Peter Jackson is humming along quite nicely with his Tolkien franchise, and the Narnia films, although I see no sign of the cycle being completed, have doubtless found a devoted audience among devout Christian parents who want their tots to get a bit of preaching wherever they turn, so I think it is really time some enterprising film-maker had a shot at Charles Williams. He was probably the third best known of the Inklings to readers of imaginative fiction, which more or less means that you could walk down a very long street in even an urban center in the United States before finding someone who knew his books. (Of the United Kingdom I cannot speak.)
I have been revisiting Williams recently. Tolkien created a mythology and then found adventure stories asking to be told about it; Lewis kept imagining that he was writing didactically about Christian virtues and diabolic evils while he was actually searching wistfully for the road to Faerie. Williams plunked himself down in stodgy midcentury England, full of trains and earnest young people and sectarian grudges and the fading of Empire, and wrote theologically inflected adventure stories that suggest a peculiar miscegenation between Aldous Huxley and, possibly, Agatha Christie.
I am about half way through Many Dimensions at the moment. Williams’ novels tend to have a McGuffin; in this one it is the Stone of Suleiman, inscribed with the Tetragrammaton, described as the End Of Desire. Simply, it grants wishes, if you focus sufficiently on the wish of your heart in its presence. You can travel in space or, though it is somewhat complicated, Time (a good deal of quantum physics for laymen comes in on this head); the sick can be healed.* The Stone is capable of being infinitely multiplied by striking it with a chisel. It’s also a holy relic of Islam which has been unscrupulously sold to infidels by a venial member of the Persian legation, and from the story’s first moment, the Persians are trying to get it back. The Englishmen who have bought the thing see a profit to be made — it takes you from place to place in an instant! Guard it closely and sell the duplicates that it calves to rich men!
Sometimes, as I revisit this book forty years after my first reading, I think Williams understood the politics of faith better than most politicians of the early 21st century. He gives us the Persian Ambassador — in those more secular days, gently condescending to the “young water-drinkers” who can become inflamed at the idea of mistreatment of a holy object — and a Prince Ali, who
“…will send the news of it through all the palaces and bazaars. I will cause this sacrilege to be known in every mosque, and the cry against the English shall go from Adrianople to Hong Kong. I will see if I can do a little in all the places of Islam.”
He gives us the Hajji Ibrahim — an apparent Sufi who says “Do not fear us who serve the Stone, but only those who attempt to rule it.” In a little capsule we have the pragmatic, the fundamentalist and the mystic threads of Islamic culture. (However much the story might omit of the particulars of the Islamic world, there is more thoughtfulness here than I’ve seen in America since 9/11.)
He gives us the wonderfully named Angus M. Sheldrake, a young, brash millionaire with an entitled wife who assumes everything wonderful ought to belong to her — I have to remind myself Mitt Romney hadn’t been born yet — and Chloe Burnett, a secretary for hire, superficially secular and ordinary, with more open-minded humility and moral complexity than a gaggle of Archbishops.
I would love to see the cast list for that lot. I would love to see some polished actor leap upon the plum role of Sir Giles Tumulty — the most deliciously abominable character ever written — I sometimes think.
“I sometimes think,” Sir Giles answered reflectively, “that I’m the only real scientist in this whole crawling hotbed of vermin called England. There isn’t one of all of you that doesn’t cuddle some fantastic desire in his heart, and snivel over every chance of letting it out for an hour’s toddle… You’re drunk with your own romantic gin and bitters. If you’re going to be sitting here in an hour’s time you’re going to be, even if this bit of prehistoric slime has to bump you on our crazy noddle and shove you into a chair all on its own.”
Not a lot here for the Special Effects people — a few lap dissolves and light effects, at best. But it is about time we had a pure actors’ movie in the fantastic tradition.
*I still say this sucker is the real Holy Grail, which with Wolfram I maintain is an inscribed stone, not a fecking chalice, and who would pour wine into a great clumsy bloody chalice at a supper party anyway?