As a writer, I’m naturally interested in stories about the writing process. Not every one of those stories is to my liking, of course, particularly when they make it look like becoming a published writer is a whimsical, simple matter. But there are some stories that really capture the agony and absurdity of the eternal striving for writing excellence. If you can throw in a little surreal fantasy, all the better!
Stranger than Fiction is an odd little movie (directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm), with a very understated role for the usually over-the-top Will Ferrell. He plays Harold Crick, who is introduced by the narrator as a mild-mannered, routine-driven IRS auditor…who can suddenly hear the narrator speaking. The narration is unaffected by this phenomenon, continuing to describe Harold’s goings-on undisturbed, but Harold is understandably perturbed, particularly when the narrator announces his impending death. Unlike a character in a screwy comedy, he addresses the mystery methodically, as perhaps any of us would. When doctors and therapists have no explanations for him, he finally approaches a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), figuring that if anyone understands narrators, it would be someone who studies books for a living.
Their conversations are quietly hilarious, as the professor systematically determines what sort of category character Harold would be, and hence who would be writing him. Meanwhile, the audience is allowed to find out before he does with an introduction to the reclusive Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has a bad case of writer’s block. All of her books kill off the main character. Now she’s trying to figure out how to kill Harold Crick.
There are other plot strands, including Harold’s unexpected romance with a tax-dodging baker (leading to one of my favorite puns, “I brought you flours.”), but it’s all leading up to the question — is Harold really about to die? Is there any way to avoid it? Does Karen have any idea what’s going on?
Eventually, just as Karen gets her brilliant idea for the death scene, Harold and the professor realize who his narrator is, and he manages to contact her. There is a marvelous scene with Karen typing her manuscript on a typewriter, and as soon as she types, “The phone rang” her phone rings. She’s already sensing something odd is happening when she finally answers — and finds herself speaking to a character of her own invention.
There is no explanation for this, whether Harold existed before Karen wrote him, how much of his life is under his control, or whether this has happened with any of her other characters. Too much of that would muddy the story. The important question is: if you have created a beautiful story, with a perfect, heartbreaking death for your main character, is it worth it to sacrifice him? Even if he’s a real person? Surely not. But Harold’s potential death is heroic and meaningful. Even Harold, when he asks to read Karen’s draft, can understand its poignancy. But how could you kill a real person just for a good story?
Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that it’s satisfying, and beautiful, and thought-provoking. It’s a truly bizarre story that can only serve as a metaphor, since we can reasonably assume that no writers have the power to actually create real people. But sometimes they feel so real. What if you could meet them face-to-face? Would they hate you for tormenting them so much? It really can be a terrible wrench to put them through all the suffering necessary for a good story. Sometimes being a writer can feel downright cruel. And sometimes it feels like ruthlessness is the only way to break through writer’s block. These are lots of hard questions without any simple answers, but this movie is a kindred spirit for any writer devoted to seeking those answers.