Is Life but a Shadow??— the ‘Shadowlands’

If you have read any Plato you will know that he argues in the Republic that this world is a world of shadows, of which the substance can be found in the eternal world. You hear something like this in the book of Hebrews as well. Plato conjures up the image of a man seeing images on the wall of a cave with light and the reality projecting those images on the wall. But is it true— that this life is but a pale shadow of life in heaven, in the other world? C.S. Lewis was well aware of Greek philosophy, including Plato, and he does indeed talk about this life being but a shadow of the much more real world yet to come. There is some irony in this since most people today, if they believe in an afterlife, seem to assume that this world is the real world full of fun and excitement, whereas heaven seems to be some sort of pale, shadowy, poor substitute for our current reality.

William Nicolson a very long time ago wrote a fine play about the poignant but short-lived relationship between Jack Lewis and Joy Davidman. After a successful run as a play it was made into a BBC production in 1985 (also shown on PBS, but apparently first in a truncated 73 minute version of the original 90 minute show), starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom. It won an Emmy and two British TV awards. Here is the picture for the DVD (which became available in 2004 under the title ‘Through the Shadowlands’).

Not quite a decade later, Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Edward Hardwicke (who plays Lewis’s brother Warnie) made a full length film called ‘Shadowlands’ (two hours and 20 some minutes) which was also much acclaimed. Here is the cover of it…

Unfortunately, this latter DVD is not readily available in Region One format, which is to say, American format at a reasonable price, though I suppose the PAL format disc will play on a Blueray player, but I digress.

Both of these productions are worth watching. Obviously the Richard Attenborough later movie (1994) has much higher production values and is much more pleasant to watch. On the whole the acting is better as well, though Joss Ackland is excellent as Lewis in the earlier version as is Claire Bloom. The supporting cast however is not as good in the earlier production, and frankly some of the music is annoying in the BBC production. It has been noted, rightly, that the earlier production is truer to the original script and truer to the real story of Lewis and Davidman.

Joy had two sons, not just one named Douglas, yet inexplicably one of the sons is deleted from the telling in the later movie. Some of the very important dialogue is also missing from the later movie, and instead we have Lewis’ famous radio broadcast speech repeated several times, in which Lewis explains that pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention, something that begins to ring hollow, when Lewis himself goes through the agony of watching Joy die of cancer. The earlier production rightly draws the analogy between Jack and Warnie, who lost their mother at about age nine, and the two Gresham boys who suffered a similar fate.

If you are looking for either: 1) Lewis and the Inklings stories, or 2) a biopic of Lewis’ life, neither of these are the DVDs you are looking for. What we have instead is a story of a professor who is a confirmed bachelor who finds himself, ‘surprised by joy’ the joy of actually loving someone, instead of just writing about human feelings. It has sometimes snidely been said ‘those who can do, those who can’t teach (or write about it)’. Lewis went from being a very profound thinker and writer about love and pain and suffering, to one who experienced various of these things all at once, and without question it changed him.

I owe a lot to the writings of C.S. Lewis. One of the earliest Christian books I ever remember reading was the Screwtape Letters, in the 60s! I admired Lewis for many things, including his spirited defense of human freedom over again the divine predetermination of all things. In watching these two iterations of the same slice of Lewis’ life I was reminded again of just why I loved and devoured all his books as I began to become a genuine Christian, and embraced the faith for myself. Jack Lewis was a remarkable Christian person and one of my early heroes of the faith. I am thankful for these videos that reminded me as to why that was.

As a postscript, you might be interested to know what happened once C.S. Lewis died (on the same day in 1963 as JFK). Here’s what Wikipedia tells us—

“At Lewis’ death in 1963, his estate went to his brother Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, a renowned scholar of French history. The Major in turn passed the estate to Douglas and David ten years later. Douglas Gresham acknowledged in a 15 November 2005 interview on NPR that he and his brother are estranged, although in a 4 December 2005 interview he did say that they are in email contact. Douglas Gresham is a Christian, as were Lewis and his mother, while David returned to the Orthodox Judaism of their mother’s family while still a child in Lewis’s home. Lewis made an effort to find kosher food for him.”

  • Dean Anderson

    I just can’t enjoy the Attenborough movie for thinking about how unfair it is to C. S. Lewis. Lewis, it seems to me, is portrayed as someone who lectured and wrote about life while hiding from it in the university, someone who had experienced little of life until Joy came along and showed him the real thing. One small example of the larger theme: in the film Lewis keeps a print of a valley in Wales on his wall, but had never once considered visiting the place until Joy suggests it. In reality, Lewis took regular walking tours through Wales long before Joy came along. Joy certainly added new dimensions to his life, but she did not deliver a dull, reclusive man into real life.


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