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Embalmed Images: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Film

By Terry Lindvall, PhD
Mason Fellow of Religious Studies
The College of William and Mary

CBN.comOne of the more curious, and personally perplexing, passages in any film text occurs in James Monaco's How to Read a Film. In a section on film language dealing with the use of the freeze frame by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, 1959), Monaco writes, parenthetically: "Truffaut, by the way, is the C. S. Lewis of film punctuation." The line is both a compliment and a throwaway, with no context in which to clarify it.

One distant connection may have to do with Lewis' view of film, one that paralleled that of Truffaut's critical mentor and father figure, Andre Bazin. Truffaut learned film punctuation as well as a passion for films from this devout Roman Catholic film critic. Bazin guided the motley French coterie that became known as the nouvelle vague, the "French new wave." He was a theorist and critic who championed a realist aesthetic, of celebrating mise-en-scene and depth of field, especially in the films of Jean Renoir, and saw film as an asymptote of reality, an artistic approximation that gave insights into real life.

One of Bazin's pivotal essays was "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" in which he argued that if the plastic arts were psychoanalyzed, a fundamental factor in their genesis might well be "the practice of embalming the dead." Humorously, he suggested that the origin of painting and sculpture might be due to a "mummy complex."

The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defense against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone. The first Egyptian statue, then, was a mummy, tanned and petrified in sodium….It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life.

For Bazin, photography embalmed time. For C. S. Lewis, there was another kind of mortification, another "death in [the] camera." Not only was time embalmed; so was the imagination. The photographic image was a modernist invention, a technological bugaboo to a romantic classicist like Lewis. The Word was preferred over the image.

Some glib analyst might find Lewis' suspicion of the camera developed from his own experience with photographers. Erstwhile biographer Griffin recorded an episode in which Lewis was asked to pose and say cheese: "all Lewis did was freeze, petrified, like a frightened stag at the dawn of photography. His ruddiness, his sparkling eyes, his animated personality were not captured on the film; there was only a death-mask stillness on the prints."

While one does not usually see friendly or natural photogenic portraits of Lewis, one can easily recognize that the issue of death in the camera extends beyond vanity. Lewis' attack on the petrifying impact of the visual image on the imagination is rooted in a view of the power of the word to quicken, animate, and vivify the human capacity to know and understand truth beyond the material world. To his credit, Lewis did also confess to a bias against the cinema: "I read Don Camillo some years ago, but can't imagine how it could be made into a film. I suppose they drag some love story into it? (But then I'm, as you know, rather allergic to films.)"

The mediated image deals with surfaces. As such, in a Platonic fashion, the image resides in the realm of appearances, which according to the Greek's allegory of the cave is a land of deceptions. This is not to say that Lewis had gnostic or Manichean tendencies of a Baudrillard in such works as The Evil Demon of Images, or that he eschewed the role of the natural or incarnational in the image; rather, in his praise of Plato (no man can be called educated, he declared, until he has read the Republic), he recognized an eternal Truth beyond the natural world. And while there is another real world, a true home, this world is no illusion. As in The Truman Show, there is a reality beyond an artificial social system controlled by a prince of the air (waves).
Lewis distinguished between what was real and what was simulacral. In a poem titled Aubade, he wrote:

the sharpest cause
crowds assembled
to see Jail's black
flag running up.
--to see the real
--amid the swirl of
phantoms--films, broadcast,
propaganda, picture thinking--
Death, like cancer or
crime or copulation
stands out real.

Film existed among the swirl of phantoms that undermined knowledge. His own epistemological foundation was, in part, Socratic, drawing wisdom from the oracle at Delphi, to know oneself. That one thing which we know from the inside, he argued in Mere Christianity, is the self. When asked how he knew so much about moral theology and temptation in writing The Screwtape Letters, he simply confessed that he had an "equally reliable" way of learning: his own heart. Thus, observation regarding visual media stemmed from his own experiences, however limited, which offered insight into their superficial character.

