Last year brought the welcome news that author N.D. Wilson had been tapped as the screenwriter for the film adaption of C. S. Lewis’s classic The Great Divorce. Now that he’s completed a first draft, he was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Tell us a bit about The Great Divorce. When did Lewis write it and why?

Lewis wrote the book near the end of WWII, and it was serialized by a Christian periodical. The title is Lewis’ potshot at William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. (Lewis humbly claimed that he wasn’t even sure what Blake meant—but he was apparently sure enough to contradict him.)

The book is set in the afterlife, but it isn’t about the afterlife. In a series of episodes, we follow the narrator through Hell and onto a bus headed for the outskirts of Heaven.

The stories are fundamentally comedic and zoom in on the pettiness of sin, the narcissism of Hell, and the impossibility of goodness apart from Grace (among other things).

Lewis’ genius also comes out in how he upends traditional Christian perspectives on Heaven and Hell—Heaven being radically physical and dangerous (as opposed to ethereal and fuzzy), and Hell is a boringly spiritual place full of soft—but false—comforts (whatever house you want, but it won’t keep the rain out).

Throughout the work, Lewis’ prose is absolutely lovely, and his characterizations are as potent as they are brilliant.

And, of course, in typical Lewis fashion, he drew inspiration for his vision of Heaven from an American pulp sci-fi story about time travel.

How do you take a set of episodes and turn them into a coherent story while being faithful and without ruffling too many feathers?

Oh, I’m not afraid to ruffle feathers. But any nervous fans out there should know that I’m as dog-loyal to Lewis and his vision as any writer could be. Where I’m adding and expanding and shaping, I am constantly trying to check myself against Lewis’ broader imagination as represented in his collected works—not simply this little volume.

I will admit that when I began the adaptation, I felt like I was jumping off a cliff into (hopefully deep) mysterious waters—you can never completely predict what will happen on impact. But now that I’ve impacted and finished the first draft of the script, I can say that (as a Lewis fan), I’m really, really happy with it. And from here, I hope it only gets better.

How difficult is it to write mainly dialogue, leaving characterization and execution to a director and the actors?

Not difficult at all. Because what I’m seeing when I’m writing is the finished product. It’s all shot, cut, and scored in my head, but that doesn’t have to be on the page.

The strangeness will come when I watch real actors and a real crew take it out of my head and grow the thing with their own creativity. I’m making up a recipe that will still need to be cooked.

The Great Divorce has been referenced a fair bit lately in the Christian blogosphere, with the suggestion that there are similarities between Lewis’s “supposal” and Rob Bell’s “proposal.” And Bell himself recommends the book in Love Wins. Any thoughts on that?

At times Rob Bell (like in the Love Wins video) sounds exactly like the kind of character that one could expect to find in the pages of The Great Divorce. He seems to enjoy chasing and massaging ideas and questions for the sake of the journey of it all and not for the arrival. Landing on objective concrete answers isn’t exactly the goal. That’s not meant as a comment on whether or not Bell is regenerate (we’re graciously saved by faith not works, luckily enough), but it is a comment on where Bell would sit with Lewis in this whole discussion.

And, of course, Lewis put the universalist George MacDonald in Heaven and made him watch the unrepentant damned get back on the bus to Hell. A little wink and gloat at one of his favorite authors.

As for us, like Lewis, we should laugh at the absurdity of squishy thought wherever we find it. In that vein, let me plug the best response to Bell that I’ve seen. (Full disclosure: I am related to two of the people involved in making this little parody . . . but that doesn’t make it any less funny.)

When can we expect The Great Divorce on the big screen?

Right now, I couldn’t say exactly, and I shouldn’t guess.

If I remember correctly, Tolkien would have hated the idea of turning his trilogy into a film. What do you think Lewis would have thought about book-to-film adaptations in general?

Lewis comments a little bit on film adaptions in his letters. While he was not a big fan of movies (or drama) in general, he didn’t have a problem with adaptations.

His objections came at the willy-nilly introduction of female characters in short-pants, and at what he called a change in the types of danger. Different dangers and fears are different spices in a narrative experience. He didn’t want the fear of a volcano swapped in for the fear of being trapped in a cave, etc. The two taste different.

I’ve kept his thoughts right in the front of my mind throughout this process.

Assuming you would have done things differently, can you summarize why the Narnia films have not had the same effect on children as the books?

No movie is going to have the same effect as a book (nor should it). Movies are transient singular experiences. They last longer than a stage production, but they should be viewed the same way—as a particular rendition of a fixed story. Someone else can do it again later (differently), but the book will be the same.

As for the Narnia movies in particular, I think they’re doing service to the books (hundreds of thousands of additional units moved), but yes, I would have done things a little differently. But more power to them. . . .

Any other projects in the works that you can share?

A few! I have a new book launching with Random House this August (The Dragon’s Tooth), and I’m currently working on a sequel.

A film companion to my nonfiction book Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl will be available very soon (I believe in May).

I’m working on another creative nonfiction book for Thomas Nelson, I’ve got a few other scripts in various stages (with various companies), and my novel 100 Cupboards is currently in development for its own film production.

Let’s just say, I used to hate coffee, and now I don’t. I’ve also gotten pretty good at deep breathing exercises and lying on the floor.

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18 thoughts on “An Interview with N.D. Wilson on Screenwriting The Great Divorce

  1. Tony says:

    Excellent interview Justin. I think Notes is the only book I’ve read 3x in the last few years. Can’t wait to see the film. ND is a gift to the church.

  2. So excited about this project. I cannot imagine entrusting it to anyone else but Wilson either. Someone with the imagination to write the 100 Cupboards series(which my eleven year old son has read three time through) will do justice to a work of Lewis on film if anyone can.

  3. Owen says:

    That is one funny parody. The humor of Moscow, Idaho scorches once again.

    “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

  4. Regarding Tolkien’s thoughts to turn LOTR into a film, Humphrey Carpenter, in his authorized biography of Tolkien, wrote that he and his agent decided that they would only sell film rights if there was enough “cash or kudos” – either they respected the book, or they paid for the news. It’s a dangerous business, turning beloved fantasies into movies. I hope this one works!

  5. Kevin says:

    Almost made it through a Justin Taylor article without anyone insulting Rob Bell… alas.

    Is the irony not thick to anyone else? He’s screen-writing “The Great Divorce”, the book Bell was most influenced by.

    Oh well, spend more time making fun of other Christians. (Do they know what he is doing with the “lots of money” he made from the book?)

    1. Mark@DR says:

      Kevin, I don’t see any irony operating there. Both JT and ND have faced the Rob Bell question head-on. I see no intention or attitude opposite to what is actually or ostensibly being stated. Other things may be going on, but not irony. Not in that paragraph, anyways.

      1. Mark@DR says:

        Oh, and before you say it’s situational irony, note that N.D. Wilson was retained to write the GD screenplay long before Bell’s book was released. So, that charge of irony fails to stick either. Wilson wins.

  6. Galadriel II says:

    As much as I love the book, I find it hard to imagine as a movie just because of the format. But it will be interesting

  7. David says:

    I’m glad folks are setting the record straight re: Lewis vs. Bell. It seems that Wilson is doing much more to carry on the true legacy of Lewis while Bell is simply trying to hijack it.

  8. Andrew says:

    I don’t get it. I think The Great Divorce Clearly very clearly opens up the possibility of universalism, far from a “wink and gloat” at George MacDonald. The MacDonald character even says, “‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions,'” and then goes on to talk about how ultimate things are incomprehensible to timely creatures. There’s no “wink and gloat” — only a clear respect the narrator has for George MacDonald.

    Lewis never cops to univeralism explicitly, but the implication is there. Considering that the possibility of escape from Hell is the main theme of the Great Divorce, it seems disingenuous of Wilson not to acknowledge there might be a link between Lewis and Bell. For the record, I disagree with both Lewis and Bell — but why does everyone always want to pretend that Lewis is on their side?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      But Lewis literally begged his readers not to misread his book: “”I beg the readers to remember that this is a fantasy . . . the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld.”

      1. henrybish says:

        Justin,

        Even John Piper (who as you know is a big C.S. Lewis fan) has explicitly cautioned against C.S. Lewis’ when it comes to his view of hell:

        http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/how-willingly-do-people-go-to-hell

        Although I agree with you that a ‘supposal’ is different than ‘proposal’, I think it is fair to say that people’s view of hell has been influenced by CS Lewis’ ‘supposal’.

        1. Justin Taylor says:

          Agreed.

  9. The Gatekeeper says:

    I would be REALLY worried about this movie if N.D. Wilson weren’t doing the screenplay. As it is, I can’t wait! :-D Great interview, thanks for posting!

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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