Stranger Than Fiction is a film about storytelling, perhaps the purest film about storytelling and its construction that has ever been made. Its cast of characters, its narrative structure, its visual design, and its flowing style all emulate that of a pure story. It is not only a film about a writer with writer’s block, but it is also a story about a man who is trying to place himself in his own story, trying to make sense of the surrealistic events surrounding him. This is a story about life. Life being stranger than fiction.
Introducing the character in a fashion much more than reminiscent of a novel, the unseen narrator, the voice of God, gives us the character in specific detail. “This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wrist watch,” the narrator says. We learn about his daily routine through the narration, the visualization of the writer’s novel being apparent and aiding the viewer in the understanding the of character form that Will Ferrell takes. When he realizes he is hearing a voice, he seeks aid first from a psychiatrist and then from a literature professor, Prof. Jules Hilbert. It is then that Harold must place himself in a tragedy or a comedy. B y following a specific set of conventions, like any genre, Harold keeps track of the occurrences in his life and how they would fit.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot.” Marc Forster and writer Zach Helm utilize this structure throughout the film. When Harold and his object of desire, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) barb each other verbally, the camera looks at them typically with medium shots and long shots, having the audience concentrate more on the words than the reactions specifically. However, in one particular scene where Ana’s offer of cookies is unknowingly spurned by Harold, it is seen in close up. We see the change in facial reaction, the disappointment in Gyllenhaal’s face, and the tally marks Ferrell makes in his moleskin. Besides the mise-en-scene of Stranger Than Fiction, this aspect of the film just begs the question for everyone: Are we in a comedy or a tragedy? Harold has no idea how to deal with the sudden change in his life. As he slowly adjusts and adapts to accepting the narrator as someone who is merely reciting his life in a disconcertingly omniscient way, he is able to liberate himself from his obsessive compulsions and neuroticisms. This liberation from the constraints of anxiety is comedic, though not in the extremely broad sense one is used to. Forster refuses to use the typical, schmaltzy montage that usually plagues feel good movies about liberation. Instead, like a story, he and Helm give us one scene in which we can observe closely the gradual development of the character. Harold Crick can finally live his life, in a comedy or tragedy.
In another world, seemingly distant and separate from that of Harold’s world, is that of Karen Eiffel’s. Emma Thompson’s flawed and idiosyncratic author will go to almost any means to write her novel. The visualization of her struggle is hypnotic and reeks of realism. As she considers the various ways to kill her main character, whose name is Harold Crick, she places herself in the shoes of the victims and imagines herself in the tragedy. It is one of the truest statements about being a writer brought with integrity to the screen. To create situations in fiction, writers imagine what it is like to be that character and to experience what that character must experience. She stands on top of a building and jumps off, the viewer almost feelings the same “rush of winder against their face” as Ms. Eiffel. We are then transported back to her standing on top of a desk, trying desperately to feel the same depression and same yearning to jump as her would-be victim. This imagination and visual construction occurs elsewhere in the film, through car accidents in “inclement weather” and such. We are there struggling then to finish the story, just as Ms. Eiffel.
The visual design of the film is the most intriguing. Aside from the fact that Harold’s immaculate environment is similar to his creator’s and thus juxtaposed with the free spirit he falls in love with, the visual GUI, Graphic User Interface, is inherently part of the film itself. There would be a severe lack of understanding of Harold’s pathos without the animations on the screen. The animations portray his thought process, his idiosyncrasies, and his routine. It is a purely unique way of letting the audience inside the brain of the protagonist. The film is filled with the GUI animations at the beginning, but as Harold slowly becomes freer and looser, the animations disappear. The animations are representative of the anxiety and its constraint that Harold feels. The environments that Harold and Karen inhabit are clean and without clutter. They say you write what you know or infuse parts of yourself subconsciously in your characters in one’s writing, and that is shown with how very similar the two people are. Although the habits that both characters have are vastly different, the way that they restrict them from normal socializing is painfully similar.
The romance between Harold and Ana will remind one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It starts off with Ana telling Harold, who works for the Internal Revenue Service, to “get bent”. This structure of deepest loathing and witty banter, almost a pre-requisite for classical fictitious love, is constructed meticulously, not only by Zach Helm and Marc Forster, but by the story’s author, Karen Eiffel. Though we learn that she only writes tragedies, Eiffel fashions her story using similar conventions to that of screwball comedies and the Shakespearian comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This plot device of romance is utilized by Harold himself. There’s a slightly post-modern, self-examination of those conventions that have become so normal. That normality and the proceeding twist of the conventions was used, in a much different way, in the slasher film Scream. Although those characters know what kind of film they inhabit, Harold does not. He uses this to distinguish what novel he is exactly in. He keeps a moleskin book to tally the repartee between them, and, with much melancholy, concludes, “…I think I’m in a tragedy.”
The film gently satirizes literature theory every so often. The self-examination of conventions and clichés is used as a key plot point, but Jules Hilbert epitomizes the self-serious literature theory professor. However, the McGuffin is, in and of itself, a satirical poke at literature theory. Harold learns about his impending death in the most unpleasant of ways: through narration. “Little did he know that the simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” Going to Prof. Hilbert about this act of third-person omniscient narration, he is stunned and Hilbert proceeds to explain the importance of “Little did he know…” and the various classes and papers he has taught on that one line. Helm pokes a little fun at how self-serious literature theory can be, analyzing the slightest lines and mild imagery, expounding on the ideas and using them to represent even larger abstract philosophies.
Although its novel structure is important, its examination of life makes the film resonant and beautiful. Harold’s willingness to accept his death, despite his struggle to acknowledge it and accept it, is one of the true pieces of beauty in film. Through his struggle of accepting that he is a character in a book, that he may be perpetuating the plot, there is a transformation in his character. It is like a well written book, one that has a versatile protagonist who, instead of remaining static, is a round character. The film is about the little moments in life meaning the most. It does not ask the pretentious question about the meaning of life, or even try to answer it. Instead, Forster gently persuades the viewer, and Eiffel persuades the reader, to notice that the little things do count. She writes, “And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives.”
And thus, Stranger Than Fiction is one of the most underrated, quietly brilliant films of the last decade. Its romantic and slyly philosophical content, its satire and screwball sensibility, and its dynamic characters are all utilized to create a gorgeous tapestry of fiction. The examination of structure and story are wisely used throughout the film. It is a winning formula, meticulously directed and smartly written. Truth is stranger than fiction, but film is transcendent of it all.