Stranger than fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

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Stranger than fiction, directed by Marc Forster (2006).

Score: more than it seems.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a quite boring man. He’s a fastidious IRS worker with a nonexistent social life. He is tasked with auditing anti-system baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who looks like she could turn his world upside down. One day he starts hearing the voice of a woman narrating everything he’s doing in a very literary way. When she says “little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death”, he knows he needs to do something about it, so he goes to see Literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who tells him he needs to find out whether he’s in a comedy or a tragedy. Meanwhile, somewhere else, author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) receives the visit of an assistant sent by her publisher. Penny’s (Queen Latifah) job is to help Karen get over her writer’s block.

I watched this film shortly after it came out and didn’t think much of it. I found the story quirky but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me; I rewatched it recently as part of a creative writing course and it gets much better if you look at it from a literary theory or creative writing perspective. It plays with concepts such as ellipsis (the reason Harold doesn’t hear the author all the time), with genres (”Do you feel inclined to solve murder mysteries?” or “are you king of anything?” are not stupid questions at all, if you’re a Literature professor), with “little did he know” (up there with “it was a dark and stormy night”), with plot development and most of all, with metafiction, for reasons I’ll discuss later.

The genre of the movie is hard to pin down: it sways from comedy to tragedy with worrying ease. It manages to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. It would have been better if Ana Pascal was something more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though.

And now, some analysis.

***SPOILERS***

The plot revolves around an object we get but a few glimpses of: Death and taxes, Karen Eiffel’s novel. Over the course of the movie, Harold hears 130 lines of the novel, which is obviously a small fraction of the novel. It is confirmed that Harold is the main character of the novel. His plotline involves his meeting Ana Pascal and then dying in a bus accident saving a child; this would never have happened if he hadn’t adjusted his wristwatch to the wrong time. Jules Hilbert says it’s Eiffel’s best novel so far and the kind novel that might save lives, but this plot seems somehow insufficient for that. What else can we figure out about the book, and its relation to the fictional universe the characters live in?

I was stuck at this question, so the thinking heads over at TV Tropes helped me out. First of all, it’s very reasonable to consider there might be more characters in the novel which Harold doesn’t know about and whose narrations he doesn’t hear, such as the bus driver who is earlier shown job hunting and the boy who rides his bike. Eiffel mentions in the TV interview that her book is about interconnectivity, but Harold doesn’t seem connected to anyone much. These characters appear in the novel but not in Stranger than fiction, which is about something else entirely.

Harold doesn’t hear Karen all the time. Some people have speculated this is because she has writer’s block, but I think this is playing on the concept of ellipsis, like stated above. A narrator doesn’t say everything that a character does, not even a Realist. If you spend pages upon pages painstakingly describing your character chewing, tying up their shoes, commuting to work and picking their nose, literary value approaches zero (unless you have a very good reason to do this). So, when Karen isn’t looking, Harold does stuff, like visiting Hilbert. Those parts don’t appear in Karen’s narration, because they’re not part of her plot about Harold’s tragic death. Until they are. Until he has identified and sought her, and that’s when Karen’s phone rings.

Karen is horrified by the revelation that she might be killing real people, so she changes the ending to make Harold’s wristwatch die instead. She had been building up the wristwatch as an important plot device; originally it was going to kill Harold, but eventually saves his life and dies like a character. Unbeknownst to Karen, it is her character’s free will that makes her change the ending of her novel. This can be seen as a literal expression of this feeling writers have that characters end up doing what they want, not what you had planned for them. Also, the events in the novel happen in the exact way that they do because Harold is aware that he’s going to die, and then that he’s a character in a novel. So the events in Death and taxes cannot be extricated from the events inStranger than fiction.

Karen cannot bring herself to kill Harold, and for good reasons. Unfortunately, her novel is maimed because of that. The whole concept of the novel required that Harold died a tragic and unexpected death, but he didn’t. Karen shrugs it off and says she’ll rewrite it. But who says she is going to stick with Death and taxes? It is already ruined. She’s got a sensational story she can write instead: Stranger than fiction.

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