In 1993, Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger starred in Shadowlands, the heartbreakingly personal story of C. S. Lewis's relationship with Joy Gresham. For many North Americans, it was a first glimpse into the life of this revered Christian writer, but the episode was not new to British audiences: it had been dramatized for BBC television a decade earlier, then made into a highly successful London stage play.

When North American film buffs and Lewis fans would praise the Oscar-nominated 1993 version, somebody would inevitably pipe up to say how much better "the original" was. But it was impossible to get hold of, so you'd just have to take their word.

What you could get hold of, though, was the playscript, a masterful piece of writing by William Nicholson: indeed, it gripped me even more than the film I loved so much, and I resolved that I would play that role one day. (Writing about movies is just my obsession: I support my habit with my day job as an actor and director at Vancouver's Pacific Theatre.)

This spring I finally got my chance not only to put Nicholson's amazing script onstage—where I played the role of C. S. Lewis—but also (finally) to view the original BBC production, which was released on DVD as we prepared for rehearsal. It's amazing to see how substantially different the three versions are (two films and a play), all written by the same man. To compare them is a fascinating study in the evolution of a script. 

Just as thrilling is the opportunity to watch veteran British actor Joss Ackland create an interpretation of "Jack" Lewis that's profoundly different from better-known, widely-acclaimed Hopkins performance. We'll never get a chance to meet this man we feel we know so well through his writings—at least not this side of the wardrobe—so it's a great privilege to have two such fully-realized portrayals provide a truly three-dimensional perspective of C. S. Lewis.

The 1985 version

The 1985 teleplay begins with an extreme close-up of an eye, blinking. Eerie underscoring distances us from the laughter and conversation as the camera pulls back to show High Table at Magdalen College. Forkfuls of food are thrust into mouths, blotchy-faced Oxford dons cough and chew. We rise from the table and flee outdoors: "Why am I so afraid? I never knew that love could hurt so much, and I love you, and all I want is to love you. Beyond every door I hear your voice saying to me, 'This is only the land of shadows. Real life hasn't begun yet.'" We find ourselves traveling down the long, empty corridor of a house, into an abandoned spare room. The doors of a wardrobe swing open, we push through coats and furs until we come to a lantern, shining in the middle of a snowy wood.

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In those first 90 seconds, we're already close to the essence of Lewis—and we know where the coming love story is headed. We see the world through Jack's eyes, but it's a world he's alienated from. And when he turns away, with Joy preoccupying his thoughts, he returns to his own childhood—and the world beyond the wardrobe. It's a story framed by childhood and bereavement, and we've glimpsed its two worlds—the clubby male environs of British academic life, and the crisp, cool magical world beyond.

We also sense how much this teleplay will be informed by Lewis's literary creations—not only in the Narnia reference and the image of the childhood home described in Surprised by Joy, but in the voiceover which resembles the opening of A Grief Observed; "No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear …"

After the title credits roll, we're immersed in Lewis's day-to-day bachelor's life in the early 1950s—but already our ears are being tuned to what's coming: Lewis gives a radio talk on marriage, he's chided by his university peers for his "plain Jack" talks on things he knows nothing about. Ackland is wonderful here: he's intelligent and willing to engage in the argument at hand, but there's a tremendous humility as well. "Shouldn't I have said that I haven't been married?" is played with a winning sincerity: for all the public attention, this is a man who isn't always sure of himself. That warmth and humanity permeates the entire performance, reminiscent of the Lewis we meet in the preface to The Problem of Pain, where he acknowledges not being a "real theologian"—and where he admits not living up to his own principles on the subject of pain, divulging a personal aversion to real suffering.

Essentially, this version of Shadowlands maps Lewis's own journey from the intellectually impressive but not-lived-through and not-quite-convincing arguments of The Problem of Pain (1940) to the agonized heart's cry that is A Grief Observed (1961), which he began writing the very hour he returned home after Joy's funeral. The earlier book strives to construct answers and explanations, the later offers few. But it's the second of the books that Christians turn to in times of bereavement, and this film takes the viewer through the experiences that bring Lewis to his deeper humanity and wisdom. (The play makes this structure even clearer, opening not with a radio talk on marriage, but with an intellectually dazzling public address on God's responsibility for suffering in the world.)

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BBC director Norman Stone, who identifies himself as a Christian, has a palpable affection and affinity for Lewis—not only in the winsome performance he draws out of Ackland, but in honoring all of the literary and theological elements in Nicholson's original script. This script draws on a wide range of Lewis's works, and it gives tremendous screen time to Joy and Jack as they get to know each other, in a literate conversation that ranges from conversion stories to theology and politics. Most significantly, while the teleplay takes Lewis in his grief to a point where God has slammed the door in his face, with "the sound of bolting and double bolting, and after that, silence," we also see him wake in the night and wander back out into those Narnian woods, where he finally can remember Joy and sense again something of God's presence.

Claire Bloom gives us a splendid Joy. As Jack and Warnie plod along a path, Joy darts in and out like an excited child, peppering the stolid brothers with a barrage of opinions and questions, all inhibition and intelligence and enthusiasm. There's spunk and savvy and sass enough in this performance to provide all the Yankee brashness the role calls for.

