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