C.S. Lewis scholar, Michael Ward, returned to Hillsdale last Wednesday, but this time on the big screen.
In 2015, Ward was Hillsdale’s commencement speaker. The accomplished senior research fellow at Oxford University and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University played the role of the parochial vicar in “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis.”
The film was released in a single-screening capacity across the United States, but has been so successful that new and extended screenings are being considered.
“Distribution of movies is expensive, so the idea was to give the film a very limited release and thereby concentrate interest on a particular date,” Ward said. “As a result, the film was no. 1 in the U.S. in terms of seats occupied per theater on the day it screened, November 3rd, meaning it beat ‘Dune’ and other blockbusters.”
Ward has dedicated much of his life to studying Lewis, especially while writing his book “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis,” and encourages others to look at the author in the same vein.
“If you don’t yet know Lewis’s books, especially “Surprised by Joy,” which provides most of the screenplay for this movie, check them out,” Ward said. “They’re well worth reading, and re-reading. I’ve been studying Lewis’s works for most of my adult life and haven’t got tired of them yet.”
The screening began with an in-depth look at the film’s production, with commentary from the actors and crew.
The movie was adapted from the stage play that Max McLean, the founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts in New York, both wrote and starred in. In the film, McLean plays the contemporary version of Lewis, who served as a narrator for the scenes depicting his early life.
“The story is told mostly in flashback,” Ward said. “We see the older Lewis, played by Max McLean, speaking directly to the camera, explaining his spiritual progress. Elsewhere in the shot we see his younger self, played by Nicholas Ralph, enacting whatever it is that’s being described.”
“Either there’s no God behind the universe, a God indifferent to good and evil, or worse: an evil God,” McLean says, describing the thoughts of a young Lewis.
In the initial flashbacks, the audience watches as Lewis’ mother dies of cancer. Due to the perceived failure of his prayers for his mother’s recovery, Lewis denied God’s existence at an early age.
“At 14, I ceased to be a Christian,” Lewis said.
Following a few scenes highlighting his descent into immorality, Lewis describes his regret toward being confirmed, which he did despite being a self-proclaimed atheist.
“Cowardice drove me to hypocrisy,” Lewis said, illuminating the effects of his father’s intimidation toward his receiving the sacraments.
As Lewis grew up, he realized that he craved the same level of education as his older brother. He began to study under his brother’s tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick, nicknamed The Great Knock. This is where Lewis said his life really began.
Once his two-year-long apprenticeship with Kirkpatrick was over, Lewis enlisted in the army and was sent to France on his 19th birthday. He was severely wounded and fell ill several times during his deployment. He began working at Magdalen College in Oxford after his time in the service.
Two years later, Lewis found himself believing in Jesus Christ for the first time while in the side-car of a motorcycle on the way to the zoo.
“Telling the story of Lewis’s conversion, including Tolkien’s part in it, helps remind viewers that Christianity is something intellectually respectable,” Ward said. “It’s something that has helped produce much of the greatest literature, and art, and music, and architecture to be found anywhere in our culture. And that’s quite apart from the most important element of all, namely the salvation of souls!”
Thanks to the influences of his fellow professors and friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis admitted to the existence of a God in 1929. The film ended with Lewis receiving communion in his local church.
“Unlike my first communion 17 years earlier, I now believed,” Lewis said.
This scene is particularly special because it was filmed at Holy Trinity Church in Oxford, where Lewis is buried.
“I had the slightly spooky, in a good sense, experience of looking out from the vicar’s stall in the church and seeing in the congregation two C.S. Lewises, – one older, one younger – and both of them looking very, very much like the real man,” Ward said.
The film screened in two separate theaters, both of which were filled with members of the college and local communities.
“As a Christian movie, you worry when going into it, will this just be a good Christian movie, meaning it has a good message but it sacrifices artistic integrity,” said Blake McAllister, assistant professor of philosophy. “That was not the case, it was just a good movie.”
Other viewers appreciated the creative liberties taken in the film.
“I really liked how it was done in a story-telling way,” freshman Anna Baldwin said. “I feel like C.S. Lewis would have liked that.”