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Published in Our Sunday Visitor, February 20, 1994

Faith Gets Two Thumbs Down in Another Major Movie
By Rosemary Fielding

A beautifully composed movie on C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, and his wife, Joy Davidman Geshem, a Jewish convert to Christianity, should be reason for Christians to celebrate. Alas, such delight in Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough’s movie on the subject, would compare to the Trojans' joy in the infamous gift horse. Like the Trojan horse, Shadowlands ultimately delivers the very opposite message it should convey.
Lewis's true story is that of a man who through shattered faith, regains a stronger, more heroic faith. The movie seems to be one of a man who, divested of his faith, becomes a "kinder, gentler" person. At best, this message is inadequate. At worst, it is distorted.
The movie concerns the friendship and brief marriage of Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and divorce Davidman (Debra Winger), Davidman's suffering and death from cancer, and Lewis's devastation following her death.
Maddeningly, the narrative follows close to the true story only to take a different track at the end. Through repetitive shots of Lewis's pre-grief lectures on the significance of suffering in the Christian's life, the movie rightfully raises the crucial question which will confront Lewis in his grief. In his own words, "What reason have we, except out of our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we conceive, 'good'?" 
Shadowlands strongly implies no reason at all. Lewis himself delivers the movie's most powerful response when he cuts off his friends' consoling words to inform them that God is a nasty vivisecter, coldly experimenting on us, his guinea pigs. Lewis's later reluctant admission that he still believes in heaven does not much attenuate the suggestion of lost faith.
The "vivisecting God" phrase does indeed come from Lewis's A Grief Observed. But the passage is found in the first third of the book. Further along in his grieving process, he could write: "Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door," and "Praise in due order; of Him as the giver; of her, as the gift." Gradually, he regains certainty, not of his faith ("a house of cards"), but of the reality of its Object, our Lord. The film, however, leaves ample room for the viewer to believe that Lewis has come to his senses about God and, chastened by the reality that He is anything but all-loving, will live as a more enlightened, more compassionate, man.
This distortion flaws a movie with much to recommend it in the way of English atmosphere and emotional power. Attenborough has fashioned an enticing likeness of Lewis's astonishing love and his profound loss, emotional and spiritual, and then uses it, like the Trojan horse, to deliver his own message, a message that Lewis himself had seen through and rejected. In portraying him as the oh-so-modern wounded healer, Altenborough misses the more profound truth: Ravaged by pain, Lewis still believes in God.
Hopkins and Winger, in fine performances, portray the steadfast, but electric, quality of Lewis and Davidman's relationship. Davidman invigorated an already-vigorous Lewis. He recognized in her "a soul, straight and bright, tempered like a sword" and a mind "lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard." Davidman "forced this creature out of his shell." Shadowlands' strong point is its portrait of friendship between equally strong, but complementary personalities leading to passionate love. It shows "iron sharpening iron."
Why then does Altenborough balk at showing the invaluable quality of their Christian faith which bound them? Davidman's faith seems insignificant, almost non-existent. Why does Lewis's own penetrating Christianity play the part of the buffoon? Why in the end does Attenborough relegate religious conviction to vain imaginings to be shed in the light of reality? Many will leave this movie deceived about the enduring presence of God in Lewis's life.
Is it because Christianity remains a "scandal" to the Hollywood-producing, movie-going world to which Altenborough defers. To show naked faith in Jesus Christ, or man's searing desire to grasp the mysteries of life through Christian belief, or strong, gifted men and women who not only live and love passionately, but also religiously-- would this be just too shocking? Or is it just considered peripheral? 
Give us the unexpurgated version, Hollywood. We want it, and we can handle it.

Copyright © Rosemary Fielding

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