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EPISODE 41: The Power of Film
If you’ve seen the recent movie The Most Reluctant Convert, you’ve seen the artistic skill of director Norman Stone. On this podcast Norman shares his perspective as a Christian and a director about the unique genre of film and why it moves us so much.
The Most Reluctant Convert movie
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I am delighted to have as my conversation partner today, Norman Stone. Norman is the director of the recent great film The Most Reluctant Convert. He's done a number of films, a number of documentaries. He was with the BBC for quite a while. We're going to link his bio in the show notes, so you can find out about him and the work that he's done and is doing. Norman, welcome to Questions That Matter.
I'm glad to be here.
So, a lot of us who are listeners to this podcast really, really loved The Most Reluctant Convert, that film. I interviewed, or had a conversation with, Max McLean on this podcast, and he said, “Oh, you've got to talk to Norman,” so here we are talking. You're in Scotland. I'm in Annandale, Virginia. But I'm delighted to make the connection. Let's start with… in the most, I don't know, abstract kind of way, about the genre of film. What is it that has drawn you to film? And what is it that you love about this unique art form?
It is perfect for storytelling. I was once asked how I became a director, by a secular interviewer when I'd done a film for the BBC. And I thought, “Goodness, it was my grandfather.” And when, at the age of three—we didn't have a television. We were well brought up, and we were separate from everything like that. And I sat on my granddad's knee—it's my earliest memory— and he told me a story. Lovely Christian guy, Christian probably made up. And I saw pictures. And that magic still is amazing. I could say something to you: “The red-headed giant with a big green coat came racing down the hill towards the fire. The night was dark, but there was a bull coming in the other way with sharp, sharp horns.” I do that to a little kid, his eyes go, or her eyes go. They see it. Now, that magic ingrained personal cinema shook me. I didn't realize… that was the first time I remember it happening. I could see pictures, though they weren't there. That absolutely hooked me. And I ran to my granddad's knee. He died when I was six. But I had so many stories, and I used to watch his lips and see pictures.
When I then ended up—long story, through art college, and so on—doing film, it was just such a natural fit. I love stories and pictures. That's why I love film. And the things you can do with them, heavens, we haven't even really started to explore, in spite of what Netflix or Steven Spielberg may tell you. There’re so many more things to do with it. And it's a great way to talk to people and stimulate their own pictures that they will get.
There was a lady at the BBC, when they first went into television. They were asking questions. They were very proud that they had been BBC radio. And now they had television. And they interviewed people on the street outside, and everyone said, “Yes, jolly good, very nice. Yes. Television is wonderful, the thing of the future.” And one old lady said—this is true— “I don't like it.” And they said, “Come, come, Madam. You don't like television? I mean, we only had radio before.” “I prefer radio.” “Why do you prefer radio?” And she said, “The pictures are better.” And she was right. So often that is right. And that film making gets in the way of story. That's all I'd say. Whereas we have to leave a room for the imagination.
Oh, man. And I've heard quite a few people tell me that they've been disappointed so many times when they've seen a film based on a book that they loved. In fact, I've known people who, if they started making films on a series of books, and they loved the books, they saw one of the first films and they said, “No, I'm not going to see any others. It ruins the images that I had.”
But there still is a great place for film, especially when the film is the first iteration of it, so to speak.
Oh, sure. Yes, that's true. But it is a genre that is not book. It is a genre that is not radio. It is a genre that is not theater. It's a genre that is not a storyteller walking through your town telling stories. It is film. And when you get it right, I think there's very little to beat a good, well told, stimulating story. And that's why I fell in love with it. I went to art college, went through graphics, illustration, animation, and ended up in film. And it was like falling in love, what I was meant to do. So, yeah, I'm a very happy bunny. I've been doing this for a long time, and I love it. And the Lewis thing, The Most Reluctant Convert, was wonderful, because I had the freedom to tackle a different genre, invent a different genre in some ways, more Dickensian than anything.
When Dickens in A Christmas Carol wrote about Scrooge getting visited by the three spirits of Christmas, it was very similar. The Spirit of Christmas Past, of course, takes him to the school, where he sees himself as a child left behind at Christmas, before his sister comes and takes him home. And it's tragic and wonderfully moving, all the more so because the old, unrepentant at that point Scrooge is watching himself before he ruined his life. And that's a very strong, potent thing. And I'd never seen it done on film in the way I decided to do it before, and it worked. It fitted.
