Stranger than Fiction (2006 film)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Stranger than Fiction is a 2006 American tragicomedic film, an extended film essay on literary theory, narratology, archetypal literary criticism and point of view in literature. The film is directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm, and stars Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, and Linda Hunt. The soundtrack features "Dubbing in the Back Seat" by Lee Perry.
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a dull auditor for the Internal Revenue Service who is awakened alone each morning by his wristwatch. He is a compulsive counter and an obsessive time-saver. One day, Harold begins to hear the voice of a woman who is omnisciently narrating his life. Harold attempts to communicate with the voice, but soon realizes the speaker does not know that he can hear her. During the same day, Harold is assigned to audit an intentionally tax-delinquent baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In spite of his ethics, Harold becomes sexually attracted to her. Later that afternoon, Harold's watch stops working while he is waiting for the bus. Harold resets his watch to a time given by a bystander and hears his narrator remark that this "simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death."
Interspersed with Harold's experiences, we meet the narrator - chain-smoking, reclusive, self-absorbed author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Suffering from writer's block, she tells her new assistant Penny (Queen Latifah) she is unable to come up with a suitable way to kill Harold Crick. Over the course of the movie, we see her imagining several possible deaths (all of which peripherally involve a boy on a bicycle and a newly hired bus driver.) She also visits a hospital emergency room, where she despairs that the people there are merely "infirm", and demands to see the patients who are dying.
Anxious at the ominous narration, Harold sees a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) who attributes the voice to schizophrenia. However, after Harold insists that schizophrenia is not the case, the psychiatrist recommends he visit a literary expert. Harold then visits Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for advice on how to change his apparent destiny. At first, Hilbert is also convinced that Harold is crazy, but is intrigued to learn that the narrator had begun by saying "Little did he know..."; implying that she knew more than Harold knew. Hilbert interviews Harold and decides he must first properly ascertain the genre of his story. He declares that to understand literature, one must generally choose between two faces of the human story: comedy or tragedy.
Harold returns to Ana's bakery, where by her actions, she ensures that the audit is an unbearable experience for him. At the end of the day, she bakes him a batch of cookies, insisting that he eat some while explaining that she had dropped out of Harvard Law School to bake cookies, because she feels that her positive imprint on the world would be through baked goods. She pleads that he take the remaining cookies home, but Harold rejects this offer, because it constitutes bribery for an auditor (or possibly because that would change one of the answers he gave Hilbert during the interview), and insists on purchasing them instead. Ana, offended by the idea, tells him to go home.
Harold attempts to find out if he truly is in control of his own destiny by staying at home and not performing any action which might bring an untimely death, on the grounds that if he controlled the outcome, nothing would interrupt him. The experiment is interrupted when a demolition crew mistakes Harold's apartment building for an abandoned building and attempts to tear it down. Learning of this latest development, Hilbert feels that Harold's death is unavoidable and tells him that instead of trying to prevent the death, he should spend his remaining time fulfilling his dreams. Taking Hilbert's advice, Harold begins to live his life as he only had dreamed: he takes a lengthy vacation; he rekindles a desire to play the guitar, becomes friends with Dave, a co-worker (Tony Hale), ignores the numerical measurements of his actions, and mutually pursues and courts Ana (she bakes him cookies, and in return he buys her a variety of flours), who overcomes her antagonism for him and responds passionately. This last leads Harold to suppose that his story is a comedy, wherein the protagonists' feelings of hatred for each other change into affection.
At Professor Hilbert's office, as they are trying to identify the author of Harold's story, Harold notices on the TV a 10 year old interview with Karen Eiffel, who is talking about her next book, Death and Taxes. Harold immediately recognizes Karen's voice as that of his narrator. Hilbert, surprised, states that in every one of her books, the protagonist dies just as life becomes worthwhile.
Harold then begins a frantic search to find Karen Eiffel, eventually tracking her down through a decade-old IRS file. Harold telephones as she is typing the end of her novel, just as she adds the period to the line "The phone rang". Harold comes to the apartment and explains that he is the leading character of her story and that he does not want to die. Karen is stunned to learn that all she had typed has happened to a man living in her own realm of experience and is therefore horrified at the possibility that the cruel deaths she wrote for her previous protagonists had occurred to similarly real people. On the advice of her assistant Penny, she gives him the manuscript of the story, with the still untyped ending, and tells him to read it. Deciding that he cannot bring himself to read the manuscript, Harold gives it to Professor Hilbert to read first.