From Lewis' own words and experiences, permit me to briefly outline three aspects of his observations on film that may shed light on our own relations to the world of flickering shadows. First, Lewis believed that the imagination is corrupted by excessive visual imagery of movies. A diet of Hollywood products shape and distort real experience, especially in ideas of love and sexuality. Second, Lewis reacted negatively to the cinema as a symbol of modernity, of all that was marked by the curse of Cain, Walt Disney, and a cult/culture of celebrity. Thirdly, Lewis did find in cinema illustrations for understanding important ideas; cinema could, like vulgar popular fiction, do good.


1933 seems to have been a busy year for moviegoing in the lives of the Lewis brothers. On August 17th the brothers went to see Cavalcade, a film of Noel Coward’s musical pageant the year before in London’s West End. It chronicled British history of two families. As play and film began so they ended, with champagne glasses raised, the families having survived the Boar War, the death of Queen Victoria, the Great War, and the shimmering of disillusioning twenties. A light sign spelled out the news; newsboys shouted the headlines. Stream rivets, loudspeakers, jazz bands, airplane propellers – the noise grew in decibels until, as Coward intended, the general effect was one of “Complete chaos.” As if to bring order of chaos, coming into focus on the screen was the Union Jack and the discord changed to “God Save the King.”

“I thought it would be historically interesting, and so I suppose it was; and certainly very clever,” wrote Lewis to Greeves. “”But there is not an idea in the whole thing from beginning to end; it is mere brutal assault on one’s emotions, using material which one can’t help feeling intensely. It appeals entirely to that part of you which lives in the throat and chest, leaving the spirit untouched. I have come away feeling as if I had been at a debauch.”

The effect of the mediated image was viewed as primarily visceral, an appeal to one's lower nature, not to one's soul. So, too, did Lewis find this primitive instinct sparked by seeing King Kong on September 1, 1933. As he "emerged squinting from the matinee…and walked up Beaumont Street, evaluation of the film was inevitable. Warnie felt that it was good a film as he had ever seen; the special effects were exhilarating. Fay Wray’s screaming still echoing in his ears, Jack wondered whether this was yet another cinematic debauch of the imagination."

"The film was certainly escapism at its hairiest. It was also a fairy tale, containing as it did morsels from beauty and the Beast as told by the Brothers Grimm. But was it not also a feast for the Freudians? Would they not call it a psychodrama of the collective unconscious? Wasn’t the hairy ape a symbol of the black man enslaved, the white man’s inability to dominate nature, sexual desire unsatisfied, love unconsummated?"

For Lewis, distorted ideas of love stemmed from the fictional illusions of cinema and other popular forms of romance, much too frequently. In Mere Christianity, Lewis challenged those who differed about his orthodox observations on marriage to “make quite sure that you are judging me by what you really know from your own experiences and from watching the lives of your friends, and not by ideas you have derived from novels and films.” He appealed to experience as one of the primary sources of true knowledge, as opposed to the amusement propaganda of the media. Experience, he argued, is colored through and through by books and plays and the cinema, and it takes patience and skill to disentangle the things we have really learned from life ourselves.

Lewis believed that spectators gleaned another spurious notion from certain fictional drama, namely "that 'falling in love' is something quite irresistible; something that just happens to one, like measles… But I am inclined to think that these irresistible passions are much rarer in real life than in books, at any rate when one is grown up… No doubt, if our minds are full of novels and plays and sentimental songs, and our bodies full of alcohol, we shall turn any love we feel into that kind of love: just as if you have a rut in your path all the rainwater will run into the rut, and if you wear blue spectacles everything you see will turn blue. But that will be our own fault.

The fact that the media both set the agenda and established norms of acceptable sexual behavior bothered Lewis. Reflecting upon St. Augustine’s tentative prayer, “Oh Lord, make me chaste, but please don’t do it just yet” Lewis asked why it is difficult to desire or achieve complete chastity. One evident reason was that “In the first place our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so “natural,” so “healthy” and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associates the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humor. Now this association is a lie." A culture surrounded by propaganda in favor of unchastity is not unlike the Hebrew children lured by the high orgiastic places of the Asherim and Baal. This idea that the imagination could be debauched was rooted in Lewis' discussion of two antithetical classical gardens.