Oh, it really did work well. But I'm so glad you pointed that out. I'm going to go watch the film again. Because, yes, I saw that, but no, not as clearly as you just showed it to me. What else do you want… what is it your hope is when people watch a film that you've made? What is it you hope they see? Or what are the connections you hope they make? Just like what you just said there, of looking back through the same eyes.
I think I want to make the viewer feel so much that they can't help but think. I think that's one thing I'd say. I also think I want them to… Sorry. It does touch the heart very quickly. And I think, when it's handled irresponsibly, that can be abused. When it's handled responsibly, it’s the most wonderful thing, like a good storyteller. I also think that, in fact, it was after the original Shadowlands. I did the original Shadowlands in 1984, and somebody said, “What are you trying to do?” They're always asking me these questions clearly. “What is your intention?” And I said, “To swing open the library doors.” Because Lewis, more than most people I’ve made films on and about, he has got such a good library of his progressing thought, through from his first initial conversion, right through to his last year. And that's what I'd like to do. It should be a relationship with the storyteller and the audience. And even if they're separated by film screens or for television or whatever, they should want more.
As Christians, we always try to force feed people until they can't take any more. Wrong. That doesn't work. They'll throw up. Or walk away. Yet we do it all the time out of the best intentions, forgetting good theology and why God is indeed sovereign and all these things and says, “Just obey Me.” Instead, “No, no, we can do better than that! We can have a really pushy thing at the end, and everyone in the nation will become a Christian.” If you ever get a five-second Jesus commercial that has a nation on its knees, tell me. I'll call you a heretic. I don't think that's part of the deal. We respect people. We talk to them, we shine light where they wouldn't normally shine, and they step forward themselves under the Spirit of God. And that's wonderful. But try and do the whole job, try and build the whole wall instead of a brick in the wall, try and break the system, you’ll get bruises and breakages. That's what you do.
And yet relentlessly, in the thing—I'm going to be cruel here, but the so-called Christian film industry, it has a great reputation for making lousy movies. That’s because they've never got it right. They don't get it right. It isn't up to us. We have to tell the truth in a God-centered universe and not step back from anything we have to say, good or bad. And we center our faith on Jesus, and we tell the truth. If we can’t be trusted to tell the truth, why should they listen to us? And I will make a film about any subject you care to mention. I'm currently developing a feature film about child prostitution in Victorian England. Now, there’s not something for your Bible study. Yes, it is! Face it, you live in the real world. Find out what goes on. Three Christians brought the Victorian government to its knees and rescued these horrible situations with these kids, that you now see happening out in the Ukraine, with people almost kidnapping wives and children and prostituting them. Can't talk about that. It's so uncomfortable.
Jesus didn't die for nice people. Do you not know that? And therefore, if we don't talk reality, if we don't face reality, if we don't biblically approach it and embrace it and say, “Lord, show us what,” then we're not doing our job. And if I see one more Christian film where everything turns out nice and rosy in the end and the right person becomes a Christian or whatever, I just want to say, “Stop. Stop! You’re ruining yourselves and the reputation.” I can talk harder, if you'd like, about that, but….
I get the idea I've touched a nerve. Well, no, I love what you're saying, although I'm grieved, as you're saying, because I think you're exactly right. The role that I play, so to speak, at the C.S. Lewis Institute, is a great deal about apologetics and evangelism, and I regularly want to say we need to remember that we're not the only characters on the stage, so to speak, just us and them. God is superintending, and He’s the director, if I can. And so, we want to trust that God will do the vast majority of it and He’ll use us as characters to speak our lines, but we need to trust that it's not totally up to us, because you're right, what we do is we badger people over the head with saying too much, and you're right, cramming it down their throats.
