Faith and Film No. 2

I know most of you haven’t seen my favorite movie. It’s really not that surprising to me at all. Stranger than Fiction came out in 2006 and wasn’t much of a hit. It starred Will Ferrell, the overblown manchild behind Talledega Nights and Anchorman. His comedic talents are a known factor and produce expected results. This movie, however, isn’t a comedy at all. It’s a morality story.

Over the years I’ve met people who watch it and dislike it because Will Ferrell simply isn’t even trying to be funny. You see, Stranger than Fiction is a tragedy, it the classical sense. It’s the story of a man on a path that will take his career, his hope, and even his life. Along the way, he learns the tragedy is actually a beautiful comedy, played a little too close to the edge of destruction. When people overlook this movie, I personally believe they miss something beautiful; a charming, quirky movie with a message worth exploring. The trailer is played below to give you a short glimpse at its concept:

Needless to say, Stranger than Fiction is an overlooked movie. It’s quite ingenious though. It’s all about Harold Crick, a well-groomed and meticulous IRS agent who lives a structured, yet unfulfilling life. One day, as he’s brushing his teeth and counting the strokes, he hears a woman’s voice narrating his life and the story begins in earnest.

At first, he believes he’s crazy (and so does his psychiatrist). At the behest of his doctor, he seeks out Jules Hilbert, a professor of literature at a local university. The two of them dissect the woman’s comments and come to the conclusion that Harold is living the story she narrates. Their first reaction is to do nothing, literally nothing. Harold doesn’t go to work, he just sits around with some horrifying consequences (a crane destroys his apartment). After some changes in behavior (Harold relaxes, learns to play the guitar, and even falls in love) and some clever investigation, he actually discovers the narrator is a woman named Karen Eiffel. He is devastated to learn she only writes tragedies (specifically, she writes books about people who die). 

At the same time, the subplot of the movie is the search for Harold’s death. The author has writer’s block and she just can’t seem to put all the pieces together. She’s woven a story full of interconnected people including a novice bus driver, several eccentric IRS agents, an antagonistic baker, a young boy learning to ride his bike, and Harold’s wristwatch. It’s clever, but she can’t seem to wrap it up in any kind of satisfactory way. She just can’t kill Harold Crick. After several ideas fail, she finally discovers a poetic and fitting way to tie everyone together with Harold’s death. Sitting down to type it up, she hears the phone ring and discovers none other than Harold Crick on the phone line. To her horror, Harold is a real person and the story suddenly takes on a new meaning. She is hesitant to kill Harold and Harold longs to live because his newfound life has given him plenty of reasons to stick around. 

The story could take a typical route at this moment, but actually veers off in another direction. Jules, the literature professor, gets a copy of the book, fittingly entitled Death and Taxes. He reads the story of Harold Crick and comes to a profound conclusion, it’s Karen Eiffel’s masterpiece. In a bit of self-referential comedy, Jules gives the manuscript to Harold and encourages him to read it. Lost and confused, Harold reads the book in one sitting as he rides a bus around town. We watch him laugh, cry, and react to the moments that have come to define his existence. The introspection turns bittersweet when he shows up at Karen Eiffel’s door and tells her “I love your book. Don’t change a thing.” 

We watch her type the final draft and in a fit of rage, destroy her typewriter. She is heartbroken because Harold is real. Her masterpiece is something she just can’t finish.

The story picks up later that night. Harold goes to Ana Pascal’s house. She was the baker who caused him so much trouble earlier in the movie. Surprisingly, they have fallen for each other and all Harold wants to do is spend one more night with his love. He wakes up early the next morning, gets ready, and heads to work. As Harold heads out, the narrator begins to speak again. She describes Harold walking towards the bus and the young boy learning to ride his bike appears. He trips, falling with his bike in front of the oncoming bus. Harold leaps to the rescue, saving the boy, but not himself. Harold is hit by the bus and lays there motionless in the street. The shocked crowd doesn’t know what to do. 

The movie pauses, then jumps to Jules’ office. It’s the place he sat with Harold discussing these rare circumstances. Karen Eiffel appears with a copy of her new manuscript. She begs him to read the ending. After reading it, Jules looks up, and begrudgingly says to her “it’s okay.” Fiddling with the carpet, and sitting in a way that’s withdrawn and sullen, she relays that she couldn’t kill Harold because “it’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die, and then dies. But if the man does know he’s going to die, and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it. Isn’t that the type of man you want to keep alive?”

The movie ends with Harold and Ana in the hospital, he’s badly injured but he’ll be okay. The monologue that ends the movie reflects upon the simple, beautiful things in life we often overlook – hugs, doing good for others, and the familiarity of a familiar face. 

Without being too obvious, the big picture lesson seems incredibly spiritual.

Jesus told us “greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” in John 15:13. At the cross, Jesus died for our sins, knowing He didn’t have to. You remember the scene at Gethsemane. He prayed in anguish, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will,” in Matthew 26:39. He knew what awaited Him the very next day, (i.e. pain, lies, betrayal, blasphemy, and death) yet still faced all of it with dignity, grace, and perspective. In the words of Karen Eiffel, “that’s the type of person we should want to keep alive.”

In an indirect way, Harold illustrates an important aspect of Christ’s sacrifice we often overlook – His willingness. Just like Harold, Christ knew He had to die to save someone else. Just like Harold, Christ knew His sacrifice made sense (in the bigger picture). Just like Harold, Christ knew His wishes were not more important than the needs of anyone else. I find it worth saying, Christ is the greatest example of selfless behavior our world has even seen. Nothing comes close, but if you’re looking for something that demonstrates the actions of a selfless man, watch Stranger than Fiction. As Christians, we’re expected to be Christ-like. Harold Crick, a fictional character from an overlooked movie does a good job of showing us what that looks like. 

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.