Clear all

Shadowlands: The Play and the Movies

Col Klink
NarniaWeb Junkie

On a recent bonus video for Narniaweb Patreon supporters, (I hate to mention this because it might make non-Patreon supporters jealous, but I can't think of a better way to start this topic) the Narniaweb podcasters were talking about the movie versions of the play, Shadowlands, by William Nicholson. David Bates stated that the made-for-TV version starring Joss Ackland was the superior one. Our own Glumpuddle though, dismissed this as "the cool opinion" among C. S. Lewis fans, saying that while the Anthony Hopkins movie was less historically accurate, it was a much better viewing experience. They didn't really get into the details about their preferences, rightly so since the video was about The Most Reluctant Convert, not Shadowlands. But it struck me as an interesting debate. 

I know from Spare Oom that there used to be a number of Narniawebbers with opinions about Shadowlands but I'm pretty sure most of them are gone now, the age of internet forums like this being more or less over. Sad More recently, I believe Courtenay mentioned that she saw the play and disliked it because it took C. S. Lewis's grief over his wife's death out of context, implying that he abandoned Christianity as a result. (The dialogue about this was, I believe, based on Lewis's memoir, A Grief Observed, much of which he later referred to as "foolishness." I find the play/movie's message about messy reality messing theories up hilariously ironic, given that messy reality messed up their message about messy reality messing things up. Giggle

I haven't seen either of the movies in their entirety, but I did see a virtual production of the play from the Max McLean company. I enjoyed it. (Movies that distort historical figures, even disrespectfully so, don't bother me as much as they do Courtenay. If they did, I'd have to give up Cyrano de Bergerac and The Sound of Music, among other thing.) A romance between older, intellectual types was fun. And I loved how the final dialogue, not counting the closing narration, was very basic and to the point, unlike the verbose dialogue in other scenes. That really captured how overwhelming grief is. I didn't love the play though, mainly because I felt the supporting characters weren't as well written as the leads. Except for C. S. Lewis's brother and, I guess, Joy Davidman's son, everyone else was basically a strawman designed to make them look better. (There was one character who guesses that Davidman is romantically interested in Lewis before he does, so there is that.) I believe this was because most of Lewis's friends disliked Davidman and Shadowlands wants us to like her. I think it would have been more interesting and less lazy to give them more legitimate reasons for disliking her while still keeping audiences from agreeing with them.

So who here has an opinion about Shadowlands? Do you like the play at all? What about the movies? If you prefer the Joss Ackland version (I know Coracle does), what specific details are more historically accurate? If you prefer the Anthony Hopkins one, what specific artistic aspects are better?

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

Topic starter Posted : November 5, 2021 8:36 am
NarniaWeb Guru

@col-klink I have not seen Shadowlands, but I've heard it's good. I think the child actor who played Douglas Gresham (from reading on IMBD) was also on Jurassic Park. 

I've heard that the Most Reluctant Convert was good. I might stream it one day and watch it.

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

Posted : November 5, 2021 8:50 am
News Poster, Podcast Producer

Shadowlands is certainly far from perfect, but I think it does a good job conveying ideas that were very important across Lewis's life and works, and it does so in an emotionally satisfying way. When it was over, I felt a sense of grief mingled with hope.

So, the fact that the movie takes many liberties with history ends up feeling irrelevant to me. That's not the point of the movie. A documentary can show the facts. A movie can show what they mean and why they matter.

"[Shadowlands is] fiction and makes no pretenses about that, but the emotional values are absolutely spot-on accurate."

- Douglas Gresham

Regarding the BBC version, I just remember it being pretty dull.

This post was modified 2 years ago 4 times by Glumpuddle |

Posted : November 5, 2021 9:16 am
Member Friend of NarniaWeb

I have seen all three versions (play, movie, television presentation) at some point or another.  I have reasons to like each over the other depending on what aspect you are talking about.   I thought they all did a good job of portraying the story, however, I would have changed the cast up a bit.  Claire Bloom was not who I would have picked to be Joy, and I think Joss Ackland was better casting for Lewis than Hopkins.   

