C.S. Lewis, ‘The Most Reluctant Convert’

One man’s journey to faith makes for moving viewing.

Nicholas Ralph plays Lewis as a young man in ‘The Most Reluctant Convert.’
Nicholas Ralph plays Lewis as a young man in ‘The Most Reluctant Convert.’ (photo: 1A Productions)

This 2021 film was made by the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), in association with British-based 1A Productions. The film traces the spiritual journey from unbelief to faith of British academic C.S. Lewis, who was also the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series. The Most Reluctant Convert is based upon his memoir, Surprised by Joy (1955), in which he wrote: “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Originally, The Most Reluctant Convert was planned to be screened in cinemas across the United States for one night only, on Nov. 3, 2021. However, the movie garnered more than $1.2 million in box-office sales on that day alone, capturing the highest per-screen average, and performing second overall to all other films then released (behind only the latest blockbuster, Dune). These strong box-office results prompted the addition of theaters and dates, with multiple daily showings enabling audiences to see this biopic on the big screen. In addition, The Most Reluctant Convert was released as a special event in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom and Canada. The film has also been released digitally onto Apple TV and Google Play, as well as physically on Blu-ray and DVD. 

Film critics have been generally favorable. The film has managed to avoid being seen as merely a “Christian film.” 

It is too interesting, too well made and far too subtle to be written off as simply entertainment for believers. 

Doubtless this is because this new C.S. Lewis biopic is directed by double-Emmy and double-BAFTA Award-winning Norman Stone. He has been making Lewis-themed films for decades, including the much-lauded BBC’s Shadowlands (1986) and, more recently, the documentary The Narnia Code (2009). 

Speaking in 2019, while The Most Reluctant Convert was still in development, Stone told the Register that Lewis’ writings greatly affected the director’s Christian faith.

“You don’t get so close to someone like Lewis, in order to tell his story with empathy and understanding, without his life and words having a deep impact on your own faith and understanding. 

“And it was the freshness of his thinking — his take on life and faith with his becoming a Christian, in spite of all his erudite, atheistic objections — that impresses.”

The Most Reluctant Convert stars three actors, all of whom play Lewis. They are Max McLean, Nicholas Ralph and Eddie Ray Martin. Acclaimed theater actor McLean plays the middle-aged Lewis, who looks back on the events that began his journey from vigorous debunker of Christianity to being, arguably, the most influential Christian writer of the 20th century. Ralph, star of the PBS Masterpiece hit All Creatures Great and Small, plays Lewis as a young man who has a difficult relationship with his father, before going off to the trenches in the Great War, and later becoming an English literature and language fellow at Oxford University. In addition, the film introduces Martin, who plays Lewis as the child who tragically loses his mother to cancer and then subsequently rejects Christianity.

Notably, The Most Reluctant Convert explores the impact of friends on the young, committed atheist, showing how they forced Lewis to question his own disbelief. Among these friends were J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield.

Filmed in and around Oxford, England, The Most Reluctant Convert is based upon the hit play, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, written and performed by McLean. 

Following its 2016 premiere, until theaters closed with the pandemic, the stage play had been performed 287 times in 64 cities and college campuses. 

So, is the movie any good? Yes, it most certainly is. 

The Most Reluctant Convert tells Lewis’ story with panache and much cinematic imagination. The device of the older Lewis looking back over his life is the lynchpin to the storytelling. 

This allows for his unfolding perspectives to weave the different stages of the writer’s life into a coherent and moving whole. 

But the film achieves more than just that. It tells the story of one man’s journey from agnosticism to sincere Christian conviction. And it does so by showing how the people in the life of Lewis are used by the Holy Spirit to transform the writer’s thinking and then touch his heart. This type of inner transformation is something rare in cinema, and harder still to do convincingly on screen, yet The Most Reluctant Convert accomplishes it. 

There is something touching in watching the older Lewis meditate upon his life, his younger self and his earlier trials and troubles. 

But what could be mawkish and sentimental is moved to an altogether different level by the fact that this is a man of now profound faith reviewing his life in light of that Christian belief. 

His earlier pains and sorrows take on a different meaning; so too do the perceived pleasures and ambitions of his youth. 

As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Lewis’ life is no longer a random series of human events and experiences. It is, instead, part of a divine plan — a plan that has one end: that Clive Staples Lewis comes to know his Savior in this life and remain with him in eternity. 

Central to this achievement is McLean’s performance as Lewis. 

Recently, in an interview with the Register, Ken Denison, one of the film’s producers, was asked about McLean’s onscreen portrayal of Lewis. 

“Max is C.S. Lewis,” he replied. “Through his years of award-winning theater work, he has come to embody Lewis on stage, and now [he does so] on camera. It’s uncanny. This being his first film, we all wondered how the stage actor would translate those techniques to film. But from the first day of filming, there was no more wondering.” 

I agree. 

While the movie was being filmed, I visited the set. 

At the Kilns, Lewis’ former home, I had the opportunity to watch Stone directing McLean. It proved a strangely moving experience. It really did feel as if C.S. Lewis was sitting at his former home’s kitchen table drinking a cup of tea, while reflecting on his life and the way in which he had come to know Christ. 

That day, while standing in Lewis’ former living room, Stone spoke to me of the sense of purpose — of mission, even — he had experienced while making the film. 

“We have reached the point in our lives and careers to be ready to do this,” mused Stone of himself and McLean. 

“That’s the weirdest thing. Max has gone through all this stuff, and his one-man show, and he has turned up here [at the Kilns]. I’ve gone through Shadowlands, and I’ve turned up here. And [so] here we are sitting in the very room where the Narnia tales were written.”

At the time of his conversion Lewis may have described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert,” but in this latest biopic he has a fitting testament to the life-changing joy he was surprised with.