Sunday, March 18, 2007
'Stranger Than Fiction'
The Narrator-as-God motif is apparently not uncommon in literature. Neither evidently is the Author-as-Real-Life-Character-with-Her or His-Creations. At least literary types have advised me that this is so.
But since most of my reading is of the non-fiction variety, my exposure to these narrative devices is pretty limited. In fact, I've encountered it only once, back in the mid-1970s, during a fit of post-college "I'm Going to Read Fiction" resolve. I started with Hermann Hesse and moved onto Kurt Vonnegut, both of whose work I enjoyed. But it was Vonnegut's then-newest novel, Breakfast of Champions, his fiftieth birthday present to himself, that intrigued me most.
In its climactic scene, Vonnegut himself appears near the scene of an automobile accident suffered by Kilgore Trout. Trout was a creation of Vonnegut's, a pornographer who had played a part in one of his previous books. Dazed, confused, injured, Trout wonders who this figure in the night is. I created you, Vonnegut tells him. He goes on to say that he's going to transform Kilgore Trout from a sleazy porn writer into a literary giant who produces works of enduring importance. All will be changed.
There's poignance in The Breakfast of Champions as its author with God-like power changes the lives of his fictional creations, but can't change his own life in the way he most wants. He can't fulfill his fondest dream. He can't be young again.
Poignance aside, the device employed by Vonnegut of entering his story and interacting with his creation always intrigued me.
Stranger Than Fiction, the film starring Will Ferrell and a fantastic cast takes the device further. Ferrell's character, Harold Crick, it turns out, also appears fully formed in the imagination of novelist Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson.
In a way, this is far more complicated than Vonnegut's trick in Breakfast of Champions. Here, Crick, though imagined by a novelist, is also a real person. He becomes aware of the voice of a narrator, Eiffel, who is telling the story of his everyday life. That's startling enough.
But then, waiting at the bus stop on his way home from work, Harold hears his death foreshadowed. Naturally enough, he tries at first to find a way to change his fate and then, to live his life fruitfully and well while he can.
Along the way, Ferrell's Crick is helped by a fantastic cast of characters, most notably a professor of literature, played by Dustin Hoffman, and a baker audited by Ferrell's IRS agent, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Emma Thompson, as always, is fantastic, this time as an author struggling with writer's block, then churning out a classic only to change it dramatically in the end. Queen Latifah is effective in her role, although there isn't much substance to her role.
Ferrell gives a fine performance in a part that some might have played like Chance the Gardener in Being There. Harold, in fact, may have been a bit like Chance as this movie starts. For all we know, Harold may have appeared only as an adult, a creature without a past, a cardboard cutout without substance. But as the story moves along, the narrator and Ferrell himself make him more real, more compelling. I found myself desperately wanting this character not to die.
I won't give away the ending at this point. But I will say that this film raises a lot of questions.
First among them is why we don't see more films like this: thoughtful, not heavy-handed, with interesting quirky characters.
This was my first Will Ferrell movie. I liked it. You might like it too.
[UPDATE: Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert...Spoiler Alert
One of the most interesting aspects of Stranger Than Fiction, from a Christian perspective, comes in its denoument. Harold finds author Karen Eiffel. She gives him the entire manuscript to read. Included are Eiffel's outline of its last pages, which call for Harold's death.
Desperate, Harold takes the unfinished book to Professor Hilbert (Hoffman). He wants the professor to find a way the book can be changed so that his life will be spared.
Hilbert reads the manuscript and meets Harold the next morning. He informs Harold that this is the climactic masterpiece of Eiffel's literary career. The fictional rendering of Harold's death is essential to the greatness of the work.
In essence, Hilbert, who we learn is also a lifeguard at a local pool, someone who presumably has a preference for saving lives, tells Harold that he must accept his death sentence.
Eiffel, who has perfectly recounted the events of Harold's life to this point, must now be allowed to administer Harold's death sentence by completing her narrative. There is no alternative.
Like most people given a death sentence, whether by a jury or an oncologist, Harold tries to bargain with his fate. He weeps as he tells Hilbert he'd hoped, especially with so many wonderful things now happening in his life, that his death could be avoided. It's a bit like Jesus' Garden of Gethsemane experience in which the Savior, fully aware of what awaited Him the next day, prays that the cup of death might pass Him by.
Christ, of course, ultimately accepted the Father's will that He die in place of fallen humanity so that all who believe in Him may live forever.
After reading Eiffel's manuscript himself, Harold returns it to the author and pronounces that she must finish the novel. He's accepted his death, presumably because of the reason for it and its consequences.
Harold wakes up the next morning, knowing that in a short while, he will stand in front of a moving bus to save the life of a boy who will ride his bicycle into harm's way. Harold exchanges his life for that of another, certainly reminiscent of what Christ did for the whole human race.
This sort of self-giving love is compelling to us all. This is why Jesus is such an attractive figure, even for those who profess no faith in Him.
Of course, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus, unlike the fictional Harold Crick, was sinless and that in His death, He accepted our rightful punishment for our sin. But it seems to me that in most people we deem heroic can be seen the faint echoes of the ultimate hero, Who died for the sins of the world. Jesus is the One of Whom John the Baptizer exclaimed: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)
For the Christian adult, Stranger Than Fiction isn't an altogether bad film to see during Lent.]