Surprised by Oxford: Carolyn Weber’s Nod to Spiritual Memoir of C.S. Lewis Brought to Screen
Based on the award-winning memoir, Surprised by Oxford is the true-life story of college-aged American Caro Drake. It’s a wonder-filled exploration of life’s beauty and complexity, experienced in a manner not entirely dissimilar to C.S. Lewis’s famous awakening nearly a century ago in the hallowed halls of Oxford, England.
Based on Carolyn Weber’s memoir with the same title, Surprised by Oxford, is now a movie you can catch for a two-night theatrical event, September 27 and October 1. Ahead of the release we sat down with Weber to get insight into faith intersecting with intellect, her time at Oxford and how the Lord uses our gifts, our virtues, and our vices to bring us closer to Him.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: I really loved getting to see this film. And I loved even more that it’s based off of your memoir of the same name, Surprised By Oxford. So, maybe talk to me a little bit about what it was like seeing your story that you had written, that’s also your story brought to screen for audiences in this new way.
Carolyn Weber: Oh, my goodness, incredibly surreal. That’s what I keep telling folks. I would never in a million years, have imagined at all. I wrote the memoir from my heart, mainly for unbelieving friends and family and students years ago. And then when Ryan Whitaker approached me about doing the screenplay, it was actually five or six years ago now, I really appreciated his integrity. And we talked about that. So, it’s really beautiful to see it come to fruition now.
RM: And getting to see Oxford on screen, I have had the privilege of getting to go there and explore some behind the scenes of the school for some past film stuff that I had done, but getting the access that not very many do to see it showcased in that way. Talk to me, it’s a little bit of a love letter to the college as well.
CW: Oh, that’s a beautiful way to put it. It is. I love that idea. And it’s fun to know that you’ve been there as well, that there is this magical element to it without over-romanticizing. It really is a beautiful place and a place of learning for 1,000 years. But yes, I believe it’s a film that has the most cinematography ever of Oxford, England. Beautiful, glorious pictures, so it’s beautiful to see, especially in the theater. And we were really blessed. At the time, it was still during COVID and several doors were open to us, and things that aren’t normally even accessed were made available to us. And so, that path was really wonderful. It was wonderful to get some of the insider views of it as well.
RM: One of the things that I found fascinating was that you were a little bit unaware of C.S. Lewis and his works at first. Share about your engagement with him and then also the play on his book and your film.
CW: Oh, well, thank you. Yes. Like many people, especially in North America, I didn’t grow up in a faith-filled home. I knew C.S. Lewis primarily through his Narnia Chronicles. I loved those as a child. I had no idea he had written theology or other genres, so I’d read things here and there. But when I got to Oxford, I was introduced to him through more friends, some Christian friends, as well as people who just had a respect for that. I went to the C.S. Lewis Society meeting, which was a lot of fun, although I was hesitant and a skeptic at the time. So, as I got to read more about him, I just really enjoyed his accessibility, all the different genres he writes in. You always feel like you’re having a cup of tea with him, even though they’re incredible ideas. So, I have appreciated very much his work as a writer and as a Christian thinker, spiritual thinker.
But the title, his title of his memoir of how he converted as well was called Surprised by Joy, which is actually a line from a Wordsworth poem. And I’m a romanticist, so I had been studying William Wordsworth, so that spoke to me. So, I really wanted to echo those back and that’s why I called it Surprised By Oxford. By no means is it on the same level as Lewis’s work, but I wanted it to evoke the really beautiful theme he has in Surprised by Joy, that all joy reminds us of what we were made for and whom we long for.
RM: Will you talk a little bit about how faith intersects with intellect, so to speak? I think that that’s one of the things that’s so beautiful about your film. A lot of times we think those two have to be separate and you’re letting go of all reason… It’s a huge, huge topic, but just share a little bit… maybe an entry point for others to explore more.
CW: Oh, you put it very well, because I was a perfect example of someone who thought that faith and reason had to be antithetical. They couldn’t get along together. And I came from a culture, I think very much like our mainstream culture, of there’s no way you can be religious and a thoughtful person. Even probably more so, I had some fairly significant stereotypes and didn’t think you could be thinking and have faith as well. And that’s why someone like Lewis, other writers too, Tolkien, the whole history, intellectual history behind Christianity, is incredibly thoughtful thinkers that bring spirituality, and religion, and faith and thought together that actually I really was convicted by how amazing the Bible was as a story itself. And that living a life of faith took a lot of thought, and we can bring the heart and the head together, but even all our thinking isn’t what saves us. And so, there’s a safety and a beauty in that as well.
RM: And then I liked that once you made this discovery for yourself, it wasn’t like you went in a complete different direction, you still continued true to who you were. I mean, you became the first female dean of St Peter’s College in Oxford. I mean, still completely accomplished and then able to have these conversations with others and maybe in similar situations that you’re now. Talk about pursuing a dream that you knew that you wanted since you were little, even though it might have looked a little different.
CW: Well, that’s very sweet. Yes, I had always been an academic writer, so writing a memoir was really new to me. I didn’t anticipate doing that, but I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve always loved students. So, that’s where my heart has been as well. And I definitely have been in secular academia where there’s much more resistance to faith and faith topics. I was actually told not to publish about my faith until I had tenure. So, that kind of pressure is very real. And yet trying to push Christians to the corners of intellectualism and of social conversation, there are real pressures. But I think the more that we can walk our talk and embody Christ’s love to others, that’s the most powerful way that we can be at work in the world.
RM: Rose Reid is just darling. What was it like for you, initial conversations and then seeing her maybe pick up some of your mannerisms and look at those back?
CW: Oh my, Rose Reid is a delight. It is a real blessing, actually, to have a better version of oneself out there to aspire to. She’s an absolute delight. She’s a fellow bibliophile. She loves books, she loves reading. She’s imaginative. She was also really shaped by stories and things. So, we had immediate connection. And I felt she was really able to climb into how much I love stories and how the Lord uses our gifts, our virtues, and our vices to bring us closer to Him. Because for me, reading was really opened my heart to really how every story leads us to Him. And I felt she had a pulse for that. And I also felt though that she was respectful and gentle-spirited, and yet she’s very open. She’s a very open actress. She’s really good at entering into the person’s heart, as well as their fears and concerns. And so, I was very grateful for how she was able to express those emotions in a very gentle way, actually, very subtle way.
RM: For a lot of families out there, as a mom yourself, how did you curate a love of the arts, for literature, for higher level of thinking and concepts within your kids?
CW: Wow, that’s a great question. I have four children and my oldest daughter is a big reader. The rest are all boys, including twin boys. And I’m just trying to stay on top of laundry and smell right now. But I think the best way is to just model a love of learning and a curiosity. My mom used to take us to the Bookmobile, maybe I’m really aged and I’m giving that away, but the traveling book libraries. She just played classical music. She just interwove things that were delightful without being heavy-handed. I hope to model that to my children, just a joy of learning and for their passions to take them as well, to let their passions lead them. Not everyone is going to like the same genre or the same thing. But if they’re open to things and you introduce them to things, then there’s always conversation where disagreement is not equated with hate and distress is not something to be covered over. Then there’s an openness to having conversation and asking questions as well. That’s at the heart, I think, of learning and of Christianity.
Find a theatre near you when Surprised by Oxford becomes a two-night theatrical event on September 27 and October 1.