The Man, The Myth & The Wardrobe
Filmmaker Moore Sinnerton dissects the life and work of the iconic author at the 2014 CS Lewis Festival
Your 1998 documentary film, The Man, The Myth & the Wardrobe, is set to be screened at the Strand Arts Centre on November 21 as part of the 2014 CS Lewis Festival. What drew you to Lewis as a subject?
Initially I wasn’t drawn to Lewis as a subject at all. Enthusiasts from a Bangor-based group set up to mark the author’s centenary approached me to see if I would be interested as a filmmaker specialising in history, the arts and politics. I knew little or nothing about Lewis – not always the worst point of departure for a documentary producer.
It was the writing that made me eventually say yes, notably his book Surprised by Joy, in which the author, academic and Christian apologist traces his journey from Atheism to Christianity. The book is also partly biographical and describes Lewis’ childhood and adolescence. He recalls standing on the Holywood Hills looking down on Belfast, and south and east to the Mourne Mountains.
I’m also certain that as I read on I could already hear the voice of actor Simon Callow, whom I would eventually cast as the voice of Lewis, alongside the equally distinguished Timothy West as Lewis’ loyal brother, Warnie.
The Northern Irish landscape greatly inspired Lewis' fantasy fiction. Was it the same for you as a filmmaker from a cinematographic point of view?
Some have argued that the Mourne Mountains were Lewis’ inspiration for the land of Narnia. For me they could just as easily have been the Atlas or the Appalachians – it was the writing which captivated me, not necessarily the home location.
You filmed the documentary in many of the places in which Lewis spent time teaching English and writing. How did filming go?
If Surprised by Joy sparked my interest in Lewis, it was on the road – if not to Damascus, to Malvern in Worcestershire – to set up filming that I found, if you like, my CS Lewis. We had turned on the car radio to hear Ian ‘I Couldn’t Possibly Comment’ Richardson reading The Screwtape Letters. After that I was hooked.
In Malvern we filmed at Lewis’ public school, Malvern College. In later years he would enjoy walking with friends in the Malvern Hills on condition that each day at noon, they would be in easy reach of a pub where he could enjoy his lunchtime pint.
In Oxford the film crew and I were delighted to spend time – for reasons of research and authenticity, of course – in the Eagle & Child pub in St Giles’ Street, the Bird & Baby as it was called by Lewis and his fellow Inklings, an informal collective of intellectuals which included [author of The Lord of the Rings] JRR Tolkien.
In addition to Lewis’ old Oxford college, Magdalen, we filmed in London and Belfast. Contributors include people who had been close to Lewis: his stepson Douglas Gresham, fellow east Belfast man David Bleakely, who knew Lewis at Oxford, and Walter Hooper, who kept the Lewis flame burning for decades, as well as best-selling children’s author Philip Pullman and biographer AN Wilson.
The film does honour to Clive Staples Lewis. But when it comes to biography – in print or on film – the only thing worse than a hatchet job film is a hagiography. Lewis deserves neither.
It is perhaps not general knowledge that Lewis was born and bred in east Belfast. Will the CS Lewis Festival help to change that?
Thanks to the promotional combination of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Eastside Arts – take a bow Roger Courtney and co – Lewis is now up there with Van Morrison and George Best as a favourite son of the parish.
You also filmed a lot in America. How is Lewis portrayed there?
In the United States we found that Lewis’ fondness for the odd pint and his perpetual pipe-smoking had been airbrushed from – or into – the Lewis myth. You get the picture when you see stained glass church windows dedicated to Belfast’s finest.
Wheaton College near Chicago was, if you will excuse the expression, a Godsend. Evangelist Billy Graham’s alma mater had hoovered up the greater part of the Lewis archive – manuscripts, letters, the entire family photographic archive – and, would you believe it, the wardrobe, transported all the way from Little Lea on Circular Road.
Lewis' journey from being an Atheist to a devout Christian happened later in life. How and why did that transformation occur?
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his conversion on May 26, 1926: '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.'
Explain why academics are divided with regards to Lewis' work, with many believing that his Chronicles of Narnia, in particular, are subversively Imperialist et cetera.
They’re no different in that regard from the rest of us. But remember, it’s not unknown for academics to resent colleagues who reach beyond the college walls to achieve great popular success within the wider community, as Lewis did with his BBC radio broadcasts and the Narnia books.
Is it possible to enjoy Lewis' children's books in the knowledge that they were written from a distinct Christian viewpoint?
Many people seem to enjoy them just as stories. People of faith, to use the current term, are presumably especially pleased about the Christian line in the books. Only grumpy Atheists like me and author Philip Pullman – who puts the case for the prosecution in the film – get het up about it.
What else does your documentary tell us about Lewis?
That there is a lot more to Lewis than the Narnia stories: he was an outstanding scholar, writer and an exceptionally popular broadcaster on the BBC during the Second World War. Also, from childhood, he called himself Jack.
The film is being screened as part of the CS Lewis Festival. Would Lewis have approved of such a festival?
Provided he could be guaranteed proximity to a decent pub for his daily lunchtime pint, probably yes. Just don’t tell visiting American devotees.
CS Lewis Festival runs in venues throughout Belfast from November 20 – 23.