Chronicling C.S. Lewis: On the Set of the Latest Lewis-Inspired Film
New movie will chronicle the conversion of the beloved author.
During this time when many forms of employment are blighted by COVID-19, nowhere are the effects of the virus felt more keenly, arguably, than in the British film industry. With a few exceptions, the pandemic has meant the end of British film production since March 2020.
One of those exceptions is the film that was being shot outside the English university town of Oxford in September 2020. Set in the earlier part of the 20th century, The Most Reluctant Convert tells the story of the conversion of the atheist C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
Filming at The Kilns, C.S. Lewis’ former home, was the director Norman Stone. A double Emmy and double BAFTA award-winning filmmaker with more than 40 years of filmmaking to his name, Stone is also a devout Christian and a devotee of C.S. Lewis. In fact, he has made a number of films about the Christian apologist and writer, most notably the award-winning Shadowlands (1986).
Dressed as C.S. Lewis and looking uncannily like him, McLean stands in one of the rooms of Lewis’ former home still decorated in the English style of the middle of the last century. Although McLean had once visited The Kilns, he admits it is an altogether different matter to be playing its former inhabitant in the house.
Like Lewis, McLean is an adult convert to Christianity. Although Lewis was not instrumental in his initial conversion, the actor is in no doubt that Lewis was “influential in affirming my naïve faith; he gave it a more firm foundation.”
A Limitless Role
McLean started writing the stage play that would become the basis for The Most Reluctant Convert in 2011. By 2017 it was being performed in New York on stage. Since then, McLean has been touring the United States with the play; he reckons that in these last four years he has performed the play more than 300 times.
Given that before The Most Reluctant Convert McLean had been involved in an earlier stage production of The Screwtape Letters, a work also inspired by the book of that title by C.S. Lewis, what accounts for his ongoing fascination with the writer? “I don’t get to the bottom of Lewis,” says McLean. “Most plays, after two or three weeks, you say: ‘I know where this is going.’ But with Lewis, he captures my imagination; he captures my intellect.”
For McLean this is more than just a creative or intellectual “capture.” “His [Lewis’] view of Christ is very deep, fundamental in the sense of a deep organic place,” McLean explains. “So many expressions of Christianity are shallow. Lewis doesn’t buy that. He doesn’t come from a theological background — although, as an amateur theologian, he is fantastic — he comes from a medieval literature background, so the roots [for him] are really deep, as he sees Christianity as the core of Western civilization. This is extraordinary, especially so now, when everyone wants to dismantle Western civilization.”
McLean is already working on a sequel to The Most Reluctant Convert. This is something the film’s New York-based executive producer, Ken Denison, has encouraged. Denison was in England for the film shoot. This stage play-turned-film is produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts; founded by McLean, this is a not-for-profit New York City-based production company producing theater from a Christian worldview to engage a diverse audience. In addition, this latest effort will be part of a hoped-for trilogy based on the life and faith journey of Lewis, a trilogy that Denison maintains will be an artistic representation of the writer’s life and thought, as it will also be both “honest and strictly Lewis.”
“This is a story about an individual who was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century,” says Denison. “You can argue about that, but not with me. So when you are telling the truth about someone who inspired others, showing what their life was, how they lived and how they struggled, [it] is going to impact audiences. This is an ‘every person’ story. There are many people who are Christian who love Lewis; there are also a lot of people on the verge of Christianity who don’t understand it enough. … What I love is that our [stage] shows open their eyes to follow and understand Christ. It is a way of telling the audience, without preaching, on stage. Instead, we’re sharing a story where we want to get every audience member to be open and to just start thinking about that journey.”
Faith in One Act
The filming of The Most Reluctant Convert took an act of faith, given how devastating COVID-19 was for the arts in general and cinema in particular. As Denison recounts, “We were shut down in March, like everyone else. Live theater was closed. We went from selling 2,000 seats a week to zero.” His reaction was to embark on the filming of a project that was still then in the early stages of development. Instead, it became clear to him and his team that they had to “do it now!”