When Harold receives the manuscript back from Hilbert the next day, Hilbert says that the story is a masterpiece and cannot be changed. He adds that because death is inevitable, Harold should accept it now. Harold then gets on a city bus and spends all day there reading the manuscript. Upon finishing, he encounters Karen and tells her that he is willing to die this meaningful death. Harold then spends a night with Ana, whom he tells he adores; that all of the baked goods that she gives away can be written off as a charitable contribution; and that he will prevent her incarceration. He wakes up the next morning, prepared to face his destiny.
Karen calmly narrates his day. Coincidentally, his death is to occur on the same day that he expects to return to work after vacation. It turns out that after his watch had stopped, Harold unknowingly set it to run three minutes ahead, based on the time that a bystander had told him. Instead of being exactly on time for the 8:17 AM bus, he arrives three minutes early — just in time to push a little boy riding a bicycle out of the way of the bus, which hits Harold instead.
Karen, meanwhile struggles to type the final words leading to Harold's death. We soon learn that Karen decides not to kill off Harold Crick. She writes that he was saved by a piece of his wristwatch that had became lodged in his artery during the crash, preventing him from bleeding to death. Ana comes to visit Harold in the hospital, where she sees that he has multiple broken bones and is in traction. Karen later visits Jules Hilbert, and asks his opinion of her alternate ending. Hilbert replies that it was, "Okay, not great, but okay." In her defense, Karen explains to Hilbert that she could not bring herself to kill Harold; that all of her previous protagonists had been unaware of their demise, but that Harold was aware of it, and chose to sacrifice himself willingly. Even though his survival, in her opinion, is a weaker story, she cannot bring herself to kill him, because his selflessness is simply too worthy of life. She plans to rewrite the rest of the book to make this ending more sensible--her assistant asking the publisher for more time, something that the assistant had never had to do. Her own visit to Hilbert--something that, as a recluse, is entirely out of character--is a maturation similar to that Harold undergoes in his own life.
The film borrows heavily from Niebla by Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish novel about a character who becomes aware he is being narrated by a writer and goes to visit him. Another possible influence is "The Comforters", the first novel by the Scottish writer Muriel Spark, in which the main character hears a voice narrating her life accompanied by the tapping of typewriter keys.
Geometrical and mathematical motifs occur frequently throughout the film. According to bonus features on the DVD release of the film, these represent Harold's "GUI" (graphical user interface): his thoughts as he takes in the world made visible, and were designed to reflect Harold's OCPD-like counting and measuring behaviors.
The last names of many characters can be connected to the last names of famous modern scientists and mathematicians: Francis Crick, James Watson, Gustave Eiffel, David Hilbert, Nicholas Mercator, Blaise Pascal, Arthur Cayley, and Gösta Mittag-Leffler. Penny Escher's name can be connected to M. C. Escher, a Dutch graphic artist whose work was heavily influenced by mathematics. The Kroenecker bus, which hits Harold, can be attributed to the famous mathematician of the same name, Leopold Kronecker. Karen Eiffel's publisher, Banneker Press, can be attributed to mathematician and clockmaker Benjamin Banneker. Other small mathematics and science references are slipped in, such as a mention of the corner of Euclid Street and Born Avenue.
A scene at the pool shows Prof. Hilbert, reading Sue Grafton's novel "I" Is for Innocent. Karen Eiffel's brainstorming for ways of killing her characters are similar to Grafton's early practice of recording maiming fantasies.
- Harold Crick isn't ready to go. Period.
- Harold Crick isn't ready to go. Full stop.
- Harold Crick always wondered what life was all about. Then it hit him.
- Harold Crick thought his life had no point. That's about to change.
- The story of his life!
- Truth is stranger than fiction.
- Harold Crick's not crazy, he's just written that way.
- Harold Crick's not weird, he's just written that way.
- Harold Crick has to accept what will happen to him.