Carolyn Webber’s memoir, Surprised by Oxford, is a modern-day conversion story, says Jacinta Read. But its film adaptation is more of a love story with a side of Christianity. How it lands with audiences is yet to be seen
The film adaptation of the award-winning memoir by Carolyn Webber boasts stunning cinematography of what is arguably one of the world’s most breathtaking cities.
Surprised by Oxford is based on the true story of Caro, an intellectually gifted Canadian who is awarded a full scholarship to the University of Oxford. While acclimating to her new environment, Caro’s attention gets diverted when she encounters TDH (tall, dark and handsome). Caro finds herself on a three-fold journey of discovery as she grapples with questions of self, romance and God.
The movie will be a breath of fresh air for anyone who, like myself, craves the occasional calm and thoughtful tale with a conspicuous lack of superheroes or special effects (intellectual superpowers notwithstanding). It is a relief to enjoy entertainment without the cortisol spikes. That is not to say, however, that the movie is slow. There are several significant supporting roles in Webber’s story, and the groundwork is not always laid before they pop up in the film. I had read the book, so I knew who to pay attention to, but a viewer with no prior knowledge might find themselves having to work a little harder.
Casting and creative licence
The main characters are particularly well cast. Most of the college dons are believable, and the chemistry between Caro and TDH ticks all the right boxes. The issue I did have with the film’s casting is a delicate one. As an active advocate for diversity and representation in my own arena, I proceed with caution. I also offer sincere credit to the entertainment industry for efforts made to correct the unacceptable lack of inclusion that has existed for far too long. On the question of whether or not this film gets it right, my answer is, not quite.
The film is more of a love story between Caro and TDH, with a side of Christianity
When dealing with creative nonfiction, audiences accept a certain level of suspending their disbelief in order to get to the crux of a story. My writing professor’s adage was: “Never let the facts get in the way of the truth.” It is not an easy balance to strike. Overdoing accuracy can make for awful storytelling; veering too far from what is believable creates off-ramps in a viewer’s mind. I confess that I lost focus on the story as I weighed the pros and cons of diverse casting for a story set in what was historically, for better or worse, a non-diverse, elitist institution.
Condensing a life
A challenge faced by every memoirist is the use of literary devices to condense life experience, so it fits onto the page without losing the truth. This challenge is heightened when adapting a memoir for the screen. As for examples that include Eat, Pray, Love, Wild and The Glass Castle, fans of the book will have to decide how they feel about the choices made for the film. Personally, I lamented the lack of a couple of key characters who were left out, and questioned the attention allotted to those whom I would have deemed extras.
There is one final significant shift between the book and the film that is worth mentioning: the narrative arc. The memoir can certainly be described as a modern-day conversion narrative, but the film is more of a love story between Caro and TDH, with a side of Christianity. I make this distinction without moral judgement, and remain curious about how this lands with audience members with different worldviews.
Anchored in Oxford
The concept of ‘setting as character’ is an oft-mentioned element of visual storytelling. In Surprised by Oxford, location far transcends the function of a backdrop or even a character. Instead, it becomes like the inescapable inciting incident that ignites the entire story.
Caro finds herself on a three-fold journey of discovery as she grapples with questions of self, romance and God
The filmmakers have captured the charm of the city at its best while also giving audiences a much-coveted glimpse into university life. It is a privilege and pleasure for a civilian to experience what lies inside the university’s walls, both physically (dining halls, libraries and quads) and culturally (tutorials, ceremonies and traditions). This alone would probably satisfy the type of viewers who love Harry Potter and all things Hogwarts.
Ultimately, if the question here is whether or not this film is worth seeing, my answer is: “Yes”. If you enjoy a sweet love story with a calmer pace and an inspiring female lead you’ll like it. And if you are fascinated by Oxford’s ‘town and gown’ dichotomy - and can forgive some use of creative license, you’ll love it.
Surprised by Oxford will be in selected UK cinemas on 27 September, 2 October and 3 October. For more details see surprisedbyoxford.movie