Stories about Stories

Stranger than Fiction (2006, directed by Marc Forster) tells the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), as an auditor who realises that a woman’s voice has started to narrate the mundane events of his day to day life. What really upsets Harold, however, is when he hears the voice say, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act, would result in his imminent death.” Harold tries talking to psychiatrists, and it doesn’t work, so he visits literary experts instead. When visiting the office of University lecturer Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Harold overhears the voice of a woman in an interview Hilbert is watching and discovers that the voice that is narrating his life is in fact the voice of novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Hilbert points out to Harold, however, that she has a history of killing her characters off; and it would appear that Harold is somehow one of these doomed characters.

A long time ago, when I initially saw this film advertised, I dismissed it as something silly. I thought Will Ferrell was a vacuous, overly loud comedy player and the idea of a man whose life was being narrated was an irritating gimmick. The first time I saw Stranger than Fiction, I fell instantly in love with it and Ferrell became one of my favourite actors of all time.

As a work of fiction itself, the film raises some self-aware issues of storytelling and the relationship between the writer and their creations, as well as a writer and a reader (or viewer). There is a short scene where Eiffel guiltily contemplates how many characters she has killed, and in such heart-breaking circumstances. Speaking to her personal assistant, she exclaims quietly, “Penny I killed them all.” Eiffel’s genuine struggle with this life or death decision prompts questions of whether art is built around the appreciation of suffering, and if a man should lay down his life for the sake of a good ending. As Eiffel wrestles with the morality of killing her characters, so do we feel does the writer of Stranger than Fiction himself, Zach Helm. As an audience, we don’t want to see poor Harold Crick die, and we are dimly aware in the back of our minds that it is in fact Helm, not Eiffel, who is making that decision.

Other ideas which come to the fore are Harold’s decision to embrace his fate and to make the most of his life in the meantime. He pursues a successful relationship with Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a montage shows him teaching himself to play guitar, spending time with his friends and watching Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) at the cinema. Although ultimately not in charge of the ending of his story, Harold does finally takes control of the rest of it.

When Harold goes to see Hilbert to find out if he had had any thoughts as to how the ending of the book could be changed to facilitate his survival, Hilbert delivers the news to Harold like a doctor giving him a terminal diagnosis. It as if the ending; the beauty of the story and Crick taking the opportunity to embrace this perfect ending, is all that is important. He mustn’t ruin Eiffel’s “masterpiece” and what is written for him is “poetic” and “meaningful”. Ferrell’s teary, crestfallen delivery is impeccable here. Eventually – after reading the whole novel on the bus in one go – even Harold himself agrees with Hilbert. He finds Eiffel and tells her to finish her book the way she’s drafted it.

Thompson plays a wonderful exaggeration of the morbid writer trying to think up ways to kill off her main character. The funniest moment for me is when she visits a hospital and stops a nurse to ask, “Most of these people are sick or injured. Which is great, don’t get me wrong… is there any way to see the people who aren’t going to get better?” Thompson’s ambivalent mixture of shock and affection when she actually meets Harold and sees that he is real is very well calculated and delivered.

The idea of a film featuring characters who meet their creators is never dealt with more abundantly than in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005, directed by Steve Bendelack.) Here, the characters of Royston Vasey go into the real world and confront their creators to plead for their lives (as with Harold Crick).

In the story, the League of Gentlemen (Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson) have decided to stop writing about Vasey, and as a result of this, their fictional world is falling apart. This film (based on the flawless TV show which ran for three series), has the added, brain-melting dimension that the creators of the show who the characters are tracking down, are also playing said characters (with the exception of Jeremy Dyson, who writes but doesn’t act. Dyson’s part is played in the film by Michael Sheen).

The main themes in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse is about a writer’s creation bleeding into their own life and taking on a separate, possibly dangerous, existence of their own. Writers of such iconic characters, who no doubt still have catch-phrases parroted to them wherever they go, must have personal experience of their creations seeming to exist beyond the boundaries that were written for them. The tables are turned in this film when the creations become a life-threatening presence to the writers, forcing them to take stock of what they have brought into being and then abandoned, “It’s about time you took responsibility for your actions.”

It is worth noting that the feature-length special of Red Dwarf, Back to Earth (2009, written and directed by Doug Naylor) almost completely stole the plot of The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.  Until series ten of Red Dwarf, I was a hardcore fan, and Naylor only manages to circumnavigate going to Writer’s Hell for his blatant thievery because he is simultaneously parodying Blade Runner; playing on the idea of replicants who seek their creators in order to demand a longer life span. Or, in Lister’s words, “I want more life, Smegger.” I don’t know how Naylor stealing from two things is somehow better than him just stealing one thing, it just is.

Inkheart (2008, directed by Iain Softley) based on the book by Cornelia Funke, features Mo (Brendan Fraser) as a Silvertonge who has the power to read characters out of books. However, the deal is that one living thing is read out of the book, something else must go in to equal the equation. Years ago, Mo inadvertently read his wife into the book and Inkheart’s villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) out.

The scene which best exemplifies the creator/created dynamic in this film is when Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) a fire-dancing character from Inkheart who wishes to be read back into the book so that he can be reunited with his wife, helps Mo to track down the book’s author, Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent). The hope is that Fenoglio will have another copy of the book for Mo to read from. Fenoglio’s reaction is one of complete awe when he sees Dustfinger for the first time, “Exactly as I imagined him” but then he becomes rather irritating arrogant, “This must be what it feels like to give birth.” Conversely, there is a look of child-like fear in Dustfinger’s eyes when Fenoglio approaches him – he doesn’t want to know what happens to him in the book. However, the colossally tactless Fenoglio lets slip that he dies. Dustfinger’s retort is, “You think I care what you wrote? You don’t control my fate…. and you are not my God.” Dustfinger’s outrage is almost the polar opposite to Harold Crick’s tearful acceptance of the ending that has been written for him.

The characters featured in these films are in turns devastated and affronted by their creator’s attempts to control their lives and, ultimately, their deaths. What these stories about stories do is to prompt us to ask ourselves;-If we knew that we were characters filling the pages of a book, would we care whether or not our lives were artistically pleasing, or would we just track down our writers to ask for more time? Thanks for reading. You’re the best.


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