In adapting Max McLean’s stage play “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” director Norman Stone resisted the temptation to add any filler and as a result, the running time is a scant 73 minutes, which might leave some viewers feeling a tad cheated.
What Stone’s film might lack in quantity is more than made up for with the quality of the content. If anyone were to nitpick, it would be with the omission of Lewis’s brief marriage to American author Joy Davidman and the lack of detail regarding his fictional and nonfictional written works.
While the film covers the bulk of Lewis’s relatively short life, it concentrates mostly on his religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and it does so in ingenious ways.
Max McLean Reprises His Stage Performance
Reprising his stage role as the elder version of Lewis, McLean (dressed in mid-20th-century period garb) is first seen entering a sound stage that recreates his home yet is populated with present-day grips, and sound and lighting technicians. Upon taking a seat, Lewis breaks the fourth wall, looks into the camera, and speaks his first words: “When I was an atheist.” Leaving home, Lewis goes to a pub and orders two pints of beer, one for himself and the other for the audience. If for no other reason, Stone’s unorthodox beginning to the film immediately ropes in the viewer.
Growing up in a well-to-do Irish home with a non-religious family, Lewis (played as a preteen by Eddie Ray Martin) faced what was then the biggest hurdle of his life: the death of his mother from cancer. He had been told that prayer would save her and when it didn’t, he became disillusioned and decided that there was no God.
It didn’t help matters that the mood of his formerly congenial attorney father Albert (Richard Harrington) darkened after the death of his wife, and he channeled his anger toward Lewis and his older brother Warnie (Charlie Ray Reid). Lewis’s opinion of the Almighty worsened when he (now played by Nicholas Ralph) was nearly killed in action while serving as a soldier in France during World War I.
Prior to the war, Lewis and Warnie were privately tutored in England by William T. Kirkpatrick (David Gant), the former headmaster at Lurgan College, the private Christian middle school. This was when Lewis initially became interested in writing but also developed an obsession with the occult, which was fueled further by fantasy author George MacDonald’s “Phantastes.”
J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson
It’s during Lewis’s time in college at Oxford and his interaction with other future famous scribes J.R.R. Tolkien (Tom Glenister) and Hugo Dyson (David Shields) did things begin to change. Already devout Christians, Tolkien and Dyson didn’t so much attempt to convert the non-believer Lewis as much as they presented him with philosophical arguments that appealed to his mind and heart as well as his soul.
Frequently framing the elder Lewis with the people he’s talking about in flashback adds further texture to Stone’s approach. The movie is a little bit of a docudrama, something of an anthology and part live-action but not enough of any of those to fit into any one genre. Some might also watch the film and label it as “Christian,” but it isn’t that either. This is a hybrid production that defies easy categorization.
Lewis’s transition into Christianity wasn’t an overnight occurrence. By his own admission in the film, he resisted conversion by “kicking, struggling, being resentful, and darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” This wasn’t going to be a “come to Jesus” moment but rather a long, contemplative slog. The overlong title is certainly on the mark.
There are essentially two groups of those familiar with Lewis: the ones in love with his books about faith and the millions who are aware of him from “The Chronicles of Narnia” trilogy of movies from the 2000s. Whether intended or not, the “Narnia” filmmakers largely played down the religious subtext contained in the books that in all likelihood broadened their audience appeal.
As good as “Reluctant” is, it’s far from a complete overview of Lewis’s life, which isn’t at all a bad thing. The movie accomplishes what it set out to do; it wasn’t trying to be a full-blown biography. Much the same can be said about the 1993 “Shadowlands” starring Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Davidman that only concentrated on their romance.
A Cable Mini-Series Would Be Welcomed
What needs to happen at this point is for Netflix or Amazon to start the ball rolling on a limited six-hour series in either a live-action or documentary format that would delve into every aspect of this man’s monumentally interesting life from cradle to grave.
That Lewis went on to become one of the most famous and influential Christian writers and defending “apologist” theists makes his conflicted spiritual journey all the more impressive and awe-inspiring. He didn’t want to find God but God ended up finding him.
After a limited theatrical run in the United Kingdom in November, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis” is now available on-demand at CSLewisMovie.com through Jan. 9.
‘The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis’
Director: Norman Stone
Stars: Max McLean, Nicholas Ralph, Eddie Ray Martin, Richard Harrington
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 3, 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5