It is probably the case that no Protestant author has been quoted more often by contributors to The Catholic Thing than C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). It may also be the case that nobody in contemporary media has done more to celebrate Lewis and his work (other than Lewis’s own books) than Max McLean, founder and artistic director of New York’s Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA).
His latest film project, with director Norman Stone, is The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S, Lewis, in which Mr. McLean, playing Lewis, narrates the author’s journey from atheist to Christian. And some evangelizer Lewis was. He belongs on a last century’s shortlist with Billy Graham and Pope St. John Paul II.
I’ve previously reviewed two FPA stage productions of Lewis’s books: The Great Divorce and Shadowlands, and my wife and I also saw The Screwtape Letters Off-Broadway in 2006 – before the advent of this website. Mr. McLean was superb as the eponymous senior devil instructing his acolyte, Wormwood.
The Most Reluctant Convert begins and ends by shattering the so-called “fourth wall,” the one between the actors and the audience. Mr. McLean – as C.S. Lewis – walks right out of makeup, passed technicians and cameras and lighting devices, and, looking straight at us, begins to tell the great author’s story. At the conclusion, he walks out of Lewis’s own Oxford home, The Kilns, and receives the film crew’s much-deserved applause.
McLean has said of the film that it’s “cerebral but moves very quickly.” Indeed, that is one of the keys to its greatness.
In flashbacks, we see C.S. Lewis as a boy (played by Eddie Ray Martin), as a young man (Nicholas Ralph), and, of course, Mr. McLean as the mature man coming to terms with the events and truths that pull him away from atheistic skepticism and towards Christian faith.
It was Lewis’s book Surprised by Joy (1955) that gave McLean the idea to write a play about Lewis’s conversion. That book and Mere Christianity (1952) are good sources for both Lewis’s story and the way he reasoned his way into belief, and a number of the moments familiar to Lewis fans are beautifully portrayed in the film.
There are the death of his mother, Flora (played by Amy Alexander), his scolding, obstinate father, Albert (Richard Harrington), and Lewis’s service in World War I: all traumatic events that actually pushed him away from faith. There are scenes of his adolescent education under the tutor W.T. Kirkpatrick (David Gant) and his later intellectual formation at Oxford.
And there are acknowledgments of the impact on Lewis of G.K. Chesterton (The Everlasting Man) and George MacDonald (Phantastes) – books that fired the imagination of Lewis, a classicist, who would come to write some of the most renowned Christian fantasy novels of the 20th century, for adults and children.
At Oxford, of course (where he was first a student and later a don), he met such extraordinary scholars as Owen Barfield (Hubert Burton), Hugo Dyson (David Shields), and J.R.R. Tolkien (Tom Glenister).
As intellectuals will, these men engaged in discussions about many things, most notably religious faith. We hear Barfield challenge Lewis’s assertion that Jesus may be accepted as a great teacher without necessarily believing in His divinity. Barfield lays out the rudiments of what would be made famous by Lewis himself, in what is known as his “trilemma.” Reading the Lord’s words in the Gospels one necessarily must conclude that Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. That is: He certainly cannot have been a “great teacher” if His claims to divinity were fraudulent.
Then there is the famed amble he and Tolkien took one evening along Addison’s Walk in Oxford. They are speaking about myth, and Tolkien makes the compelling point that the story of Christ is like all the myths that have long enchanted both scholars, except for one thing: the Gospel accounts are true. At that moment, leaves rustle and begin to fall:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Lewis feels the Spirit move and is thereafter and forever changed. Thus did he become “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Joy would soon follow.
The film is not a comprehensive autobiography, and some of the notable excesses of his youthful life, including flirtation with the occult (“spiritual lust,” as he called it), are only alluded to, but that’s because the intent of The Most Reluctant Convert is to show – in less than 90 minutes – the way Lewis came to faith and how his struggles with the truth about Christ helped refine his own later arguments as an evangelist.
The Most Reluctant Convert is without question the most intelligent film you’ll see in 2022, but it is also beautifully photographed by cinematographer Sam Heasman in many of the very settings in which Lewis’s real-life story unfolded: The Kilns, of course, but also the University of Oxford, and Oxfordshire and its pubs. “Cheers!” says “Jack” Lewis. To all of us.
For all the film’s verdant, wistful charm, its pacing is breakneck, and, when it’s over, one sits back, all but breathless.
In many ways, C.S. Lewis was Augustine of Hippo for our time, and had he responded positively to Tolkien’s arguments for Roman Catholicism’s primacy (not a part of the film), we might by now be venerating him as a saint. (Then again, I’m no postulator.) But Lewis and Augustine energetically deployed every logical weapon they could muster against Christianity . . . until each was forced by his own essential goodness and integrity to surrender: body, soul, and mind to God.
The Most Reluctant Convert is based on the FPA’s 2015 stage production, and a DVD version of that is available, but the new movie, also available on Blu-ray/DVD, is much more vivid and may be streamed on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, and other online media. You may watch the trailer here. The MPAA rating it PG.
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves” – and Counting?
Randall Smith’s Metaphysics and Theology