The Best Film You Didn't See Last Year: A Review of Stranger Than Fiction

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Christianity Today hails this movie as “the best film you didn’t see last year” and goes on to cite a number of Christ allusions in the film. But I found myself more interested in what the film says about me than about God. I know that sounds a little self-absorbed, but then, that is what we do with stories--try to see ourselves in them. As C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone”. While I watched the film, a sentence from Oscar Wilde danced continuously in my brain, “One’s real life is so often the life one does not lead”. This is the nut-shell irony of Marc Forster’s darkly funny and intelligent film, Stranger than Fiction.

IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) wakes up to a voice in his head, scratching away at his brain. The voice is relentless. It punctures the monotonous bubble of his existence with little darts of awareness. The mundane details of his life take on the shape of metaphors. He notices for the first time that the sound of shuffling papers “is like a deep and endless ocean.” Beautiful. Enigmatic. Mysterious. The voice draws him down a rabbit hole.

We discover that the voice belongs to a laconic writer, Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), who is struggling for a way to kill off her main character—also named Harold Crick—in her book Death and Taxes. By some telepathic alchemy, she and Crick are linked.

When psychotherapy fails to exorcise the voice in his head, Crick seeks the help of a literary critic, Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). In true literary fashion, Crick sets off on a quest to discover whether he is involved in a comedy or a tragedy. When Crick falls in love, he thinks it must be a comedy. But then he hears Eiffel’s third-person omniscient voice say, “Little did he know…”, and Crick is convinced he is in a tragedy.

Neither Crick nor Eiffel know of each other’s existence until near the end of the film. The plot turns on Crick’s horrifying discovery that the voice giving him life is also the voice propelling him toward death. His story has an abrupt end. Professor Hilbert cannot comfort Crick. Hilbert explains to Crick that Eiffel writes great tragic fiction and so her novel can only end with Crick’s death—otherwise it wouldn’t be a great novel.

“You’re asking me to knowingly face my death,” Crick asks?

“Yes,” Hilbert says.

And remarkably, Crick does. But there is a twist. I won’t spoil it for you.

A movie like this is like a path diverging in a wood; there are a number of metaphysical trails you could follow: the nature of consciousness, the mutability of fate, and of course, the idea that reality is stranger than fiction.

When asked what is the difference between reality and fiction, Tom Clancy once quipped, “Fiction has to make sense.” The obvious corollary--that reality does not have to make sense--is precisely what made the gospels so surprising to a man like C.S. Lewis, steeped as he was in the logic of myth. To Lewis, the story of a virgin birth, of God becoming a man, of Him dying on a cross to reconcile us to Him (rather than the other way around), of Him rising again on the third day, was all so strange and wonderful, so counterintuitive, so nonsensical that it had all the hallmarks of truth rather than fiction—of myth giving way to reality. In real life, we often find truth and love breaking the spell of fate. There is often less drama and more healing than we would have expected from a nihilistic universe or a universe populated by petty gods. It’s as if reality is somehow more sentimental than myth, more forgiving than fiction. Stranger.

In a moment of frustration over the escalating tension in his life, Crick explodes in front of Professor Hilbert, “This isn’t a philosophy or a literary theory to me—it’s my life!”

“Absolutely," Hilbert replies, “so just go make it the one you’ve always wanted.”

Moments later, Crick is blindsided by what is perhaps the best line in the movie. It occurs at breakfast. Crick’s roommate is idly scanning an ad for Space Camp on the back of a Cheerios box:

Crick frowns and asks, “Aren’t you too old for Space Camp?”

Still chewing, his roommate says, “You’re never too old for Space Camp, dude.”

With that, the spell of Crick’s unconsciousness is finally broken. He goes out and buys himself an electric guitar. His real life begins: all comedy, all tragedy, all unexpected salvation. He is awake at last.

When I sit back and think about this film, I get happy. I get the impression that I am more than just a nomad in some featureless landscape. My life has a moral trajectory, a style of aspiration. The only real tragedy is for me not to see it, not to respond to it—to let myself evaporate into Oscar Wilde’s Neverland where, “one’s real life is so often the life one does not lead.”

What we see in the metaphors of our life is the chance to awaken, to become alert, to choose. And when we are conscious enough to accept our real life, we accept our real fate. And ironically, it is just here—at this point of acceptance—where we make room for the forces that will change our fate. We find our plot sentimentally and mercifully twisted. Reality is stranger than fiction. It doesn’t make sense in the best sort of way. Thank God.

Stranger Than Fiction trailer.

Stranger Than Fiction is rated PG-13 and is available from

Marc Wagner obtained his MD degree and Masters in Public Health from Loma Linda University, 2000. He lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife Janine, 4-year-old son Levi, and 10-month old daughter, Cortney. He enjoys words and music, windsurfing, snowskiing, and going on adventures with Janine and the kids.

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