C.S. Lewis’ Dramatic Conversion Story Is Now Streaming
‘The Most Reluctant Convert’ leads viewers from C.S. Lewis’ troubled childhood to his life-changing friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.
“When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and when we reached the zoo, I did.” That line — in which Christian apologist C.S. Lewis explains a turning point in his journey from atheism to theism to Christianity — is perhaps my favorite line in his autobiographical conversion story, Surprised by Joy. It’s also my favorite line in the 2021 docudrama The Most Reluctant Convert, currently streaming on PureFlix.
I had the opportunity to talk recently with Max McLean, who plays the role of the mature Lewis in The Most Reluctant Convert. (In all, there were three actors who share the role of Clive Staples Lewis. Eddie Ray Martin plays Lewis as a young child whose mother has died, leaving him in the care of a very stern father. Nicholas Ralph, star of PBS Masterpiece’s All Creatures Great and Small, plays Lewis as a young man, wrestling with great ideas. And Max McLean plays the older Lewis and narrates the film, looking back at his earlier life.)
Max McLean is founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, a New York City-based company that produces live theater and film from a Christian worldview. Among his successful stage adaptations are a number of plays based upon Lewis’ works, and he described himself as a huge fan of C.S. Lewis.
“He read everything,” McLean said, “from the classics to modern literature, and he had a steel-trap mind.” In representing Lewis on screen, McLean wanted to look through Lewis’ eyes, using his exact words, so that Lewis could tell his own story. In the process of telling that story, McLean said, Lewis realized how much he had fought against Christianity. He really was a “reluctant convert!”
When The Most Reluctant Convert was first released in theaters in November 2021, McLean reported, it was the second most popular movie in America. It was scheduled for theatrical release on a single day — and due to its box office success, it ultimately ran for four weeks. But McLean explained that the Lewis conversion story had been presented even earlier than that. “The film actually began as a stage play in 2016,” he explained, “and it played in theaters in New York for five weeks, and toured all over the country. But when the pandemic hit, it shut down.”
The closure of theaters during COVID-19, when Americans stayed in their homes, presented a new opportunity: It was then that work began on a motion picture which could spread Lewis’ inspiring story on a wider scale. MacLean reported that telling the story via film was much more complicated than the stage presentation. “The stage play,” he explained, “was performed on one set. And what the filmmaker did was expand it into 18 different locations around Oxford, with 15 actors.”
The Most Reluctant Convert leads viewers through C.S. Lewis’ troubled childhood and on into his college years at Oxford, when he formed strong friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. On Sept. 19, 1931, the three friends walked and talked all night, with Tolkien explaining how myths were God’s way of preparing the ground for the Christian story, and Dyson showing how Christianity worked for the believer, liberating him from sin and helping him to become a better person. The ideas his friends had shared were so profound that Lewis spent days ruminating and meditating on them. Nearly eight weeks later, on Nov. 12, Clive Staples Lewis and his brother Warren took the momentous motorcycle ride to Whipsnade Zoo, and he made the leap to believe that Christianity was indeed true.
Max McLean has devoted years to telling Lewis’ story on stage and screen; but he’s not done yet. The Most Reluctant Convert tells the story of Lewis’ conversion as Lewis himself reported it in Surprised by Joy; but McLean revealed that he’s in the process of writing two new scripts which will continue Lewis’ life story through his years as a Christian apologist, writer and speaker. The second film in McLean’s C.S. Lewis trilogy will begin production next summer, with theatrical release in 2024 or 2025. McLean wanted to demonstrate that Lewis’ life was not over when he became a Christian. In fact, McLean reported, “Lewis said that when he finally gave in, it was the end of one journey and the beginning of another.”
“My understanding,” McLean added, “is that he has sold a quarter of a billion books. And why did the BBC give him a national platform? That would be to encourage the nation in its darkest hour.”
The Most Reluctant Convert is available for streaming via PureFlix and several other platforms.