Doug Gresham shares stories about stepfather C.S. Lewis
“Jack had the incredible talent … for taking the complex and reducing it to simplicity,” Doug Gresham said of his stepfather C.S. Lewis. Gresham visited the Wade Center on Tuesday, April 7 to hold a question and answer session for members of the Wheaton community. Students, staff and faculty asked questions about life growing up with Lewis, whom Gresham called by his family nickname “Jack,” and about Gresham’s own books and movies.
Gresham appeared in and co-produced the three “Chronicles of Narnia” movies and is currently a co-producer of “The Silver Chair,” the fourth movie in the series, which is expected to come out in December 2018. He is also the author of “Jack’s Life: The Story of C.S. Lewis” as well as an autobiography entitled “Lenten Lands.”
Gresham lived in upstate New York until his parents’ divorced because of his father’s alcoholism and PTSD from the Spanish Civil War. When Gresham was eight years old, his mother, Joy Davidman, married Lewis, and they went to live with him in England. “Jack never tried to take over the position of my father in my life,” said Gresham. “He made it very plain that he was just a stepfather.” For Lewis, emphasizing that he was Gresham’s stepfather was a way of encouraging him to follow the Biblical command to honor his father and mother.
However, this did not prevent the two from bonding. Gresham recalled fond memories of growing up at “The Kilns” — Lewis’ home in Oxford — and attending meetings of “The Inklings,” a group of authors who would meet to criticize each other’s work. “It was a very brave man indeed who read his pieces of writing to those groups … they would burn you to the ground with their criticism,” Gresham joked. “But it was the laughter that I remember the most.”
Gresham also relied heavily on Lewis after the death of Gresham’s mother Davidman, saying that they only had each other to lean on. “I got the better end of the deal,” Gresham said. He also found comfort in Fred Paxford, the gardener on whom Lewis based the character Puddlegum in “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Despite Gresham’s accomplishments and those of his stepfather, he claims he is “not a great intellectual person,” and still regards himself as a pig farmer, his occupation before his rise to fame. “I love to read good books and things like that, but if I was in a scientific gathering, I’d be rather embarrassed or rather embarrassing,” he said.
In fact, Gresham doesn’t even take credit for writing many of his own short stories, saying that phrases “pop into [his] head.” On one occasion, he thought of the phrase “the man who made the pumpkins.” “Well what am I supposed to do with that?” he wondered. Eventually, Gresham typed the phrase into his computer to see what would happen. “The rest of the story flowed out of my fingertips without me making any effort.”
Another audience member asked Gresham to talk about work in the film industry and how it differs from the world of literature. According to Gresham, Hollywood is an ego-driven industry. He argued that while writers think about how their work will influence their readers, many movie producers aim for recognition and money. “In literature, one is usually dealing with people who have souls,” he joked. He also expressed his frustration with the difficulty of portraying a complex book like “Narnia” in a movie.
“I grew up listening to the Chronicles of Narnia radio dramas that Focus on the Family produced,” said junior Elena Basiletti, who attended the event. “Douglas Gresham would always do a short introduction at the start of the CD, so his voice was a huge part of my childhood. Seeing him in person was a little surreal!”