Lord Richard Attenborough has sailed into the West at 90. Though mostly known from Jurassic Park (and as older brother of David Attenborough) he holds a dear place for Tolkien fans as the director of Shadowlands, a wonderful film about C.S.Lewis featuring the first cinematic representation of the Inklings group which Tolkien was part of. Lord Attenborough considered Shadowlands his most perfect work, and we can only hope that the two upcoming J.R.R. Tolkien biographical films will be made with as much care and passion as Attenborough put into his films.
There are many tributes and remembrances around the net celebrating his career as actor, director, executive and philanthropist. It is the 1993 film Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger where Attenborough’s talent shines as a storyteller of storytellers. The film is a biographical look at author C.S. Lewis and his relationships both personally and professionally. Importantly it is the first film to include the Inklings – a group of famed authors and writers which J.R.R. Tolkien was part of. Actor John Wood plays a loosely based figure of Tolkien through the character Christopher Riley. Although Riley/Tolkien is the fictional antagonist of the film, his portrayal includes Tolkien’s dialog from what we know of their relationship at the time.
Many biographies detail how John Tolkien helped bring his fellow author, Oxford academic and close friend Jack Lewis to Christianity, but was dismayed when Lewis chose the Anglican Church of England instead of Tolkien’s Catholicism. This would provide the significant break in their friendship; Tolkien’s Catholicism disapproved of divorce and was not supportive of Lewis’ marriage to Joy Gresham. Shadowlands focuses solely on that marriage and uses Tolkien’s own words and writings in the Christopher Riley character, saying ‘any book written faster than his own books couldn’t possibly be good–and Tolkien wrote slowly, very slowly; he never did finish the dictionary of Icelandic he promised for decades to Oxford University Press.’ (LA Times) Lewis’ brother Warren was more supportive, writing “For Jack the attraction was at first undoubtedly intellectual. Joy was the only woman whom he had met … who had a brain which matched his own in suppleness, in width of interest, and in analytical grasp, and above all in humour and a sense of fun.”
Lord Richard Attenborough was one of the very few directors or storytellers who could make an emotionally captivating film of a bunch of Oxford professors. Although Shadowlands deviates significantly from real life in some of the character portrayals, Lord Attenborough provides careful directorial attention in bringing this important literary era of Oxford to life.
Shadowlands is close to a perfect film and Richard Attenborough rightly considers it his most perfect work of his career. It demonstrates a nuanced control of the material – the retelling of C.S. Lewis’ late blooming. Even the antagonist, a Tolkienesque figure, is portrayed respectfully without falling into caricature. Films such as Shadowlands, Chaplin and Gandhi prove that Lord Attenborough is one of the greatest biographical storytellers Hollywood has seen. With TWO distinct biographical films in development on the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, studios and filmmakers would be smart to carefully study Lord Richard Attenborough’s biographical output.