Shadowlands to me was never supposed to be historically accurate.  It was just supposed to portray a relationship between two people who had a soul connection and how it met some of the greatest challenges life can throw you.

These are only shadows of the real world

Posted : November 5, 2021 9:53 am
coracle liked
NarniaWeb's Auntie Moderator

I have seen the original 1985 TV Play, the 1990s film, and the stage play (3 separate productions, including one starring Hugh Bonneville in 2019).
[I'm aware that my perceptions, as someone who was a child when Lewis died, and with an English upbringing and world view, are different from people in their 20s and 30s, who have never been to England or met an Englishman. I'll be interested in responses to my ideas.]

My favourite remains the original. I have it on an old VCR tape from when it was shown on TV here in the mid 1980s. It was moving and real, and stars the excellent Jos Acland who had the right look as well as the right feeling for Jack Lewis. (he played Professor Kirke a few years later for the BBC serial of LWW).

You can watch it here

(there's a free registration to access the site)

[I am following up a lead about the storyline being based on Edwin Brown's book "In Pursuit of C. S. Lewis".]

Most people know the film starring Anthony Hopkins, but he was never the right actor for it. He didn't look right, feel right, sound right.
In fact, five years earlier he had played a similar role in the film 84 Charing Cross Road, in which he was a diffident Englishman corresponding with an outgoing American woman in the 1940s and 50s. Some people found it hard to separate the two films, and therefore mixed the two characters in their minds!
I think the film set of The Kilns was well done (I have heard Doug Gresham's comments on it - and saw it myself two years ago), and they were also wise to have deleted David Gresham from the story. 

The stage play was presented by our local professional company in 1992, the year before the film came out. It was very moving to see it so close up. In May 2019 I went to see it at Chichester while I was living in London; a few things about the staging and characterisations were odd, but I did like watching Bonneville as Lewis. Both Jack and Warnie Lewis were played as real gentlemen, which I have been assured is accurate; the previous production I saw had made too much of Warnie's drinking [it got worse in later years].

A final link to a review of the film:  It is really worth reading, and has suggestions for biographies at the end.   
The writer of this said he used to say to people who asked him about the movie, "I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just wish it had been about C. S. Lewis."

(as mentioned in this article, the film has cut out most of the issues of faith, which were so crucial to this couple; it reduces Jack's faith to his radio talks at the beginning, and claims that he lost his faith after Joy's death)



There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
"...when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."

Posted : November 5, 2021 3:57 pm
Col Klink
NarniaWeb Junkie

I'll let you guys in on a secret. (Well, actually, it's not a secret, but saying it is makes for a better opening sentence.) I don't really care about historical accuracy in biopics and other similar movies. If I did, I'd have to do research on every movie based on a real person or event before I could say whether it was good or not, and I'm just not interested in history or biographies enough to do that. If I do know of something particularly inaccurate about a specific book or play or movie like that though, I do usually try to tell people when I recommend it to them. I wouldn't want to be accused of spreading false information.

BTW, there's something that I believe was inaccurate about Shadowlands the play, which the theatrical movie fixed, and which I actually liked. It referenced The Magician's Nephew early on, which I don't believe C. S. Lewis had written at that point. (Or it hadn't been published at least.) The movie referenced The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which had actually been published, instead. Fewer people have read MN than LWW, so referencing it strikes me as less lazy and, unlike LWW, it actually relates thematically to Shadowlands. Plus I just love MN more as a book. So there's one historical anachronism of which I heartily approve and if the BBC version retains it, more power to it.

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

Topic starter Posted : November 7, 2021 7:09 am
NarniaWeb Guru

Did you like the movie Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger?  I thought Anthony Hopkins was quite good as Lewis and Debra Winger was fine as Joy.  The older BBC TV film from the  1980’s Through the Shadowlands was more accurate since both of Lewis’ stepsons were characters in it. I think both of the films are well worth watching, although the newer one is more like a Hollywood production.  I would recommend both movies, but I think the film with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom is better and more authentic to Lewis’ life.  Both films show Lewis’ grief very effectively when Joy passed away from cancer.

Posted : May 9, 2022 2:03 pm