Surprised by lack of a Saviour

New film fails to stay true to the book – and to Christ!

The new film Surprised by Oxford, set to hit Australian screens on 27 September, is described as a story that echoes C.S. Lewis’s famous conversion to Christianity. The only problem is that the film leaves Jesus out entirely.

As is often the case, the film has strayed away from the book on which it was based.

“Say Jesus and people either get happy or they get mad. They either smile or a cloud comes over their faces. They are either elated or irritated. Embarrassed, they try to change the subject or walk away. Or engaged, they pursue deeper conversation and connection. No other name has such potency,” says Mark, a character in the book Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber (nee Drake).

This story chronicles the Canadian student’s conversion to Christian faith while studying for a Master’s in English at the University of Oxford.

“No one gets their knickers in a knot about anyone except Jesus,” this Christian friend goes on to say to Caro, who is worried about talking to her fiancé back home in Canada about the spiritual questions she is grappling with.

“If you were telling your fiancé you were considering Buddhism or Islam, or Wicca, you wouldn’t be so clearly anxious. And he would likely have taken it all in stride, even celebrated you, for your open-mindedness, your multiculturalism, your hipness. But Jesus? Whoa. That’s a whole other gig.”

While a most enjoyable romance, it appears to be a film about a conversion that doesn’t mention Jesus.

Having watched the soon-to-be-released movie Surprised by Oxford, I was confused about where, along her journey, this super-intelligent academic overcame her unbelief and embraced Jesus. While the love story creates the film’s narrative drive, Caro (played by Rose Reid) never explicitly turns to Jesus while opening her heart to the tall, dark, handsome American Kent Weber (Ruairi O’Connor).

Ruairi O’Connor as Kent Weber in ‘Surprised by Oxford’

While a most enjoyable romance – beautifully shot in Oxford’s hallowed halls with compellingly beautiful actors – it appears to be a film about a conversion that doesn’t mention Jesus.

Oh, it mentions the pursuit of truth and eternal significance but limits its messages to aphorisms such as “the truth is in the paradox”.

This statement is made by Caro’s uni teacher, Dr Deveaux, back in Canada after critiquing her essay on a John Donne poem, which he says is “a grand adventure in missing the point.” In the book, Dr Deveaux follows up with, “Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most. And we should, for we entertain it all the time as the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.”

When Caro meets Kent in Oxford in the book, he is a pastor’s son studying theology, while in the movie, he is studying political science. In both versions, their budding attraction is nipped in the bud when Caro spies a message from a friend trying to set Kent up with a “godly” girl in her late-20s who is still a virgin. Caro assumes that Kent and his friends are part of “some sort of deflowering cult” that involves notches on their bedposts.

“I looked at [Kent] hard. I mean really, really hard. The kind of hard where my eyes were like man-hating lasers about to slice through his pathetic skin and incinerate, upon impact, his already shrivelled heart,” she writes.

The film delivers a much more subtle and muted reference to “faith.”

While Caro soon softens to Kent in the book as they pursue meaty gospel conversations, in the film, Caro continues her hard-eyed harrumphing and eye-rolling to the point of outright rudeness, which made me wonder why this gorgeous young man continued to bother with her!

In each of the key scenes in the story, the film delivers a much more subtle and muted reference to “faith.”

For example, when Caro and Kent are invited to sit at the Provost’s table for dinner with a brilliant visiting scientist, Dr Sterling (played memorably by Simon Callow), he is asked if he believes in “a higher consciousness, something outside and above the created world.” In the book, he is asked, “Do you believe in God?”

Dr Sterling observes that the natural world operates with a desire to achieve an equilibrium that promotes life. In the movie, he says the more he discovers the scientific world, the more convinced he becomes of the “astonishing interconnectedness and brilliancy of its design.” In the book, he credits God for this amazing interconnectedness and brilliancy.

In the movie, the professor concludes in vague terms about the quest for healing and wholeness, while in the book, he says: “All of my work has only proven to me that the imprint of the Divine lies on the natural world, so why wouldn’t the same be the case for science?”

In the book, the challenge is much meatier right from the start.

What irked me the most was when Caro and Kent first meet for a drink, their sparring is straight out of the rom-com playbook, with Caro displaying a wall of hostility to Kent’s defensive attempts to talk about his faith.

“Just because I’m committed to my faith doesn’t mean I’m some sort of weird zealot living out this joyless, pleasureless existence,” he pleads. “There are people out there who are committed to their faith and they’re not horrible to be around,” he says, upon which Caro gets up and storms off.

In the book, the challenge is much meatier right from the start. Kent shares the good news of the gospel with Caro and insists: “It all comes down to Jesus Christ and what you choose to believe about him.”

Yet in both forms of the story, it is Kent’s unwavering patience, respect and kindness which overcome Caro’s cynicism even more than all of their intense intellectual arguments.

So enjoy the film – take it as a rom-com with a flavour of faith, hope and longing – but if you want to know the real story of Caro’s quest for truth in the Son of God, read the book.

Surprised by Oxford is airing on September 27 at the following cinemas:

Dendy Southport QLD
Dendy Portside Hamilton, QLD
Dendy Canberra ACT
Dendy Newtown NSW