We shout in their ears, as if they're deaf. And is it a surprise that they cross the road when this is coming next time? It isn't. And I think also, there's another thing, since we're talking in these depths, which is lovely. I think earning the right to be heard is probably one of the most underappreciated facts in film. I made the original Shadowlands because I had been making a film about a blind and deaf Cornish poet, an old guy who had been deaf and blind for 25 years when I met him, and he was a very respected poet and a great Christian, probably closer to God than anyone I've ever met, and he hadn't heard or seen for 25 years, a quarter of a century. He's dead now. But that went down very well with the ordinary secular audience. You know why? Because he'd earned the right to be heard. When he talked about knowing God and his extraordinary story, people took it really seriously, because he wasn't kidding. He'd been to hell and back without being able to see and hear, and yet there he was. And I thought, “That was really successful! Who else do I know who's earned the right to be heard?” And it took me two and a half seconds to think C. S. Lewis. That’s what Shadowlands was about. It was about imperfect, life, pain, suffering, and yet joy in every sense of the word, I suppose with his wife, at the end. But you get the feeling that people… You have to tell them happy stories so often. Happy stories. Well, actually, we all know that life isn't always happy. So, when Shadowlands came out, it was hugely successful, because people related to the pain and the suffering, and they believe its truth. I cannot emphasize the word truth enough, because you can't trip God. You don't want to duck the Bible, and you don't want to duck the Holy Spirit, either. When He’s saying, “Tell them the truth, you do.” And if you don't, you're the equivalent of a washing machine salesman, telling people that it'll work much better when you know it won't.
If you use a smartphone or a voice assistant like Alexa or Siri, or if you've gone through airport security, or you’ve shopped online. Come on, who hasn't? That's all of us. Then, whether you know it or not, you've already encountered artificial intelligence, or AI. But I bet a whole lot of us don't really know what AI is, or what are the pros, the cons, what are the ethical implications and what the future is going to look like in light of these developments. Well, we're delighted, as the C.S. Lewis Institute, to have our good friend, Dr. John Lennox, who is always brilliant and winsome. He's going to answer some of these questions and provide clear understanding of what AI is, where it's heading, and then some thoughts about how followers of Jesus can and should respond in the way our world is being shaped by and influenced by and changed by artificial intelligence. John Lennox answers a lot of these questions, and we think it's going to be a great resource for you. It's free, but you do need to register. So please go online to our Website and sign up for this event. Thanks.
A brick in the wall. A washing machine salesman. These are the images, and by the way, they are creating images for me that are going to stick. I want to make sure our listeners know: You put together, you presented this film, Shadowlands. It was the original one. It was the one starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom. It was not the one that's probably more famous, and the one that might come to people's minds here in America, with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger. Quite a few people, and I would strongly agree, say yours was far, far better.
Well, it’s truer. There we are. We were talking about truth. It was truer. When I was invited along to the… It was a BAFTA screening, it was just coming out, and I was astonished at the lack of faith, lack of the actual truth about Jack and Joy’s faith. I'm telling secret stories out of school here, but I was sitting just behind my friend Bill Nicholson, who went on to write Gladiator and stuff, but he'd been the author with the producer and myself, and Bill wrote. We all combined on the script. I'd been wanting to do the film for two years. Bill comes on, we work together, and we get the original Shadowlands. And I noticed at the screening of the second Shadowlands, that the Christian faith was somewhat missing. And to cut a long story short, when he faced me, I said, “Where did it go?” And he said, “Well, actually, the people who are trying to make money off this and sell it thought that it might not attract the Jewish audience or the Muslim audience and so on, if you bang on too much about Christianity.”
But I said, “Actually, Bill, that's totally untrue.” When you look at the story you're telling, Lewis was a Christian. Sorry to disappoint, and therefore be honest with that,” but Dickie Attenborough, the man, Sir Richard Attenborough, we call him Dickie, who's dead now. But he really didn't believe in Christian faith, and he had all that imagery in that second film of opening it, the little boy kneeling by Lewis, a grown man in Anthony Hopkins, with his tiny pajamas, kneeling down and praying by his bed, just like a little kid, opening the stuffy windows so you can let the air in, and soon he'll get better from that Christianity. The last scene, walking across Happy Valley, with one little lad scampering in front of him, because they only had one child in that story. And Lewis plodding along behind with his Christian luggage. Don't worry, I feel sure he'll lose it soon. He'll be such a nicer person. That was the sort of feeling about it.
