"Dust, grit, thirst and itch"
is how C.S. Lewis described The Screwtape Letters.
Written from the point of view of a demonic undersecretary in the "lowerarchy" of Hell, who must instruct his nephew on the finer points of soul corruption, the epistolary novel earned Lewis' disfavor for being the least enjoyable work he wrote during his literary career.
Focus on the Family's director of creative content, Paul McCusker, describes a similar torment when he dispatched his Colorado Springs radio-theater team to London to record a Screwtape dramatization over six days in 2008.
"Our team has worked together in one form or another for 20 years, and we were genuinely surprised by the kinds of things that came up that we hadn't really dealt with before," says McCusker, who also came down with an unholy flu during the production. "It was uncharacteristic sniping at one another, short tempers, petty annoyances — which are very Screwtape-like. And that's what so funny about it. You find yourself irritated, or you're irritating someone, and you don't know why. So you step back and think, 'Maybe something is at work here.'"
If it's difficult to believe in curses, it may be even more so to believe in radio theater as a viable medium. And yet Focus' four-CD Screwtape Letters set has sold 40,000 copies since its release last fall.
Even more mind-boggling: Focus, creator of some rueful Christian right propaganda, is producing some of the highest quality, most intellectually complex audio drama in the material world. Its Screwtape production is a finalist for Distinguished Achievement in Production and Best Audio Drama at this year's Audies, the Audio Publishers Association's equivalent of the Oscars, which will be announced on May 25. Typically, Christian media is considered substandard.
"That's probably a fair reputation, and I think money isn't irrelevant in this; having a decent budget for something certainly makes a difference," says Candy Gunther Brown, a historian and ethnographer of religion and culture currently teaching courses at Indiana University on the Left Behind book series. "But another critique that's been made of Christian culture, and particularly evangelical and Protestant culture, is there has been a strain of anti-intellectualism in it. There's not a broad support and endorsement of people really working to excel in fields of media and scholarship."
In that sense, Focus busts expectations. The ministry spared little expense sending the team to London in order to recruit professional, acclaimed actors. Their work was edited completely in Focus' studio in Colorado Springs; both the sound effects and score are original creations. And as far as anti-intellectualism goes, McCusker asserts that The Screwtape Letters wasn't done to proselytize.
"I don't like any agenda-driven story, even if I agree with it," he says, "whether it's telling people to be Christians or green ... I tune out, and I assume lots of people do, too.
"So, when we create audio dramas and stories, story is first. Like Hemingway or Steinbeck, the best storytellers know better than to make their agenda first."
Screwtape and Wormwood
And it takes a master storyteller to turn Lewis' wordy work of fiction into a compelling radio play.
"I'm a bit of a purist, and it was not for me to reinterpret Lewis, but I certainly wanted to make things conversational and keep the spirit and essence of what he was saying," McCusker says. "The funny thing I noticed about Lewis was, as soon as I tried to pull his structure apart in order to rephrase it for modern ears, it kind of came apart."
In the end, McCusker succeeded in creating a story arc about family, both in hell and on Earth. The character Screwtape coaches his nephew Wormwood on the most effective means of temptation as they race to capture and keep hold of a soul. Nazis are attacking England during the Battle of Britain, and the two demons know all too well that at any moment, a bomb could claim the "patient" — John Hamilton, a young man caring for his mother and courting a young woman — and deliver him into the hands of the "enemy" — that is, God Almighty.
The relationship between creatures is not a loving one. Screwtape refers to his feelings toward Wormwood as an "increasing ravenous affection" and not-so-secretly hopes his nephew will fail so he can, literally, eat him. In the meantime, Wormwood reports Screwtape for treason, which results in the amputation of the undersecretary's limbs and temporary transformation into a centipede.
When interpreted as allegory, faith and sin can be replaced with happiness and misery, and it's clear how sharp Lewis' scalpel was in dissecting the human experience and the corrupting influence of contemporary culture. Screwtape's claims that the demonic forces are work in the media and fashion industry's portrayal of women reveals an almost feminist critique. His insights on how minor irritation with family members can swell into resentment remind the listener of modern psychology.
"It's a fascinating piece of literature in that it takes many of the cultural trends of wartime England and recasts them from a demonic point of view, which allows the whole thing to be permeated with irony," says David Neff, Christianity Today editor-in-chief. "It requires the reader to take an unnatural point of view, and it just becomes a wonderful exercise in helping people think about moral issues as they appear in society. ... So it's not a preachy approach to thinking about morality."
Lending credibility to the production is staunch atheist Andy Serkis, the actor who played the equally impish character Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley were also considered for it.
"Acting with your voice is something that British still do, and it's a lost art here," McCusker says. "In the 10 or 15 years we've been doing [radio theater], we've only done one in America. No slight to American actors — [but] the voice actor is alive and well there, and harder to find here."
If bile could bloviate, if pus could pontificate, it would sound much like Serkis' interpretation of Screwtape. The actor delivers spoken-word sonatas of sin, in which even his inhalations are crafted to cause dread. His performance is not just self-conscious, but self-delighting in how it grates the ears. You come away with uneasiness, if not nausea, especially if you attempt to listen to all 31 letters consecutively.
"It's kind of like watching something like The Godfather," McCusker says. "We're not really supposed to like these [characters]. None of them are morally where most people are. What we hoped to connect with is the intrigue and humanity."