Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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 in the film are named after famous mathematicians, as though to signal the predictable arithmetic that defines Harold's world.

Not too far into this provocative film, however, we begin to wonder who exactly controls Harold's life: Harold, who programs his watch and obsessively counts all his footsteps, or the narrator, who tells his story? Harold wonders the same thing when he starts to hear the voiceover that we have been hearing—a narration that breaks the convention of film by breaking into his life. We, like Harold, are forced to ask some questions. Is the voiceover dependent upon Harold's choices, or are Harold's thoughts and actions the results of the narrator's imagination? Seeking answers, Harold visits a literary critic, Professor Hilbert, who tells him, "You don't control your own fate." Is he right? Stranger Than Fiction arouses uncomfortable stirrings that accompany the asking of life's ultimate questions: Am I in control of my life? If not, who or what is? Or, as Harold asks, "Is my life going to be a comedy or a tragedy and who makes that decision?" Harold, in other words, becomes obsessed with understanding the mind of his maker.

In 1941, Sayers published The Mind of the Maker, a work of literary theory which suggests that the relationship between an author and her creations parallels the relationship between God and human creation. Stranger Than Fiction adeptly illustrates her theory in the relationship between Harold and his maker, Kay. At first oblivious to his creator, Harold suddenly becomes aware of a guiding presence in his life. Nevertheless, after his moment of revelation, Harold sometimes hears Kay's narration and other times does not, just as we are sometimes intensely conscious of God's guiding presence in our lives and other times not.

In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers suggests that the relationship between the writer's idea and its fulfillment in the written word parallels the relationship between Creator God and the incarnated Christ. A quick read through the Stranger Than Fiction screenplay reveals that the writer, Zach Helm, may have intended just such a connection. Perturbed over being misunderstood, a flustered Harold says to a woman at a bus stop, "I …  No. I'm … [Christ]" (the brackets indicate that the word is to be said under his breath). Reminiscent of Jesus' prayer of angst in the garden of Gethsemane, Harold pleads with Kay to spare his life. But Professor Hilbert, having read Kay's first draft, tells Harold that the story "is a masterpiece. You have to die." With agony, Harold responds, "You're asking me to knowingly face my death?" The answer, of course, is yes.

Upon reading his maker's book, Harold submits his life to his narrator's will, telling her, "I love [the story]. There is only one way it can end. I love your book." Therefore, just as Jesus "set his face toward Jerusalem" and his inevitable death, we watch with intrigue as Harold calmly, with resignation, prepares to die. He carefully chooses the apple he will take with him to the bus stop—the place of his death. Are we reminded here of the second Adam, a type of the first who brought sin into the world by eating a piece of fruit, commonly considered an apple? At the appointed place, Harold knowingly, willingly, steps in front of an oncoming bus to save a little boy from death. He dies—with a halo of blood framing his head—so that a child can live.

A heartbeat after this sober image, however, the screen is awash with a bright white light that resolves into a shot of Harold lying in bed—alive. Yes, he lives! Need we say more? Professor Hilbert is not so pleased that Harold lives. He questions Kay about her revision, to which she replies, "If a man does know he's going to die, and dies anyway … dies willingly, knowing he could stop it … you tell me … . Isn't that the type of man you want to keep alive?" Because of the submission of Harold's heart, what we thought would be a funeral scene becomes a resurrection celebration.

If Harold dies and lives as a type of Jesus Christ—a representative of the divine life, so to speak—he also represents our humanity. The meaning of Harold's existence comes to fruition only in the fullness of time. Significantly, the watch mentioned in Kay's opening voiceover saved his life, as his doctor explains: "Amazingly a shard of metal from your watch became lodged in the artery, causing your heart rate to slow, keeping your loss of blood down enough to keep you alive." Harold was embedded in time, yet the fullness of time was also embedded in Harold.

So with us all: though we cannot know for certain how or when we will die, we can live our lives embedded in time, making the most out of the time embedded in us. As exhorted by the one who is himself the fulfillment of all time, we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

Sharon Baker is assistant professor of theology and religion and Crystal Downing is professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. They thank Odd Men Out, a film discussion group, for encouraging this essay and providing a copy of the screenplay for quotations.

Most ReadMost Shared