In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen written around 1590 are contrasts of two alluring gardens and their respective imagery. Knight Guyon trots along like a character out of Monty Python and discovers competing delights in two distinct sites. In the Garden of Adonis, a paradise of grace, beauty, and joy, he spies naked damsels dancing in a ring. When they realize they have been espied, they vanish with due modesty. When Venus visits earth, she dwells in this garden where chastity, fertility and procreation co-mingle. The blessed Venus who dwells here brings forth a portrait of fresh fecundity, a fruitful earth teeming with vibrant life, spontaneous and delicious sexuality, ripe in its proper season.

In the artificial Bower of Bliss, however, the knight stumbles across imitation ivy as a cheap ornament that supplants the garden flora. What makes it of abominably bad taste is that the vegetation is made of metal. In the fountains and pools of the Bower, Guyon interrupts two young naked women, whose names could be Lolita and Fifi, who giggle and frolic in their bath as seductive exhibitionists, adolescent versions of those sirens that would woo a man to his death. There is the teasing promise of fun here, with a sort of cheap, nervous laughter that one finds in sleazy Las Vegas joints. Everything is twisted and bent here. When we view the hostess, Acrasia, herself, she is a portrait of lust, not, writes C.S.Lewis, "not of lust in action, but lust delayed, lust suspended."
We picture in this the whole sexual nature diseased. "Acrasia [her name meaning without control.] does nothing." She is merely seen posed on a sofa of roses like Theda Bara, leaning over her latest young male conquest, wearing only a semi-transparent piece of lingerie from Frederick's of (where else?), Hollywood, as though posing for an advertisement for some new pornographic film. She is there, like the cinema, observed Lewis, only for eyes, greedy, hungry eyes. There is "not a kiss or embrace in the island; only male prurience and female provocation." It is sensational, but not ultimately satisfying. One drools in the titillation, but finds no mutual fulfillment. Spenser essentially asks his reader: "What's wrong with this picture?"

This fun is not only nervously dull, but deadly. It is play in its darker, twilight hours, when goblins like South Park, Howard Stern, and Jerry Springer appear. For Spenser and Lewis, "evil is static, dull, repetitive, solemn, good is joyful, vibrant, alive…Evil exists in shadows. Good in Light. The Bower of Bliss is not art putting itself forward as art--announcing that it is merely made by the hands and imaginations of men and women--but often art trying to deceive--Art trying to substitute for Nature, saying this is the way life is." And the cinema, of all the arts, most closely approximates the illusion of reality.

Yet rather than placing all culpability on the cinema, Lewis argued for a theory of responsible reception, of receiving a work of art, rather than merely using it for one's own lusts and prejudices. In his Experiment in Criticism, Lewis distinguishes among those images that work on a person and effect a human transcendence from those which invite a pornographic or sentimental experience.

What the work of verbal art did was introduce one to new experiences, perspectives, vistas. The cinema on the other hand dealt for Lewis in stereotyped conventions that elicited standardized and conformist emotional responses. And spectators want the same generic experiences again and again. "But still more, they want the hieroglyph – something that will release their stereotyped reactions to moonlight (moonlight, of course, as something in books, songs, and films; I believe that memories of the real world are very feebly operative while they read)."

Actually Lewis believed that ordinary people were not so dumb as to be taken in by the excesses of the cinema. He recommended trying an experiment on "your grocer or gardener. You cannot often try it about a book, for he has read few, but a film will do just as well for our purpose. If you complain to him about the gross improbability of its happy ending, he will very probably rely ‘Ah. I reckon they just put in to wind it up like.’ If you complain about the dull and perfunctory love-interest which has been thrust into a story of masculine adventure, he will say ‘Oh well, you know, they usually got to put in a bit of that. The women like it.’ He knows, perfectly well that the film is art, not knowledge. In a sense his very unliterariness save him from confusing the two. He never expected the film to be anything but transitory, and not very important, entertainment; he never dreamed that any art could provide more than this. He goes to the pictures not to learn but to relax. The idea that any of his opinions about the real world could be modified by what he saw there would seem to him preposterous. Do you take him for a fool?"

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins – not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went – only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of the land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than a single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not fell that I been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) – the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember forever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

This was, for Lewis, the death of the imagination in the camera. But it was also a death that was accelerated by all things modern.


