C.S. Lewis Comes to the Big Screen Reluctantly
New film tells the story of ‘The Most Reluctant Convert.’
The Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), in association with 1A Productions and distributor Trafalgar Releasing, has announced expanded distribution and encore presentations of the newly released film The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis.
Originally in cinemas nationwide for one night only on Nov. 3, the movie garnered more than $1.2 million in box-office sales, captured the highest per-screen average, and performed second overall (behind Dune). Strong box-office results prompted the addition of theaters and date expansions, offering multiple daily showings to enable audiences to see this biopic on the big screen. In addition to its U.S. expansion, The Most Reluctant Convert will also be released as a special event in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom and Canada.
The Most Reluctant Convert is a film that traces the spiritual journey of the renowned author of The Chronicles of Narnia. This new C.S. Lewis biopic, directed by double-Emmy and double-BAFTA Award-winning filmmaker Norman Stone (BBC’s Shadowlands, The Narnia Code), stars 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 arguably the most influential Christian writer of the 20th century. Nicholas 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 then becoming a fellow at Oxford University. In addition, the film introduces Eddie Ray Martin, who plays the child Lewis, who loses his mother to cancer and then rejects his faith.
The Most Reluctant Convert explores the impact friends had on the committed atheist and how they forced Lewis to question his own disbelief. Among these friends were J.R.R. Tolkien (played by Tom Glenister, Doc Martin), Hugo Dyson (played by David Shields, The Crown, Doctor Who) and Owen Barfield (played by Hubert Barton, Jekyll & Hyde, Deep Blue Sea).
Filmed in and around Oxford, England, the movie, based on the hit play C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, was adapted by star McLean (Mark’s Gospel – Jeff Award, The Screwtape Letters). Before the pandemic, the stage play had been performed 287 times in 64 cities and college campuses following its 2016 premiere. Both the play and the film are based on Lewis' memoir, Surprised by Joy.
As the movie was screened across the United States, the Register spoke via email to Ken Denison, one of the producers on The Most Reluctant Convert.
Tell me about the new film.
It’s the story of C.S. Lewis’ journey, from his early years, discovering his path from atheism to Christianity, along with the people he met along the way and how they helped him with his struggles through his life. That includes best friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Lord of the Rings.
Tell us about the ongoing “film night”?
We are so excited to have this film showing for a theatrical-event release. It’s showing in over 500 cinemas throughout North America, the U.K. and Canada. We are hoping that audiences will see what a gift it is to tell Lewis’ story on film. We had the most incredible team, from designers, the cast and crew. These people have all worked on major motion-picture blockbusters; they all fell in love with the story and the process of getting this film in the can. We came to our premiere event with them cheering us on.
Why did you become involved in making this film?
I’m the executive producer for Fellowship for Performing Arts, which creates live productions of plays written from a Christian worldview and are meant to engage diverse audiences. Many of these [plays] are based on the works of C.S. Lewis, and, in fact, I directed the stage production of C.S. Lewis on stage, The Most Reluctant Convert, which is adapted from many sources but primarily from Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. We had always wondered if the story could be told in a cinematic way. Max McLean, the founder and artistic director of Fellowship for Performing Arts, adapted and starred in the stage work. And he introduced the story to BAFTA- and Emmy-winning director Norman Stone. Norman agreed this could be a cinematic work.
It was filmed in England during the pandemic, right?
The very early plan was to perhaps make the film in 2023-24. Then the pandemic hit, and touring of all our live productions stopped. I mean, dead stopped. We had four productions up in New York and touring in February 2020, and that went to zero live productions almost overnight. Then we found an opening in the U.K. COVID rules that allowed filmmaking to resume in September 2020. As I saw it, the clouds parted, and Max and Norman said, “Let’s make this happen.” And we did!
What was it like working with Norman Stone?
Norman is not only a brilliant film visionary; he is a wonderful person. He quite simply gathers people to him to help create and understand his vision and execute it. It really has been a great pleasure working with him and to help carry out and be a part of the artistic vision. [As executive producer] I also keep track of the overall business side of the production.
And how did Max McLean perform as Lewis?
Max is C.S. Lewis. Through his years of award-winning theater work, he has come to embody Lewis on stage — and, now, on camera. It’s uncanny. This being his first film, we all wondered how the stage actor would translate those techniques to film. From the first day of filming, there was no more wondering. Under Norman’s direction, Max became the C.S. Lewis we all loved onstage and now on film. You can see how much he loves being Lewis. Now, he is one of those actors who can do both stage and film.
What are you hoping to achieve with this film?
We want a wider audience to understand the incredible story of Lewis. He is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and it’s important that everyone knows his work. People all know Lewis’ Narnia series, but there are so many more books, letters and poems that he has written. They have affected the faith of millions and inspired a deeper search for understanding of one’s own beliefs. The overall goal of the film was to be completely true to Lewis. That’s all. His story of a deeply examined journey from atheism to faith will continue to inspire people as they understand more about him.
Is Lewis — his life and faith — still relevant to a modern audience?
For me, Lewis tells it like it is: his struggle with faith, his journey to connect and remain true to himself, to share that honest path. It relates to everyone’s questions about life, whether you are a believer or agnostic. Just reading his honest stories and struggles with his own faith have helped so many teens. We saw it as we have been traveling around the country with the live theatrical production [of The Most Reluctant Convert] visiting universities. It has and can show that someone else on a faith journey faces many of the same questions that today’s young people are struggling with. Our hope is that the film will help them with their own journey. And don’t forget: Lewis has sold a quarter of a billion books and sells more each year than the last. He is completely relevant today.
Are there more Lewis-themed projects coming?
We’ll continue to tour the stage production of The Most Reluctant Convert. We are now in development for the next stage production in the trilogy of Lewis’ life following on from this. It takes off right after his conversion and dives in deeper to what he does now that he is a Christian. FPA is such an exciting company. Stay tuned! There are lots more exciting projects in the works!
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent.