Sunday, August 10, 2008

Screwtape on the Screen

Early in 2007 it was announced that Ralph Winter Productions and Walden Media are adapting The Screwtape Letters for the big screen.

The Screwtape Letters is the celebrated book by C.S. Lewis featuring a series of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to a junior one (Wormwood).

The script for the film is, so far as I know, still in the works. I learned from a credible source that an early version of the script had the movie set in a modern office building.

One of the first things people ask me when they hear about a Screwtape movie is, "How?" As in, how can this be done as a film? That's a good question, as Lewis certainly did not write for the screen as some contemporary authors sometimes do (Michael Crichton, for instance).

In addition, unlike the Narnia film adaptations that are based on books written as stories, Screwtape is not a traditional novel or story.

One problem I see in adapting Screwtape for film is keeping the story moving along. Audiences won't particularly enjoy watching 31 letters read back and forth on screen.

But Screwtape does have a thin thread of a plot. There is the main human character (the "patient"), his mother, his friends, his love interest, the backdrop of a war, demons interfering with life, etc.

Another challenge of a Screwtape film is getting across the psychological insights that are so astute in the letters, as well as the internal struggles of characters.

And what of the genre of the film? The book itself is hard enough to place, though I argue in my forthcoming book, Inside The Screwtape Letters, that Screwtape is more satire, devotional, and theology than anything else.

But how to get this across on film? Is the film to lean in the direction of horror? That would be an error, as the humor Lewis intended in Screwtape is much too predominant, but there are indeed elements of serious drama in the book.

If I were putting together the script, I'd lean towards a drama mixed with elements of humor. I joked in an earlier post that Steve Carell would make a fine Wormwood, but now that I give it more thought, I think he would indeed make a fine Wormwood (see my earlier post about a Screwtape comic book adaptation).

As for the mobility of characters, it would be wise on film to have the devils, unseen by the humans, follow characters around, not as special-effects monstrosities, but looking human. As a result, the actor playing Wormwood would look human, move about in the human world, etc., with only occasional revelations of his true appearance.

At any rate, a creative film adaptation of Screwtape is possible, but certainly challenging.

By the way, the picture at the top left of this post contains images from a couple of books in my library. One is a collection of essays, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, while the other is an older edition of The Screwtape Letters featuring a study guide by Walter Hooper and Owen Barfield.

If you're interested in a real audio treat, I suggest you track down the recordings of The Screwtape Letters as performed by John Cleese. These recordings are well done and entertaining, but omit three of the letters.


Ken said...

As for how to adapt a book of letters for the screen, I would suggest the filmmakers take a look at how "84 Charing Cross Road" was done.

And as for how to depict Wormwood and Screwtape, I would suggest they take a look at how the Devil was portrayed by Ray Walston in the musical "D--- Yankees". I always felt he had the right mix of humor and malevolence. He was dressed totally normal, but he could do various evil things, thanks to some occasional special effects.

Anonymous said...

all good thoughts. i know the filmmakers and they are keenly aware of all these issues. that is why they are taking their time to get it right.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Ken. I'm not familiar with either movie you've mentioned. Yes, Screwtape's devils will need a proper balance to come across well on screen.

Anonymous, I'm glad to hear the filmmakers are aware of these issues and look forward to the end result of their efforts. A Screwtape film, done right, could really be great.