Stage To Screen: Shadowlands


Although he was a literary powerhouse, C.S. Lewis has very seldom been portrayed on the screen as himself (Sorry, Treebeard, although you still kinda count). One of the most major works associated with him is Shadowlands, which mainly focuses on Lewis’s life with his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.

For those who aren’t familiar with Lewis and Gresham’s story, here is a very basic sketch. They initially started corresponding in 1950. Gresham, a native of New York, was a genius in her own right, having graduated from Hunter College at nineteen with an English degree and minor in French literature, later earning her master’s from Columbia in three semesters. She then became a teacher, a writer, a poet, and an editor, dabbling in communism. Her marriage, unfortunately, was turbulent, as Bill Gresham was an alcoholic and a serial cheater who neglected his wife and two boys, David and Douglas.

Bill and Joy Gresham. (WNYC)

Joy met Lewis, who was called Jack, through his books, which inspired her to read the Bible. This was a radical departure for Joy, who had been raised atheist, but she was hungry and searching for God. However, it wasn’t until she read a biographical sketch of Lewis that she was inspired to write to him.

Lewis was intrigued from the beginning and the two exchanged letters for the next two years before meeting in England, where they immediately hit it off. During this time, Joy’s marriage completely failed and she ended up going back to England after her divorce, bringing Douglas and David with her. It was tough going for her, because as a divorced woman there was already a stigma on her, plus Bill wasn’t consistent at paying child support, but she managed to get some writing work.

Find A Grave

Joy and Jack got married in a civil ceremony so that Joy could stay in England, but later, when it looked as if Joy would die soon from cancer, they had an official Anglican wedding on March 21, 1957. It was an adjustment for everyone, because for one thing, Jack was suddenly a stepfather, but they worked through it, with Douglas in particular becoming good friends with Jack. Joy and Jack enjoyed each other, and were also able to enjoy traveling to Wales and Greece. Joy would live for three more years, dying on July 13, 1960.  Jack would follow on November 23, 1963.

The play, Shadowlands, has an unusual history in that it began as a successful 1985 made-for-TV film for the BBC starring Joss Ackland, Claire Bloom, and David Waller. then turned into a play which ended up going to Broadway, and finally made into the 1993 Richard Attenborough feature film starring Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Edward Hardwicke.

Cinema Of the World

Watching the films back to back, it’s surprising how different they are, and not just because one of them had Hollywood money going into it. Most of the differences are metaphysical; the 1985 film seems to show Jack feeling out of control of his life, with everything looking exaggerated. Joy’s intelligence and the fun she and Jack had together are also more pronounced in their portrayal, showing Joy working in the garden and playing card games with Jack and Warnie at the kitchen table. Whereas the 1993 movie focuses more on Jack’s thoughts surrounding the situation and how he expressed those thoughts to the outside world. Both movies are personal but in their own way.

However, they do have certain elements in common. Both films were definitely fictionalized in that the timeline of Jack and Joy’s love story was condensed, and they both show a young Douglas at home in the Kilns while his mother dies in her bed in the library. Each presents that moment differently, though–the 1985 film shows Douglas waking up to a heartrending scream and then the film cuts away to the outside of the house, where we hear more screams and see lights coming on, whereas the 1993 movie drops the screaming.


In reality, Douglas was fourteen at the time and away at school when his mother died. He came back to see her when she was dying, and while he was happy to know that she was enjoying her last moments, was a little embarassed at having a dying mother, a feeling he has since become ashamed of. Douglas said in his autobiography, Lenten Lands,

On the 14th of July, I…{was told} that Mother had died during the night and I was to go home at once. At first, I felt numbness, then grief, of course, but mixed with the overpowering sense of loss was a strange feeling of huge relief. Now, at least, her pain was over, but, in truth, more important to me was the fact that my long fear-filled time of waiting was finished. The blow had fallen and I need wake in dread no longer. (Lenten Lands, page 126)

C.S. Lewis with David and Douglas. (Awesome Stories)

Also unlike the movies, which drew out the denial phase of grief for dramatic purposes, both Douglas and Jack broke down in tears almost as soon as they saw each other:

{Jack’s} appearance shocked me; I had last seen him merely ten days or so previously, but since that time he had aged twenty years or more. His eyes held the look of a soul in Hell. My brittle shell smashed, and I broke. ‘Oh, Jack,’ I burst out, and then the tears came. Jack rushed across the room and put his arm around me. I held on to him, and we both wept. (Lenten Lands, page 127)

C.S. Lewis’s home, The Kilns, where he lived from 1930 until his death in 1963. (Pinterest)

The other major change between the two movies is that Douglas’s brother, David is briefly in the 1985 film but not at all the 1993 version, likely because David’s relationship with Douglas, Jack, and Warnie, had not only broken down completely, although not for lack of trying on Jack’s part, but David was a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic who, on one occasion, doused Douglas in gasoline before trying to light him on fire. Douglas has always felt reluctant to talk about David, but since David died in a Swiss mental institution in 2014 Douglas has let out a few details now and then.

Joss Ackland and Anthony Hopkins are both excellent as Jack and both take different approaches to the character while each giving very nuanced performances. Ackland looks and sounds more like the real Jack. He’s really got a warm jolliness to him that made me feel like hugging him, which made the sad turns the story took all the more wrenching.

Cinema of the World

Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins portrayed Jack as a remote but not-unkind fellow who needed to reconcile his public persona with his private life and treat people as people instead of benign threats. As Joy tells him, he likes having people around who aren’t going to win against him in a debate. Jack is shocked at the revelation but then sees Joy’s point. It gives the viewer a lot to think about.

As for Joy, while Claire Bloom is a terrific actress who gives a great performance, she always strikes me as being too British. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t work for Joy. This is not a woman who raises her voice or shows any overt assertion. She’s not mousy, but she’s not exactly aggressive in any way, either.


On the other hand, Debra Winger in the scene when Joy first meets Jack at the hotel, asks if there’s anyone around called Lewis and surveys the room as if she’s hailing a cab. She looks at Jack and everyone else as if she knows she can hold her own and will show it if given half a chance. It would be interesting to know what the real Joy would have done, though. My guess is that she would have fallen somewhere between Bloom and Winger.

As for Warnie, David Waller is a dead ringer and a sweet fellow. Edward Hardwicke is not quite as bang-on, looks-wise, but also a sweet fellow with a nice briskness about him and a liking for toasted tea cakes with plenty of melted butter.

The Bridgehead

While Shadowlands may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of Joy and Jack Lewis’s relationship, it’s still a compelling one, and as long as people stay curious about the architect of Narnia and the Silent Planet, the story will never really die.

My review for Erica’s Danny Kaye Blogathon is coming up on Sunday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…

The BBC version of Shadowlands is available on DVD and is also free to stream on Amazon Prime, The 1993 version is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.


Gresham, Douglas. Lenten Lands: My Childhood With Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Group, 1988.

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