In The Abolition of Man, Lewis decried the loss of rationality and an objective sense of morality in modern life. No longer did the head rule the belly through the traditional chest of Magnanimity. No longer did tradition and history provide moorings from which citizens could measure their own moral and spiritual status. For modern people, "after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage."
The modern technological society stood as the great divide. "Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, come the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered."

Dinosaur that he was, Lewis lamented this fact. He rued the passing of the past as the "Man who passes sweet peas -- does not simply enjoy -- feels that this fragrance somehow deserves to be enjoyed. He would blame himself if he went past inattentive and undelighted… He will be sorry when he hears that the garden past which his walk led him that day has now been swallowed up by cinemas, garages, and the new by-pass." Hell itself was so configured. In The Great Divorce, a character is asked if the denizens of hell like where they are consigned: "As much as they'd like anything," he answered. "They've got cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements and all the sorts of things they want."

Other works of fiction by Lewis lend support to the argument that the cinema/nickelodeon was an odious symbol of modernity. In The Silver Chair, it is when she is in Underland, that Jill remembers the cinema. Earlier, Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is under the influence of the wicked White Witch. He announces with arrogance and glee that if he were king of Narnia, he would have a "private cinema."

What the modern cinema brought with it was an unrelenting assault of moving images. Thus a chief Lewis influence, G. K. Chesterton, mused that: "The only glimpse I ever got in my life of the hell of unbearable monotony, of something I felt I would rather die than endure, was in some of those films describing the fast and fashionable life of New York. Then for one instant I understand what is meant by the agony of being satisfied, or as we used to say, sated." In such a world of pell-mell speed and lack of seasons of reflection, Chesterton contrasted the imagination nourished on thought and that manipulated by media. "Imagination will teach [school children] how to live a quiet and humdrum life…"But it is strictly true that the larger is their Imagination, the less they will mind being locked up in the parlor; or, for that matter, in the coal cellar. The child who can see the pictures in the fire will need less to see the pictures on the film. The man who can make up stories about the next-door neighbor will be the less dependent upon the next day's newspapers."

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis echoed Chesterton's perspective. He found that the unliterary reader wants "only the Event." Unliterary twelve year old boys "enjoy narratives in which the verbal element is reduced to the minimum – ‘strip’ stories told in pictures, or films with the least possible dialogue." They demand swift-moving narrative in which something must always be 'happening' and like "‘strip’ narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events."

However, movement itself fascinated him, as evidenced in Lewis' praise of such pell-mell writers as Boiardo and Ariosto. In Perelandra, Ransom tastes the delight of the floating islands, an experience that could only be explained by film: he floated and rolled on "an island, if you like, with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it." Herein, even if indirectly, Lewis recognized the aesthetic value of the cinema in its "kinesis."


Of all the experiences of cinema and Hollywood that marked Lewis, one name periodically reappeared like a magical, but unwelcome, elf, Walt Disney. Lewis was eager to share his critical views of the animation genius' work. For example, regarding Disney's classic first feature film, Lewis found a mix of effects.

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy farce of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom , the avarice, not the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention. But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true marchen style. The good originality lay in letting us first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

Yet Disney's caricature of certain characters elicited a strong criticism by Lewis, one that revealed his idea that the visual image can dominate and stereotype our lively readerly imaginations. He confessed that he remembered: "delighting in fairy tales. I fell deeply under the spell of Dwarfs -- the old bright-hooded, snowy-bearded dwarfs we had in those days before Arthur Rackham sublimed, or Walt Disney vulgarized, the earthmen."

His criticism included not just what he saw as Disney's vulgarity, but its sentimentality, a very vexing quality. Yet he found Disney better than some. Complaining about the writer Thackeray, ("not because he preaches but because he preaches badly"), he added that he thought illustrations of Charles Dickens were depraved, and compared them to Disney. "Here, as in Walt Disney, it is not the ugliness of the ugly figures but the simpering dolls intended for our sympathy which really betray the secret (not that Walt Disney is not far superior to the illustrations of Dickens)." Lewis even complemented Disney as comparable to Du Bartas, a writer considered "Sunday reading" for Protestants in his age, feeding "attractive food" to the young imagination and young scientific curiosity of one who read him in childhood. "Bartasian" influence Lewis found even in Milton. Lewis wrote: "We feel du Bartas in all the quainter parts of Paradise Lost, where the universe is circumscribed with a pair of celestial compasses, or where the emergent beasts almost seem to have come from a film by Mr. Walt Disney."