If anything, the subsequent stage version even more richly explores the world of words and ideas (naturally enough, since plays tell their stories in words, movies in pictures) while sharpening the moment-to-moment dramatic thrust of the story. Where the BBC film can feel talky, the play shows considerable dramaturgical development: the story is always moving forward. The play is also less bound by the movies' need to be "realistic," incorporating a deeply moving series of images drawn from The Magician's Nephew where Douglas enters the wardrobe and brings back a magic apple which he presents to his mother just after her marriage to Jack, just before her recovery. The act deftly suggests the possibility that her remission is as much miracle as medicinal, brought about by a child's faith.

The 1993 version

The Attenborough version benefits from the stronger narrative craftsmanship of the stage play, and it also looks a lot better. Stone's Oxford is dreary as hell—specifically, that peculiar vision of hell Lewis describes in The Great Divorce—dismal, dingy, and always raining. But the bigger-budget version goes too far in the name of narrative drive, stripping out too much conversation, too much theology, too many ideas, almost all the literature—does Hollywood really believe people only know The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? More seriously, it also truncates the ending of the story in a way that almost suggests Lewis abandoned his faith by the end of his life.

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Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins

Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins

Hopkins' portrayal of Lewis also raises qualms. This actor, one of the greatest of our time, was at the top of his game—think Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Remains of the Day (1993). His Lewis is a marvelous portrayal of a brilliant mind, but there's a brittle unconcern that seems at odds with the Jack of history—or of the preceding two versions. Which is not just Hopkins' doing: the 1993 screenplay adds a sub-plot about a personality clash between Jack and an inattentive student, and focuses Joy's relationship to Jack on some pretty abrasive conflict over Jack's insistence on winning every argument, surrounding himself with people who are either worshipful or weak. How do these elements strengthen the essential thrust of the story? They feel more like the knee-jerk iconoclasm of the times, when it's assumed audiences won't believe characters who are too "good," too nice. A shame.

Missing Jack's vitality

Maybe it sounds like I want hagiography, and maybe I do. But to miss Jack's warmth and generosity is to miss something essential: biography after biography shows us a man who, while he certainly loved heated debates, was much beloved. Indeed, if anything is missing in these two cinematic interpretations, it may be Lewis's largeness of spirit. As Douglas Gresham writes, "Even within the first hours of meeting him, the enormous vibrancy and vitality and charm and humor of his personality completely expunged any physical deficiencies that I might have seen in him. He was a very humorous man … If Jack was in a room, there was laughter."

I suppose these performances may have been crafted to leave room for dramatic contrast and character development: if Joy was to be the spark that lit Jack's world ablaze, perhaps they felt she ought to be the one that brought the laughter and life. But I'm convinced that Jack's vitality and heart can be shown from the outset without losing any of the story's shape: the contrast is between Jack and the world around him, and when Joy comes into his life, we recognize two people who are profoundly right for each other. There's still plenty of emotional terrain to be covered as the bachelor becomes a friend then a lover and a husband, as the two of them ride the waves of hope and despair that marked their years together. But a bigger Jack is a truer Jack, and makes for a greater and truer story.

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That said, each film is in its own way a gift, and I wouldn't do with out either of them. I suspect that the real Jack Lewis was somewhere between the warm and self-effacing man Ackland brings to the screen—much preferred by Christians and Inkling-o-philes—and the brittle, brilliant mind Hopkins brings. And if the latter Lewis is too disconnected, too detached, too domineering, it certainly sets us up for a powerful reversal when his world falls to the ground. Who will ever forget the raw vulnerability of that attic scene with Douglas? That one moment places this film, and this performance, very close to my heart indeed.

And without Shadowlands—in any of its incarnations—how many of us would ever have met Joy Gresham? What a gift she is! Films rarely present us with such characters, yet we all have them in our lives and count ourselves blessed—opinionated, forceful, courageous women who don't give a rip about being ladylike, whose breathtaking femininity is all in their wit, passion, and uncompromising authenticity. When I first saw Debra Winger in the role, I had my qualms: she seemed too young for Lewis, too brashly American, too cantankerous. Now I realize how perfectly this actress fulfilled the role: I reacted just like Lewis's crusty and protective friends when the real Joy showed up in his life! (It's also worth noting that Winger was 37 and Hopkins 54 when the movie was shot—precisely the ages Jack and Joy were when they met in the fall of 1952.)

And whatever we think about the nuances of these interpretations, both films offer the magnificent gift of making Lewis and his time real to us. We journey to Oxford—the Attenborough film in particular makes it a central character in the story, as it should be—we get to know Warnie and Douglas and Joy, we experience the difficulties we all face when our faith in a loving God collides with the reality of suffering. And if we don't come away with answers, we come away larger, having passed through some very dark shadows indeed, but reminded that even the brightest things in our pale world are nothing but a shadow of the life to come.

Ron Reed, shown here playing C. S. Lewis in Shawdowlands, a production at Vancouver's Pacific Theatre, which Ron founded in 1984 and where he serves as artistic director. He is gearing up for his 2005-06 season, which will include productions of The Elephant Man, A Christmas Carol, Prodigal Son, and more. (Photo by Michael Ford.)