C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 4)

In my 2014 survey, conducted with the help of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, I asked respondents to comment on the Shadowlands films, one produced by the BBC, and the other, more prominent one, by Hollywood.  Here’s the question I asked, along with the responses.

Have You Viewed Any of the Shadowlands Productions? If So, What Is Your Opinion of Them?

In asking this question, I knew most people would be familiar with the big-budget Hollywood version starring Anthony Hopkins (Lewis) and Debra Winger (Joy) that came out in 1993. Not as many, I was sure, would be cognizant of the earlier BBC production from 1985 that aired on both CBS and PBS, with Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy.

Yet that BBC offering won more than a dozen prestigious awards, including the International Emmy for Best Drama and two British Academy Awards. My hope was to get comments that might compare the two, and I did get some, although the majority of respondents were, as I expected, more aware of the 1993 version.

ShadowlandsSome respondents were very pleased with the Hollywood production. As one enthused, “Beautiful story. I saw the Winger/Hopkins movie. . . . I laughed, I cried, I wept when they couldn’t. From the leads to the housekeeper, beautiful casting and wonderful execution.” Another explained, “I have only seen part of the Anthony Hopkins film version, but I enjoyed it. I appreciated being able to visualize Lewis as a person rather than a picture.”

Others, though, thought the Hopkins-Winger version was deficient, particularly in its portrayal of Lewis’s faith and the kind of man he was. As one noted, “It is a good movie, but it is absolutely false in its pale and timid portrayal of Lewis’s robust personality.” Another cast aspersions on the director’s decision on how to portray Lewis: “Richard Attenborough’s film. Serious falsification of Lewis. Simplification and belittling, as if he was a pompous idiot until Joy showed up.”

More than one thought Winger did an exceptional job depicting Joy, but their enthusiasm was tempered by the Lewis persona as shown in the film: “While a good movie on its own (I thought Debra Winger nailed what I think Joy was like), there was much left out, especially in relation to Lewis’s faith. This was a disappointment.”

Others did their best to try to appreciate the good while recognizing the shortcomings. Here are two examples: “It missed much of what makes Lewis so impacting but was entertaining and enlightening into his everyday life”; “It was OK. He didn’t seem like C.S. Lewis . . . not jovial enough.”

Shadowlands BBCThose who saw both adaptations seemed clearly to come out in favor of the 1985 BBC TV movie. One respondent definitely preferred Ackland’s Lewis to Hopkins’s version, while simultaneously praising the production values of the latter: “Joss Ackland has made the best Lewis so far. The Anthony Hopkins Shadowlands was the best film overall, best cinematography.”

Another who preferred Ackland to Hopkins still had kind words for Winger’s portrayal: “I think the actor portraying Lewis in the BBC version was great. I think the actress in the Hollywood version who portrayed Joy was great. I did not care for Anthony Hopkins, felt like he didn’t even try to portray Lewis—just a stereotype of an English professor.”

This comment from another respondent was similar: “The first, BBC, version is infinitely superior in almost every regard. Closer to the facts, and more true to the spiritual journey. The only superiority of the later theatrical film is Debra Winger’s performance as Joy.”

One summarized what seems to be the main complaint for those who were less than thrilled with Hollywood’s offering: “The one with Anthony Hopkins had good acting, good production values, but the script was horrible. The one with Joss Ackland was much better.”

In order to represent fairly the consensus of the survey respondents to the two films, one would have to say that, in general, for those who saw both, they acknowledged the excellent production values of Hollywood’s 1993 version, but were far more enamored with the depiction of Lewis in the BBC version, which they felt was closer to the reality of who the man was.

So much for those films, but what about the Narnia movies that have been produced thus far? How did my respondents react to them? That will be the topic next Saturday.