The character most aligned with Disney did not escape Lewis' commentary either, most often in laudatory ways. "It would be prudish not to quote the passage, worthy of Walt Disney, where Juvenal describes the mysteries of the Bona Dea (which excluded all men) as a ceremony testiculi sibi conscius unde fugit mus (VI, 339) -- whence a (male) mouse hurries away, laden with the secret of it own virility." The irrepressible energy of Mickey made its merry mark upon Lewis, so much so that he inserted the mouse in another literary context.

But the trouble about Orillois that any bit of him which you cut off immediately sticks itself on again, and in Boiardo the conflict with Orillo leads up to the moment at which the knight has the ingenious idea of cutting off both his arms in quick succession, picking them up, and throwing them into a river. It is such a problem, and such a solution, as we should expect from Mickey Mouse.
Or, as has been demonstrated more recently by those thoroughly nasty and zany British boys, it is something we might expect from Monty Python.

Lewis remained suspicious, and even hostile towards the hegemony of the Disney mark. When Jane Douglas, an American actress and playwright, visited him in his rooms to discuss dramatizing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he responded unyieldingly: “Aslan is a divine figure,” he had written on June 19th to discourage her, “and anything remotely approaching the comic (anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy.”

Nevertheless, some fondness for things Disney remained. On August 13, 1948, the Lewis brothers went to the cinema to see Bambi, to satisfy their appetite for speaking animals. "The Disney film had been released in the United States in 1942, but it was only now premiering in England. Warren liked to the coloring of the seasons and Thumper’s fooling and Bambi’s feeling “kinda wobbly” on the ice; the forest fire was full of authentic animal terror. Especially pleasing to the brothers was “the prince of the deer, who without caricature, was given more than brutish dignity and majesty.”

The problem with Disney, however, was merely symptomatic of Lewis' complaint against all modern film: it tended to statically imprint its kinetic images on the blackboard of the mind. It would freeze the lively and animated mind of the young viewer with predigested and marketed images of various literary characters and images. It would embalm the vivacious imagination. (Filmmaker Disney, by the way, was allegedly frozen, not embalmed, which may not be relevant but is ironic.)

Our contemporary culture has privileged the image over the word. The word, in Jacques Ellul's language, has been humiliated; it has been supplanted in our epistemology. A pervading belief is that knowledge is acquired primarily by looking at the world through visual representation. The ascendancy of a technological image-based culture has redefined our social relations and our views of reality. We like to watch, as Jerzy Kosinski's character in Being There repeatedly confesses.

Our cultural obsession with watching has been documented, with the average US household keeping the television set on for more than seven hours a day. As Gary Edgerton writes:

There are slight variations depending on age, race, gender, socio-economic and educational background, but, by and large, the typical person in the United States viewed four hours and nine minutes of television a day in 1998. Put another way, the characteristic baby boomer will spend nine full years in front of the TV by the time he or she turns 65.

Communication scholars actually call this condition the "cultivation effect," contending that the more time people spend watching television, the more they misperceive the real world as being identical to the stylized version of things as presented on TV.
Yet this condition that pervades American society is not new. Images effect, tease, and provoke audiences into specific behaviors. In a poem entitled "Relapse," Lewis expressed this fact that images have consequences.

But images that grow
Within the soul have life
Like cancer and, often cut, live on below
The deepest of the knife,
Waiting their time to shoot
At some defenceless hour
Their poison, unimpaired, at the heart's root….

Kirk Douglas in Detective Story put it more bluntly:

"I'd give my soul to take out my mind, hold it under a faucet and wash away the dirty pictures you put there today."

The pervasiveness of the power of images to cultivate social behaviors can be seen in the worship of phantom heroes, those celebrities of the media like Walt Disney.


Lewis mocked media celebrities, especially those of Hollywood film industry. In his preface to Pilgrim's Regress, he disparagingly dismisses the Hollywood sense of "romance" as that which means merely a "love affair" among film stars.