And so, in a village north of Oxford, a fully COVID-19-compliant film crew is making one of the few film productions currently being shot in England. The film’s storyline, told through flashbacks, is of the middle-aged Lewis remembering his boyhood and life as a young man both in war and peace, leading up to his conversion to Christianity in 1931. This is an unusual production team in that the director, the film’s star actor and the executive producer are inspired in their efforts chiefly by the life and thought of the man at the center of the drama. All three — Stone, McLean and Denison — have worked previously on other Lewis-themed projects and now all have come to what many consider the spiritual home of the writer to make a film portrait fashioned around perhaps the most important moment in Lewis’ life, namely, his conversion.
It was in the early 1980s that Stone first became aware of Lewis, particularly taken, thereafter, with two of Lewis’ works: A Grief Observed and Surprised by Joy. They “hit me straight between the eyes, especially the former,” Stone explained. “It was so raw, so honest. I think Lewis was a Christian who told the truth, whatever the cost, even though that cost could be unbelievably high. Lewis came through the fire bloody but unbowed, faith intact, but heavily scarred. That’s real life and real faith.”
After earlier Lewis-themed productions such as the multiaward-winning Shadowlands and later The Narnia Code (2009), Lewis has entered into Stone’s professional life once again. As it turned out, it was McLean who called Stone to see if he would be interested in turning his latest play into a film. “I didn’t say ‘Yes’ immediately,” said Stone, “until, that is, I sat down and read the script. Then I was instantly persuaded.”
Stage to Screen
Filming a stage play is notoriously difficult. Did Stone have any reservations about this new project? “The intention is to do something cinematically different with the project,” he said. “One can but hope we will have pushed the bounds of in-depth TV storytelling into powerful new territory; it will be very far from a ‘theatrical stage production.’”
Watching take after take, as Stone directs McLean, who seems to become C.S. Lewis before one’s eyes, it is surprising to learn that this is the stage actor’s first foray into screen acting. In the past 40 years, Stone has worked with many award-winning film actors, yet his praise for McLean is profuse. “As of today, it is still less than three weeks since Max first appeared in front of a camera. He is absolutely great as a stage actor. He does one-man shows and other things [on stage], but to dive into the strange new world of film is very difficult to do right. This guy is not even three weeks ‘old,’ and he is doing absolutely great.”
In a moment between shots, McLean ponders the difference between screen and stage acting. “Theater is definitely the actor’s medium,” he explains. “The actor is on stage; he controls what happens. Film is the director’s medium, his vision. The actor has to execute the director’s vision, but, thankfully, Norman and I have a similar vision.”
The now-screen actor is also becoming aware of the greater audience available to the story through the medium of film. “In a normal year we have multiple stage tours on the road; we’ll be in front of 75,000 people; whereas this film will be in front of a million people within a year,” notes McLean.
On Set, In Focus
It is the penultimate day of filming, Oct. 8. Due to the current COVID-19 government health restrictions, the film shoot has to be undertaken unusually quickly and efficiently. Just one positive case of the virus would lead to the shutting down of the whole production for good. And, yet, Stone reports that this Lewis-inspired project has been one of the happiest sets he has worked on. In passing, and perhaps it is no coincidence, he also notes that many people have been praying both for him and this production to succeed.
As filming wraps for the day, technicians and other members of the production team are busy moving equipment and preparing for tomorrow’s final shoot. There is a palpable sense of relief in the crew. Moving around Lewis’ former home, there is a strange sense that the man still lingers at The Kilns.
Standing in Lewis’ former living room, the film’s director experiences a sense of purpose, of mission even. “We have reached the point in our lives and careers to be ready to do this,” muses 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. I’ve gone through Shadowlands, and I’ve turned up here. And here we are sitting in the very room where the Narnia tales were written. It all just seems to coalesce.” Then, called once more for yet further discussion by his crew, he turns and says, “It gives me goose bumps just talking about it.”
- c.s. lewis