Video Review: Shadowlands
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

C. S. Lewis: “I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. To put it another way, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us.perfect.”

C. S. Lewis proved himself to be one of the most astute Christian thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Through his works for children as well as his treatises, he skillfully blends deep Christian faith with extraordinary insightful observation and keen reason. The integrity of his personal religion stands impeachable. The 1993 film Shadowlands, based on Lewis’ life, contrasts his impeccable teachings with his own life experience.

By the 1950’s, Clive Staples Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) enjoys a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost professors and thinkers, and leads a content and simple life at Oxford University. He impresses others with stunning insights into God and the human condition as he guides his students or lectures to halls filled with admirers. A fan from America, Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), a so-called “Jewish Communist Christian American” comes to England to meet him. She ends up shattering his comfort zone, challenging him in every way and, in turn, angering and attracting him. When her divorce from an alcoholic husband is finalized, Joy moves to London with her young son Douglas (Joseph Mazzello). Joy forces old “Jack” Lewis to see how he has carefully manipulated life to insulate himself from pain and discomfort. Their friendship grows so that when Joy is diagnosed with an advanced form of bone cancer, Jack realizes how much he cares for her. Indeed, Jack has fallen deeply in love for the first time.

William Nicholson wrote the original play “Shadowlands” and adapted it for the screen. The title refers to one of Lewis’ stories where he compares the world to “shadowlands”. We see patches of sunlight-joy and happiness-but these valleys are always just out of reach. Such a metaphor remains academically irrefutable, just as Lewis teaches a group of students at the beginning of the film that perfect love is unattainable. The power of love comes from the desiring and not the possessing of it. He lives in a world where his friends, including his brother, are all bachelors and members of academia. They possess superior levels of book learning, but Joy sees that Jack is woefully short on “personal experience.”

A picture hangs in Jack’s office depicting a beautiful, sun-lit valley. Jack tells Joy that when he was young he used to think it was heaven and when he grew up he realized that the Golden Valley actually exists in some part of England. Joy asks whether he has been there and he says no. Later, she challenges him to take her to find that “promised land.” This opens the film to some of the funniest moments as this intellectual giant struggles with such mundane things as room service.

A wise teacher once taught us that a director’s job is to create emotion-that’s what people pay money for. There is enough emotion in this small film to pay the price of a rental many times over. As the filmmaker behind Ghandi, Cry Freedom and Chaplin, master director Sir Richard Attenborough knows exactly what subtle decisions work best for this highly personal subject matter. Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Joseph Mazello each give riveting performances that are complemented with a full, dynamic cast of supporting actors.

Overtly, the film hinges on Jack’s transformation through the love story. From a pupil he learns that “we read to know we’re not alone,” and by the end of the film he adapts the thought to another truth: “we love to know we’re not alone.” After all, the blows from God’s chisel cuts away the unneeded shards from our lives until we have learned to “love and be loved;” until we’ve grown up; until we’ve been made perfect. Intellectually, at the beginning of the film, Jack calls this “God’s Gift of Suffering.” At the end of his emotional journey, his heart still smarts from the pain of his loss, but he resigns himself to it. At one of his weaker moments, he betrays some doubt, “Why love if losing hurts so much?” Joy answers that question long before he asks it, “The pain then [at their parting] is part of the happiness now.”

The coin of life has two sides-happiness and sorrow. Joy teaches Jack to open himself to life making himself liable to both. Such an opposition in all things defines the mortal experience. One cannot be had without the other. Jack’s turning point occurred when Joy angrily accused him of “arranging a life where no one can touch [him].” He surrounds himself by people who cannot get under his skin; he enters debates he cannot lose; and he ultimately looks at life as he looks at books: something to study, analyze, and scrutinize, but not to be taken personally. When we accept the full measure of life’s experience, we open ourselves to the greatest joys as well as the greatest suffering. In the throes of Joy’s illness Jack exclaims, “I didn’t know I could be so happy.”

The give and take of happiness and sorrow can be a cruel schoolmaster, but the lessons learned are invaluable. For all his respect, accolades, and brilliance, at the beginning of the film, Jack’s friends mock him for specializing in easy answers to difficult questions. By the end of the film, he honestly cries out to Joy, “I don’t know what to do. You’ll have to tell me what to do?” Like C.S. Lewis in the film, we often run out of easy answers when we are dazed by the blows of the chisel. For Jack, such pressure draws prayer out of him. When a friend encourages him that his prayers will make a difference, he denies that intent. Prayer “doesn’t change God; it changes me.”

“I have no answers anymore,” Jack admits. He only has his experience. And to experience life through loving others opens the door to life’s most acute emotions: the most bitter sorrow and a fullness of joy.

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.