Lewis' caricatures of movie stars as American idols were satirical. He found the public's obsession for them puerile and adolescent, with all the natural respect, awe and devotion of new boy fags for the Bloods or like the street urchin's dread of the police or "the fan's feeling for a film star." Fans invested their tinny little silver screen gods with laud, honor, and influence toward all that was meretricious and superficial. As the devil Screwtape saw it: "All the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue -- almost every film-star or crooner -- can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him.[to hell]. And all the ephemeral media were mostly culpable. Newspapers taught such insignificant vulgar and sensational things as "how an actress has been divorced in California" that fed the star-starved public such dribble.

In a bit of his own satire on such celebrity, Lewis praised the biting satire of Thomas Nashe. "The very qualities which we should blame in an ordinary controversialist are the life and soul of Nashe. He is unfair, illogical, violent, extravagant, coarse: but then that is the joke. When a half drunk street-corner humorist decides to make a respectable person ridiculous, it is useless for the respectable person to show that the charges brought against him are untrue--that he does not beat his wife, is not a cinema star in disguise, is not wearing a false nose."

In contrast to this effect by the cinema, of inventing and selling the false gods and goddesses of Hollywood for false worship, Lewis sought to liberate his readers to that which truly satisfies. "What my stories do is to liberate – to free from inhibitions – a spontaneous impulse to serve and adore, to have a ‘dearest dread,’ which the modern world starves, or diverts to film stars, crooners, and athletes.”


Lewis' exposure to films was evidently limited and his appreciation of them stunted. He mentions mostly early sound films, and black and white films. For example, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, written in the forties, he describes a picture of the ship on the wall: It "didn't look at all like a cinema -- the colours were too real and clean and out-of-door for that." His cinematic tastes were not that acute either. In a letter to an American lady, he actually wrote: "Didn't the flowers all say 'Good morning, Lawd!" in the (excellent) film of Green Pastures?" Yet with such aesthetic limits and disinclinations, Lewis would be the first to admit if you didn't love an object, you weren't really qualified to critique it.

Yet he could bring insight upon critical issues in film, such as their effects upon impressionable imaginations. He mocked, however, what he called the Vigilant school of critics. "To them criticism is a form of social and ethical hygiene. They see all clear thinking, all sense of reality, and all fineness of living, threatened on every side of propaganda, by advertisement by film and television." He mocked, for example, those whose critical hermeneutic would lead them to believe that "gangster films had undermined the desire to get right answers." Ultimately, Lewis found that the important thing about these politically correct, fierce idealists was "that when the political meeting or the literary movement can be endured no longer they fall plumb down to the cinema and the dance band."

Examining the moral problem of inclusion of certain objectionable passages in an unexpurgated publication of Pepys's Diary, Lewis asked if anyone might be led to "commit an immoral act which he would not have committed if [they had been] suppressed." He concluded:

No one can foresee the odd results that any words may have on this or that individual. We ourselves, in youth, have been both corrupted and edified by books in which our elders could have foreseen neither edification nor corruption. But to suggest that in a society where the most potent aphrodisiacs are daily put forward by the advertisers, the newspapers, and the films, any perceptible increment of lechery will be caused by printing a few obscure and widely separated passages in a very long and expensive book, seems to me ridiculous, or even hypocritical.

Lewis was neither cinephobic or anxious about the all-encompassing ill or deleterious effects caused by mediated stories. Fiction, even in film, could be beneficial. Reflecting upon Sidney's theory of poetry, Lewis found one element which has been too "cavalierly dismissed. His belief that poetry (by which he means fiction) can help men to be good now raises a smile; yet in a world where no discussion of juvenile delinquency is complete without a reference to the dangers of the film, this is surely very strange. Why should fiction be potent to corrupt and powerless to edify?" As Aristotle would argue about the art of rhetoric, the potential for good as well as evil was there.

Film was lowbrow; it was humbly part of popular culture as much as children's literature. But Lewis was no Matthew Arnold, lauding salvation by elitist culture. Filmmaking could be considered a sound and decent craft, one that follows the rules of art. Lewis found the pretentious attitude of obeying a "duty" to appreciate art fatal to good work:

Many modern novels, poems, and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into 'appreciating,' are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of this raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children's story. These are often sound structures; … skill and labour successfully used to do what is intended.

