I’ve long held The Screwtape Letters as my favorite book by C.S. Lewis. Originally a serial run in The Guardian in the early 1940s, it was published as a novel in 1942. Lewis writes 31 letters in the guise of Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lower-archy” of Hell to a junior tempter, his nephew Wormwood. Screwtape instructs his pupil on the cleverest and most effective tools of temptation to lure a “patient” (unnamed) into the house of “Our Father Below,” where the soul of the young man may be devoured. It is a brilliant bit of satire which is ultimately a twisted, penetrating insight into human nature.
In his inimitable way, Lewis uses Screwtape to clear the chaff off misrepresentations of the Christian faith, both from within the faith and from modern secular notions of religion and spirituality. There is an edge to Lewis’s writing in this text which he uses to drive his points home rather bluntly which in other books, such as Mere Christianity or Chronicles of Narnia, he tempers with more charity. Indeed, this seemed to have an effect on him, for he states that The Screwtape Letters were the hardest for him to write:
“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment . . . though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.”
One approaches modern adaptations of great works, especially those near and dear to the heart, with some amount of trepidation, and The Screwtape Letters are no exception. However, the following mentioned have preserved the tone and intelligence of Lewis’s writing, provide a good homage to Jack’s work, and are a whole lot of fun to enjoy in their own right:
I’m really having fun with this one at the moment. The creativity put into this production is staggering. The Letters are primarily acted out as dialogue between Screwtape and Wormwood, and incorporate recreations of situational examples Lewis put into the text. Wormwood gets a speaking role here, as do other demons such as Slumtrimpet and Toadpipe. We hear the patient, here named John Hamilton, engaged in his spiritual struggles, often with Screwtape and Wormwood making commentary, almost like a sporting event. What the drama adds to The Screwtape Letters is just that: drama. There is a compressed sense of urgency given to the work as a whole, with the listener eager for the climax- will Wormwood succeed or not?
The highlight of the work is Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Screwtape. There is a gruff swagger to his voice, a chilling, calculated bravado with bears witness to many successes in his career. The very way Serkis breathes enhances his character and message. Like his work in Lord of the Rings as Gollum, hearing Serkis’s vocals is like watching a physical feat mastered by a gymnast.
I will catch the production coming to Tampa at the end of October. Max Mclean has won accolades bringing the role of Screwtape onstage in this critically acclaimed show.
“This is the book I’d never thought I’d see,” writes Walter Hooper in the preface, “It reads as if C.S. Lewis himself had written it.”
High applause from Lewis’s personal secretary and biographer. Platt uses the original working title of The Screwtape Letters to construct a more current depiction of demonic temptation. In this work, the demon Slashreap corresponds with a young tempter named Scardagger, a recent graduate of the Tempter’s Academy. He is assigned to a young woman in England, who is pursuing graduate study in English literature. Platt weaves a wonderful narrative around this young woman while at the same time giving Lewisian treatment to issues of our time, both universal and specific: Technology, Sexuality, Love, Ambition, and Faith, among others. Platt inserts a bit of Lewis hero-worship in his text- the “client” (rather than “patient”) takes a stroll with a significant other down Addison’s Walk, a clear allusion to a path around Magdalen College which C.S. Lewis used to walk with J.R.R. Tolkien, and was the location where Lewis, in conversation with Tolkien, made a major step toward his belief in Christ.
The relationship between Slashreap and Scardagger provides the grist for the book’s climax, which is both amusing and twisted.
I have neglected to mention two fantastic audiobooks on The Screwtape Letters. The most famous, and rare, is the John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) reading from 1999. The other is by Joss Ackland, who portrayed C.S. Lewis in the BBC version of Into the Shadowlands. Both are highly recommended, but Ackland’s will be easier to find (and pay for!).
We’ll go back to the original source in the next post and take a letter or two for reflection and insight. Until then, remember Lewis’s caveat on demons:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has once learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall learn it from me.”