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Sharon Baker and Crystal Downing

Theology Is Stranger Than Fiction

The best film you didn't see last year.

Who would have thought that Will Ferrell, master of fatuous farce and stupid stunts, could pull off a star turn in one of the most profoundly theological films of 2006? Judging from the tepid reviews of Stranger Than Fiction, not many. Theologian Sharon Baker and film critic Crystal Downing want to set things right.

Stranger Than Fiction builds upon an experience reported by many novelists, in which fictional protagonists start taking on lives of their own, behaving in ways that their authors did not originally intend. When Dorothy L. Sayers was asked, in 1936, to explain how she invented her famous fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she described him as independent from her control almost from the start: "My impression is that I was thinking about writing a detective story, and that he walked in, complete with spats, and applied in an airy don't-care-if-I-get-it way for the job of hero." Tired of his "breeziness" after four novels, she developed "the infanticidal intention of doing away with Peter, that is, of marrying him off and getting rid of him." However, once she created a woman worthy of him, she couldn't follow through with her plan, believing that her new female protagonist deserved a man better than Peter, necessitating five more novels to make him worthy of her.

Stranger Than Fiction is also about an author with infanticidal intentions. Kay Eiffel (played by a stupendous Emma Thompson) is a novelist who always kills off her protagonists. In her current project, Death and Taxes, she plans to do away with an IRS agent named Harold Crick. Problematically, this protagonist (played by Ferrell) overhears her plan.

Of course, we don't know this when the film begins with a voiceover: "This is a story about a man named Harold Crick … and his wristwatch." We soon discover that temporal and mathematical precision seem to control Harold's life—down to the way he counts brushstrokes while cleaning his teeth. In fact, all the characters and the streets ...

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