So, although it's a lovely film, and there are a lot of truths in it, I think it is a less than true film, because it did deliberately, and what's worse, for the financial side of it to work, they left out so much of the Christian faith, which I think we'll find is there in the original version of 1984. It will be online somewhere.
Oh, yes. And it's almost as if…. Well, we could go off on this for far too long, and we shouldn't. But our world can handle pain and grief and doubt and losing of faith. They don't seem to have a category of pain and difficulty and suffering and still clinging onto the faith, which is what Lewis did. And that's what he wrote about so strongly in A Grief Observed.
Sure. It didn't end with hallelujah choruses and salvation ringing from the bells in heaven. It ended very bleakly still. We forget that.
And yet still gripping on and hanging on, but you're right. Gripping on, not with the Hallelujah Chorus, but also not abandoning and being hopeless. It's that afflicted, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not despairing. Cast down, but not forsaken. It’s, “I believe. Help me in my unbelief.” It's that kind of claim.
Absolutely. And it's that word truth again. We know that's true. And I have to say, and I won't bang on about it anymore, but what reason do they have to not believe that Christians have that other aspect? Because, in what we have fed them and even told them, it's Happy Valley that never ends. That is not true, as you will see, because we're about to do more on Lewis. Lewis's middle years and the end years. He is not a perfect man. This is not a perfect story. But we are in the same ilk, therefore we’re helped greatly and should be. It's just learning to let go, let God, and tell the truth.
All right. So, I think you snuck in a little commercial there. So, you're working on another film about Lewis?
Is it too early to do the promo? Come on, let's do it.
Scoop here, but I like you very much, so I'll tell you. It looks like we're going to be doing… we're certainly exploring the possibility of doing two more, so we would have a C.S. Lewis trilogy.
Oh, nice! With Max McLean in all of them? Or some of them?
Yes, that's the plan. Nothing has been signed, settled, and sealed. But yes, that's the plan. Because there is so much more to say, and it will be in the truth market. It was interesting. I said Bill Nicholson earlier, he's a great writer, and when he saw The Most Reluctant Convert, he wrote me a very, very warm and personal letter explaining how he'd been challenged and wanted to think it through more and what, what, what, what, what, and talk. And I had the same experience when we did the original Shadowlands. People who had never opened up about their faith or lack of it, especially the lack of it, but had perhaps gone through terrible losses and deaths of people they love it, etc., etc. They had no barriers to opening up about that. So, what has been wrong with us people, supposedly Christian communicators, that they didn't come first to that and say, “Tell us what it's like,” and so on. So, I think Lewis has got a very interesting role in our current society, with the world, as they say in Britain, going to hell in a hand-basket in so many ways, because he has earned the right to be heard. He’s gone through it, and he has an intelligence and a faith that communicates still, in what you'd call common man's language with deep, deep knowledge.
And I put it this way: I don't know what it was like when you are doing the biggest times of COVID, and it hasn't gone yet, of course, but everyone knows that Lewis went up to the BBC in London from Oxford, into the Blitz, to talk to people about the Christian faith. Mere Christianity was one of the results from that, his book Mere Christianity. And when you think about that, why on earth did pub owners in Britain shout out, “Quiet, everybody! Mr. Lewis is on the radio.” And they had to shut up and sip their beer in quietness while his broadcasts were in pubs. Every time that happened. And why was that? Because people—I'll tell you why. People were coming to face their lack of immortality or the reality of immortality, reaching their immediate death potentially at any turn. Mrs. McCafferty down the road got blown up by a Nazi bomb.
Since that time, since the Blitz in London, since that awful, you didn't know what was going to happen next. How long have you got to live? I would say that the massive impact of COVID and the deaths we certainly seen over here and who knows, may do again. People suddenly realize that they're not meant to be just fodder for the production line and good materialists and buy another car and live in a nice house, and that's what it's all about. Keep eating. They realize that there's more to life. There's got to be more to life than that. They're facing death. The next-door neighbor did perhaps die or get extraordinary ill. Everyone knows somebody. So suddenly Lewis's electric but steady talking about these things in 1942, around that time, is back. It's come back, where people are looking around and thinking, “Goodness, people have been hit with this! Goodness, my cousin died, as did my uncle, as did my father,” and I think he hits the right bell, because in things like A Grief Observed or in Mere Christianity, which began with the radio things, as I say, he's telling the truth. It sounds very simple, doesn't it? Yet we've made it very difficult in wrong communication.