Where culture is passed on through casual exposure and personal discovery, the emergence of film as an alternative recreational opportunity for Lewis should not surprise one. "The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him. Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally as they now discover the local cinema."

Those who produced the cinema may be neo-pagans, but for Lewis they are better than the modernists. (What else is cinema about but the fruit of paganism in the worship of Baal, the Asherim, and Moloch: sex and violence?) In Pilgrim's Regress, the Landlord (essentially the God-figure of his allegorical world) gets messages through to the Pagans through "mostly pictures." Pagans couldn't read but "they had pictures," which for Lewis was an echo of Paul's letter to the Romans, where the invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature could be seen in the creation (1:20). Only the Pagans made the mistake of trying to get the same picture again and again, making graven copies that became idols, giving rise to the idea that only sequels are the roots of idolatry.


Lewis believed that Christians needed to translate their theology into the vernacular. Such a habit offered a tremendous service to one's own thought as well. "I have come to the conviction," wrote Lewis, "that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning." And Lewis recognized that cinema, like other forms of rhetoric, was a neutral art, able to be used for good or bad. The challenge was in developing the skills to use it for an effective communication of thought.

That Lewis considered film as possessing for the Christian a potential for good or for ill could be seen in his treatment of it on the level of marriage or beer. "One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. This is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons – marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

Stories and myths transcended form. It is true, wrote Lewis, "that such a story can hardly reach us except in words. But this is logically accidental. If some perfected art of mime or silent film or serial pictures could make it clear with no words at all, it would still affect us in the same way."

"Every art is itself and not some other art," Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism. As such, I believe he would have been more charitable toward cinema had he seen its development, particularly in international films. Elsewhere he required that any work of art, from a corkscrew to a cathedral, be judged according to its appropriate criteria.

Lewis seemed to recognize that the cinema offered its own proper aesthetic in narrative. Story was proper to film, as even as Lewis could find good in young boys reading cheap and vulgar literature in a certain way, there was also room for the cinema. "The pictorial imagination finds little to feed on in the Confession Amantis, but often this is because imagination of another kind, and a kind perhaps more proper to narrative, is brought into play. Gower does nor dwell on shapes and colors; but this does not mean that he keeps his eyes shut. What he sees is movement, not groups and scenes, but actions and events. In so far as he approximates to the visible arts at all, it is a cinematograph rather than a painting that he suggests."

But even in recognizing the value of the cinema, one must never think, or imagine, that he saw it as an alternative to literary fiction. "But I think Mr. Green is very much nearer the mark than those who assume that no one has ever read the romances except in order to be thrilled by hair-breath escapes. If he had said simply that something which the educated receive from poetry can reach the masses through stories of adventure, and almost in no other way, then I think he would have been right. If so, nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements that it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to imaginative world. There is death in the camera." The camera is still a very near danger to the lively imagination, embalming it without giving genuine immortality.

It is ironic that Lewis has become known to Hollywood through its own celluloid images in the movie Shadowlands. Yet the movie remains a video museum where a sentimental Lewis is embalmed on film. Even in this kinetic medium, his memory is static. But it is back in his words that one finds the life, the passion, the truth and the vitality of the real immortal man.

And now I wait with eager anticipation, with hope and a skip in my step, waiting to see Narnia recreated by Andrew Adamson, the director of the cheeky Shrek movies. For one, I think that he will at least bring out the drollery, whimsy, and deep humor of the Narnian Chronicles. He has the potential to make the movies not only funny, but also truly translate them in images that may not kill, but quicken all of our imaginations to see the compelling thrill of goodness. And what the truly talented Adamson is doing for Lewis -- what Lewis recommended all of us do, translate our theology into the vernacular. And today’s vernacular is, for better or worse, the visual image. And for once, in spite of all this theory, I am looking forward to experiencing the adventures of Narnia through another’s eyes.

Order your copy of Terry's book, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis

Terry Lindvall is the Mason Fellow at the College of William and Mary. He is author of several books on film, on C.S. Lewis and on laughter (most recently The Mother of All Laughter: Sarah and the Genesis of Comedy). His latest book, Sanctuary Cinema, will be released soon from New York University Press. He holds a PhD from University of Southern California and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Lindvall can be reached by e-mail at

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