Actor Max McLean will never forget the first time he read The Screwtape Letters by legendary author C.S. Lewis.
Shortly after his conversion to Christianity in his mid-20s, McLean was given a copy of Lewis’ 1942 book by a friend. The book features instructions from a devil to his nephew, “Wormwood,” on ways to tempt followers of Christ.
“And I read one page, and I said, ‘I know this guy. This guy has been in my life for a long time, and now he was exposed.’ And the way Lewis exposed him, he made spiritual warfare very real,” the 68-year-old McLean told The Christian Post.
“Being an adult convert, you bring a lot of doubts and baggage with you because … belief is hard,” he continued. “People that are raised in a faith, their souls, their conscience are formed. That belief becomes an integrated part of who they are. An adult convert has to undo so much. And Lewis had the same experience. So he just helped guide my way.”
What followed for McLean was a decades-long exploration into the life and works of the late Christian author. An acclaimed theater actor, the New York native has since spent much of his life adapting Lewis’ work for the stage, from The Screwtape Letters to The Great Divorce.
Most recently, he adapted Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, into a play titled “C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert.”
“[Lewis] captured my imagination at a very early age; he’s become my spiritual guide. He’s allowed me to see Christianity from a vantage point that captures my imagination in a huge way,” McLean reflected.
“He had a steel trap mind where he remembered everything and had this wonderful ability to articulate it into this glorious prose and speech. So, to be able to articulate those words after him, especially for a 21st-century audience, is just a tremendous blessing and honor.”
Now, “The Most Reluctant Convert” has hit the big screen.
Titled “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis” and released by the Fellowship of the Performing Arts, the film stars McLean as Lewis. The work traces the author’s journey from passionate atheist to one of the most influential Christian writers of the past century.
Initially in theaters nationwide for one night only on Nov. 3, the movie garnered more than $1.2 million in box office sales and captured the highest per-screen average.
The film’s popularity prompted the addition of theaters and date expansions. Distributors announced the film will now run through Nov. 18 nationwide.
In addition to U.S. expansion, “The Most Reluctant Convert” will also release as a special event in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom and Canada.
The film, which theologian Tim Keller said moved him “to tears,” dramatizes some of the events that led to a young Lewis’ (Eddie Ray Martin) atheism — from the death of his mother to his traumatic experience in the trenches of World War I.
“Lewis lost his mother at 9 years old to cancer, had a terrible relationship with his father,” McLean said. “He saw the brutality of World War I, the butchery of it. And he came to the conclusion as a result of that, either there’s no God behind the universe, a god indifferent to good and evil, or worse, an evil god. So that was his starting point.”
The movie was filmed in 18 locations in and around Oxford, England, where Lewis was a tutor in English literature. Scenes were also filmed at his college, Magdalen, and his home, The Kilns, where he wrote his Narnia books.
The film follows Lewis as he grapples with questions of God’s existence and the impact his friends, including The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, had on his faith journey.
Both scholars were “iron sharpening iron all the way through the ice,” McLean posited. He added that Tolkein appealed to Lewis’ intellect and imagination, giving him a way to understand Jesus.
“[Lewis] said … ‘If I find myself in desire that no experience in this world could satisfy, the most probable explanation is I was made for another world.’ And that other world is what he was always drawn to and helped others to see as well,” McLean said.
For the role, McLean extensively researched Lewis and also memorized hours of his quotes and writings. An avid truth-seeker, Lewis was a “huge personality who “sucked the air out of the room when he came in,” the actor said.
“He was bigger than life,” he contended. “Before he was a Christian, he was stubborn and bullish. So, he had to tame that. … He channeled it; he humbled himself.”
Though he died in 1963, Lewis remains one of the best-known Christian authors around the world. Over the years, his fiction writings have been turned into numerous family-friendly film and TV projects, including a 1988 BBC version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and three movies produced by Sony Pictures that grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide.
Through his writings, Lewis was always trying to point readers “upward and onward” and instill in them a desire for a country beyond this earthly one, McLean explained.
“Lewis’ staying power is because of his ability to capture the imagination about this other world, to get us beyond the here and now, this world. He wants us to think of the next world. … It was the way he expressed the other world that made me fall in love with him because it makes me want to go there.”
Through “The Most Reluctant Convert,” McLean said he hopes viewers “see the God that Lewis sees” while also watching his journey from “vigorous debunker to true believer.” Lewis’ story, he said, proves that many of the mental blocks people have to Christianity have good responses that can open their hearts to following Jesus.
Leah M. Klett is an editor for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org