Will Ferrell, theologian?
Excerpts from "Theology Is Stranger Than Fiction: The best film you didn't see last year" John Wilson, the editor of B&C has an intro worth repeating:
Who would have thought that Will Ferrell, master of fatuous farce and stupid stunts, could pull off a star turn in one of the most profoundly theological films of 2006? Judging from the tepid reviews of Stranger Than Fiction, not many. Theologian Sharon Baker and film critic Crystal Downing want to set things right.
Then, Baker and Downing get started in describing the theological links to an enjoyable and provocative movie. (Tonia and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. We didn't catch the "big picture" stuff outlined here. But we caught some of the general themes they underline: free will/predestination, the purpose of life, the value of sacrifice, etc.. In this sense, the movie is quite similar to another excellent but under-rated film, with a comedian as the star: The Truman Show.)
Stranger Than Fiction builds upon an experience reported by many novelists, in which fictional protagonists start taking on lives of their own, behaving in ways that their authors did not originally intend...
Stranger Than Fiction is also about an author with [homicidal] intentions. Kay Eiffel (played by a stupendous Emma Thompson) is a novelist who always kills off her protagonists. In her current project, Death and Taxes, she plans to do away with an IRS agent named Harold Crick. Problematically, this protagonist (played by Ferrell) overhears her plan.
Of course, we don't know this when the film begins with a voiceover: "This is a story about a man named Harold Crick … and his wristwatch." We soon discover that temporal and mathematical precision seem to control Harold's life—down to the way he counts brushstrokes while cleaning his teeth. In fact, all the characters and the streets in the film are named after famous mathematicians, as though to signal the predictable arithmetic that defines Harold's world.
Not too far into this provocative film, however, we begin to wonder who exactly controls Harold's life: Harold, who programs his watch and obsessively counts all his footsteps, or the narrator, who tells his story?...Seeking answers, Harold visits a literary critic, Professor Hilbert, who tells him, "You don't control your own fate." Is he right? Stranger Than Fiction arouses uncomfortable stirrings that accompany the asking of life's ultimate questions: Am I in control of my life? If not, who or what is? Or, as Harold asks, "Is my life going to be a comedy or a tragedy and who makes that decision?" Harold, in other words, becomes obsessed with understanding the mind of his maker.
Then, Baker and Downing refer back to the Sayers work that develops the over-arching theme of the film...
In 1941, Sayers published The Mind of the Maker, a work of literary theory which suggests that the relationship between an author and her creations parallels the relationship between God and human creation. Stranger Than Fiction adeptly illustrates her theory in the relationship between Harold and his maker, Kay. At first oblivious to his creator, Harold suddenly becomes aware of a guiding presence in his life. Nevertheless, after his moment of revelation, Harold sometimes hears Kay's narration and other times does not, just as we are sometimes intensely conscious of God's guiding presence in our lives and other times not.
Baker and Downing continue along these lines. But now I have to warn you that reading further will reveal some key parts of the climactic ending. If you don't want to spoil the surprise and the drama, go watch the movie and then return to the closing paragraphs. (That said, I should also tell you that there are potentially objectionable moments in this PG-13 movie. Although mild by many standards, if you avoid films that have any such things, this movie is not for you. The good news is that you can go ahead and finish reading this!)
In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers suggests that the relationship between the writer's idea and its fulfillment in the written word parallels the relationship between Creator God and the incarnated Christ. A quick read through the Stranger Than Fiction screenplay reveals that the writer, Zach Helm, may have intended just such a connection. Perturbed over being misunderstood, a flustered Harold says to a woman at a bus stop, "I … No. I'm … [Christ]" (the brackets indicate that the word is to be said under his breath). Reminiscent of Jesus' prayer of angst in the garden of Gethsemane, Harold pleads with Kay to spare his life. But Professor Hilbert, having read Kay's first draft, tells Harold that the story "is a masterpiece. You have to die." With agony, Harold responds, "You're asking me to knowingly face my death?" The answer, of course, is yes.
Upon reading his maker's book, Harold submits his life to his narrator's will, telling her, "I love [the story]. There is only one way it can end. I love your book." Therefore, just as Jesus "set his face toward Jerusalem" and his inevitable death, we watch with intrigue as Harold calmly, with resignation, prepares to die. He carefully chooses the apple he will take with him to the bus stop—the place of his death. Are we reminded here of the second Adam, a type of the first who brought sin into the world by eating a piece of fruit, commonly considered an apple? At the appointed place, Harold knowingly, willingly, steps in front of an oncoming bus to save a little boy from death. He dies—with a halo of blood framing his head—so that a child can live.
A heartbeat after this sober image, however, the screen is awash with a bright white light that resolves into a shot of Harold lying in bed—alive. Yes, he lives! Need we say more? Professor Hilbert is not so pleased that Harold lives. He questions Kay about her revision, to which she replies, "If a man does know he's going to die, and dies anyway … dies willingly, knowing he could stop it … you tell me … . Isn't that the type of man you want to keep alive?" Because of the submission of Harold's heart, what we thought would be a funeral scene becomes a resurrection celebration.
If Harold dies and lives as a type of Jesus Christ—a representative of the divine life, so to speak—he also represents our humanity. The meaning of Harold's existence comes to fruition only in the fullness of time. Significantly, the watch mentioned in Kay's opening voiceover saved his life, as his doctor explains: "Amazingly a shard of metal from your watch became lodged in the artery, causing your heart rate to slow, keeping your loss of blood down enough to keep you alive." Harold was embedded in time, yet the fullness of time was also embedded in Harold.
So with us all: though we cannot know for certain how or when we will die, we can live our lives embedded in time, making the most out of the time embedded in us. As exhorted by the one who is himself the fulfillment of all time, we can love our neighbors as ourselves.