BOOKS BEHIND THE FILM : ‘Shadowlands’: A Bookish Film

<i> William Griffin is author of the 1986 biography "Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Voice."</i>

“Shadowlands,” a film about a late-blooming romance that is being touted as an Oscar contender, sports three characters who are bookies, not just readers of books, but writers of books. Clive Staples Lewis, lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, and later at Magdalene College, Cambridge, had 50 books to his credit, some published posthumously. Warren Lewis, his brother, a retired Army officer, did five books. Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis, the woman who walked into C. S. Lewis’ life, had four books published.

So bookish were the three that in December, 1957, some months after Joy had moved into the Lewis household, Jack, as Clive was called by his friends, was thinking of having a plate installed on the front door reading “Lewis, Lewis, and Lewis, Inc., Book Factory.”

The film is so rich in reference to these books that anyone captivated by the film might long for a “Shadowlands” library to browse in. An annotated bibliography for such a collection follows.


Words and sentiments taken from Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain” (originally published in 1940; available today in Macmillan paperback, $4.95), in which he tackled “the intellectual problem raised by suffering,” seem to frame the film’s argument. By film’s end, after his new wife has succumbed to bone-eating cancer, Lewis’ proud intellect has been brought to its knees.

So much for the agony of “Shadowlands,” now for the ecstasy. In his “The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition” (1936; out of print now, but a ground-breaking study when it first appeared), the 38-year-old scholar wrote about “the birth of the romantic conception of love and the long struggle between its earlier form (the romance of adultery) and its later form (the romance of marriage).” Courtly love was a sort of French literary confection, Lewis argued, but in his own life, as least with Joy, love was no allegory; he was as antsy as any courtier.

The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books published from 1950-1956, are featured prominently in the screenplay. Magdalen faculty member Christopher Riley (a fictional character mouthing Tolkien’s oft-expressed view that any book written faster than his own books couldn’t possibly be good--and Tolkien wrote slowly, very slowly; he never did finish the dictionary of Icelandic he promised for decades to Oxford University Press) rails against what he felt was the superficiality of the Narnia books (boxed set available from Macmillan, $22.95).

If a distraction to Riley, then the first Narnia books were a positive attraction to Joy’s son Douglas, who had read the first one before visiting England; at their first meeting, he asks Lewis to autograph his copy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In real life, Lewis dedicated the fifth book of the Chronicles to Douglas and also to his brother David, who does not appear as a character in the film.

The prospect of meeting Joy worried Jack, for he had legions of American admirers of his literary and spiritual works. His brother Warnie, however, thought she was a good risk; after all, she was a poet. Indeed in one of their first meetings, Jack asks Joy to recite a poem of hers. She picks “Snow in Madrid,” which appeared in “Letters to a Comrade” (Yale Series of Younger Poets No. 37; reprint of 1938 edition, $18, AMS Press).

At a Magdalen Christmas party, Jack introduces Joy around. When asked by a faculty member what she’s doing in England, she replies that she’s looking for a publisher. Her manuscript, “Smoke on the Mountain,” which was an interpretation of the Ten Commandments, was indeed published in 1954 in both England and the U.S. (Westminster, paperback, $11.99); it was dedicated “to C.S. Lewis.”


“The Four Loves” (published in 1960; available in a Harcourt paperback, $6.95) is another of Lewis’ books made use of by screenwriter William Nicholson. The relationship with Joy began, wrote Jack to a correspondent, “in Agape, proceeded to Philia, then became pity, and only after that Eros. As if the highest of these, Agape, had successively undergone the sweet humiliations of an incarnation.” Such distinctions appear also in talks Jack recorded for the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation in Atlanta (1958); these talks make up the text of “The Four Loves.” The book, by the way, was copyrighted in the name of Joy Lewis.

As Joy’s cancerous agony and Jack’s spiritual darkness increased, he turned to prayer, much of which in the film takes place in the chapel at Magdalen College, where the massive reredos is a dovecote whose niches are filled, not with birds, but with saints--saints seemingly deaf to Jack’s petitionary prayer. “I pray because I can’t help myself,” he admits in the film. “I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God--it changes me.” Much of Jack’s real-life theorizing about prayer, the fruit of many decades of practice, appears in a work published just after his death in 1963, “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer,” which is as fine a treatise on prayer as ever written (1964; available as a Harcourt paperback, $6.95). Like “The Screwtape Letters,” it is an instructional work in the form of an epistolary novel.

In the dark night of the soul after his wife’s cremation, Jack penned in a journal that God also had disappeared, and so did Christ; the whole Christian house of cards came tumbling down. The work was eventually published as “A Grief Observed” (1961; available as a Bantam paperback, $4.50). He put on the title page the pseudonym N.W. Clerk; the wife in the journal he referred to only as “H.”; Joy’s first name was Helen.

Near the film’s end, mourning in the attic in front of the wardrobe that appears on the first pages of the Chronicles of Narnia, young Douglas says he doesn’t believe in heaven anymore. Jack has to agree. They both bawl. At this juncture, Jack might have said something contained in Letters to Malcolm: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

As for “Showdow-Lands,” as Lewis wrote the word, it appears at the end of “The Last Battle,” seventh and last of the Chronicles of Narnia. The three children--Peter, Edmund, and Lucy--after having died in a railway accident, leave behind their earthly lives in the Shadow-Lands and begin their new life in sunlit Narnia. “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.

“And as (Aslan) spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

When all is said and done in the film there lingers a finely wrought sentiment, first uttered by a student of Lewis’ at Magdalen, and later assented to by the master himself:

“We read to know we’re not alone.”