Are you a fisher of men? Do you want to be a fisher of men? Do you struggle with this call that Jesus places on us to be fishers of men? Discipling others is also a significant part of that whole enterprise, and it's a way to abide in Christ. It's a way for us to know Christ more fully, become more like Him, and participate in His work of building his kingdom. So, as we disciple, we become coworkers with Jesus. As He helps us mature, He allows us to help Him mature others and nurture them towards reproduction and expanding of His kingdom. And so, we have many free small group resources on our website, many different things to help you in this discipleship process, both to grow as a disciple and to disciple others. So please check out Study Courses.
I'm reminded as you're talking, there's one part in the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape is trying to train Wormwood, and he's saying, “I see why you're so excited that there's a war, because there's so much suffering and death, but, you know, this actually works against us, because the reality of death is undeniable. People are seeing it right there, and that's not what we, as demons, want. We want people forgetting about death. We want them being told lies by their doctors and by everybody that, ‘Don’t worry, everything's going to be fine,’ and a war takes that possibility away.” So, again, he's looking at it from the opposite side, but making a very, very powerful point.
And he's been doing very well at it, as well, hasn’t he? I mean, in this Victorian film I'm researching and looking at, in those days, they worshiped death, and they wouldn't talk about sex. Now we worship sex, and we don't talk about death. And it takes someone like this to rattle that up around the other way. Both are wrong, both extremes are wrong. But, my goodness, you can't not talk about death if you live in Ukraine. You can't not talk about death if you've seen six of your family collapse with bad conditions and COVID virus. And there will be more.
So, Lewis, I think, is attuned to an audience where they are beginning to think. That’s what originally those BBC things did, and his books since then have obviously done the same. But we shouldn't hog him, as we say in Britain. We shouldn't say, “Oh, he's just ours. He’s ours.” No, he has got the common touch, the common tongue, and you can agree with him, you can disagree with him, but he will engage you with his books. And therefore, I say again, after all these years since I was asked that in 1984, I want to swing open the library doors. And also tell the truth.
I'm writing this down. Another image that just came visually powerfully to me. Swinging open the library doors. I love it! Let me ask you this: I noticed on your film productions website, it said that you decided to work on the film about C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands. It said, “This gripping film drama on the love and grief of C.S. Lewis was the result of over four years of personal study and research.” Can you tell us a little bit about those four years of personal study and research? But don't take four years to do it because we have a time . . .
I left the BBC. I’m very old. I left the BBC to go freelance in 1980, having just done the film I mentioned, about the blind and deaf Cornish poet called Jack Clemo. And I wanted to do something that equally earned the right. It seems to me drama is a high form of communication. We're all interested in stories. Let's find stories that earn the right to be heard. So, my first thought was to get the whole of C.S. Lewis, his life, into 60 minutes, every single bit of it. And that was an ambitious and rather… I was perhaps not wise in those days. It worked in a fashion, but it didn't please me or anybody else particularly.
Then, I went to ITV, not the BBC, and wrote, with a wonderful guy called Brian Sibley, the first proper script, not known as Shadowlands. We called it Some Call It Joy, is what we called it. And that came back with tear stains literally on the script. And the sad note that Diane Potter, that was her name, I remember who’d commissioned this, had been moved sideways. Everyone had been moved sideways in ITV. They were changing the whole of what we called in Britain the religious departments. So, she had no doubt that it would happen, but sorry, they can't do it, much as she would kill to make it, et cetera, et cetera.
