sees.

Thanks to this format, the film can cover the 20+ years of Lewis’ spiritual journey in a short time. Like the play Hamilton or Martin Scorsese’s crime films, it gives you a central character who narrates everything, talks to the audience, and keeps things going at a fast pace (the film clocks in at less than 90 minutes). Many scenes are short, but the actors are believable and compelling. Sometimes the acting even adds cues suggesting a deeper story – Lewis’ father seems kinder than the narration suggests, perhaps hinting that Albert Lewis was more complex than the strict, Victorian figure that his son experienced. Occasionally actors do say “signature biopic lines” – someone saying a famous line that appears in a book they wrote later, because it’s the big idea they are known for, etc. This can often seem heavy-handed, but it doesn’t happen too often, and when it does, the script sets the lines in scenes that make it feel plausible.

There are a couple of reasons why this “Lewis telling his own story” approach is surprising. For starters, it’s risky – it puts all the attention on one actor, and if audiences don’t like him, the movie won’t work. Imagine watching Hamilton with someone who doesn’t like Lin-Manual Miranda, and you’ll understand the “pass/fail” nature of this technique. Secondly, it’s very different from what Norman Stone did the last time he told a C.S. Lewis story – in the original 1985 version of Shadowlands. That TV film dramatized a chapter of Lewis’ life with little references (Douglas Gresham implying Lewis is like Professor Kirke in Narnia) to Lewis’ books. This movie avoids that artificial approach – there are no moments where young C.S. Lewis walks through a snowy forest and sees a lamppost. Instead, Stone aims for something that is artificial in a very different way: a movie that openly admits its stage play origin, maintains the play’s central device, but finds ways to make it visually interesting.

This approach could have easily gone wrong, but it works brilliantly for two reasons. First, McLean’s narration is very engaging – his lines are closely based on Lewis’ writing, but sound as good when said aloud as they do on a page. Secondly, McLean goes beyond being a narrator who talks from a chair. He dresses like Lewis, talks in that particular Irishman-at-Oxford style that Lewis used. When he walks or sits down or gestures, he has a slightly tired, headfirst bit casual body language – the poise of a bright yet relatable man comfortable in his own skin. It’s a very physical performance that makes Lewis seem textured, a real person to connect with.

An innovative, accessible and compelling biopic about a great man.

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 out of 5 stars

Suggested Audience

Viewers interested in C.S. Lewis’s life and the spiritual questions that led him to Christianity.

Christian Impact

The story is largely based on Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy, and contains multiple discussions about faith, reasons for believing God, basic theism versus Christianity, and what it means to believe that Jesus was God.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Review of the CS Lewis Movie – G. Connor Salter - November 27, 2021

    […] On November 27, 2021 By G. Connor SalterIn Faith The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis […]

  2. William Lindsay Gresham: A Life – G. Connor Salter - January 7, 2022

    […] recently made into a film by Guillermo del Toro. Readers familiar with Shadowlands, the movie about C.S. Lewis‘ marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham, may know that William Gresham was her first husband. […]

  3. What Makes a Noir Novel? Considering Nightmare Alley – G. Connor Salter - January 15, 2022

    […] would talk about the movie Shadowlands, or about how Gresham’s spiritual journey compared to C.S. Lewis’ spiritual journey. Since the 1947 movie Nightmare Alley qualifies as film noir, there was also a chance that we would […]

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