Then it had a bit of a stall, except I went to meet…. It wouldn't let you go. The best ones don't let you go. So, I went down to meet Walter Hooper. I went around in Oxford. I found more and more about things. And when the opportunity came to do it for the BBC, which was at the end of that four years, I took it with both hands. I mean, I remember we'd done a film about Martin Luther using Jonathan Price. Martin Luther, Heretic we called it. And that was the first time that Bill Nicholson and the producer, David Thompson, and I had worked together, and everyone wanted more. So, I said, “I've got an idea,” and we had a little threesome discussion. And so, “What is it?” I said, “It’s about an author called C.S. Lewis and Narnia.” “And what's the story?” “Well, it's about his relationship with Joy David, and she gets cancer, but she gets better, but then she gets it again, and she dies.” It was the worst pitch in the world.
Boy, that is bad. Tell me more.
So after about ten seconds of silence, I said, “We've been thinking about John Bunyan, actually,” and the conversation went elsewhere, but the opportunity came to discuss it a bit more, and we made it. We had a window of opportunity. We made it for a very small amount of money, but it was probably my best fun and most gratifying piece of film work I've ever done in my life. It came out of the back area. You just didn't know. It wasn't in the BBC great award-winning drama studios. It was put together, and all we had was modicum of skill and a lot of enthusiasm and a commitment to the truth. And that's when we specialized purely in the Joy and Lewis story. I think there's much more to Lewis, as we will test that out if I do the trilogy.
Oh, good, good, good. Well, we could talk for hours, but I need to kind of wrap things up. I wonder if you can just comment on this: When I talked with Max McLean about the making of The Most Reluctant Convert, the film, he was comparing it to when he had done it so many times as a one-man drama on stage. And he said, “You know, when it's on stage, it's a product primarily of the actor, but a film is primarily the product of the director.” And it was one of those insights that, well, I never would have come up with that, but once he said it, well, now I can't not see it. Comments on that from your perspective?
Well, I think it’s true, but I think the real, deeper truth is that the best cases are when it's made by both the director and the actor. Now, when Max is on stage, unless you're going to go on there with a hook and pull him off, it's his kingdom. It is a collaborative affair in director, cameraman, crew, lighting, design, everything, anyway. It’s a hugely collaborative form. And when the actor comes along and is part of that, you either cast them because of whatever reason you wish to, or in this case, Max began by saying, “I don't think I should be in this. I don't think I should do this.” You're thinking of getting some “famous actor” to do it. And I said, “I'd rather it was you,” because he understood him from a Christian perspective, because he's a fellow brother as well. But he also knew him well. He performed a fair bit of Lewis's stuff, but he had it in his own heart. It was his own life. It was his own faith as well. That doesn't mean propaganda. Going the opposite direction to that. It means understanding.
And therefore, I really think Max understands C.S. Lewis. And I think that when you go into a bigger operation, it's like living in a house where you're the only one in it, in the middle of the country, and you can do what you want in that house. Going into the film is going beyond the suburbs, into the center of the city, and talking to people. And then it's not the same. You have a group thing. And yes, it needs creative skills. It’s a different format, a different genre. But it also means, if everybody—and this is the truest thing I will say to you, to end up with. If everybody is making the same film, it's wonderful. That's when it works. Too many films—there's two problems with Netflix and other places now: One is it will have people not making the same film, because the executive producer will phone in from north LA and tell you this is going to happen. It's just stuff. And the other thing is that there are so many special effects in films these days and so many millions involved in making films these days, and you will have understood this as well if you watch film. You can lose the story in dollars. You can actually lose the story, because what you're doing—I've seen a person tell a story straight to camera, and it's gripped me, and I've seen many hundreds of millions of dollars spent to bury a story, and they didn't mean to. Their eye goes off the ball.
So, you go back to Jesus, always, you go back to Jesus telling a parable, and we’re still mesmerized by them and hit by them and challenged by them today. Where's the cameras? He just did it, one on one, or one on a group. And that is what we mustn't lose.
Oh, my. Well said. And I think we'll draw to a close here. I certainly hope and pray the Lord gives you lots more films to make, especially these parts two and three of that C.S. Lewis trilogy. We'll have you back on Questions That Matter when those come out and hear your perspectives on those. You've given us a lot to think about and a lot of ways to watch film more meaningfully and more deeply. So, thank you so much for joining us on this.
To my listeners, I want to say thanks for listening, and we hope that all the resources that we have at the cslewisinstitute.org website will help you grow in your discipleship of heart and mind. Thanks so very much.