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Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

The 2006 movie Stranger than Fiction is proof positive that the fantastic is able to explore the depths of reality, a subject that realism never seems to be able to grasp. It does so in a light handed and entertaining but intelligent fashion by weaving together romance and comedy with excellent performances by an outstanding cast.

The film tells the story of Harold Crick, a very dull IRS agent whose life is run by his watch but discovers that it is actually being controlled by a novelist who is writing her masterpiece for which she is plotting his imminent death.  Crick, played with touching innocence by Will Ferrell, seeks to escape his seemingly inevitable death.  In his frantic quest he encounters and is helped by Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the charming anarchist baker, and the literature professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).  Finally, he meets Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the narrator of his life, who is horrified that her literary creation could be killing a real person.

Such a fantastic story raises several of life’s crucial issues.  Indirectly, and at times not so indirectly, it treats of the relation between God and his creation, the role and responsibility of the author and her creation, human freedom and significance, and the question of tragedy and comedy.  I’d like to investigate the question of why we moderns tend to think that tragedy is more profound than comedy.

Professor Hilbert informs Crick that the key issue is whether the narrative is a comedy or a tragedy.  In the most simple terms, a tragic narrative is one in which the hero is fated to come an unhappy end.  In classic literary theory, a comedy is not defined as a funny story, as we often think, but as a story that ends happily.  When Hilbert reads a draft of the novel, he tells Crick that he must die for the novel to be a masterpiece.  Later, when Eiffel asks Hilbert for his opinion of the novel with a happy ending, he says that it is okay.  Not great, but okay.  Even though Hilbert seems to agree on one level with Eiffel’s decision, he does feel that somehow the work is less profound.  Why?

Since at least the eighteenth century, the modern age has been attempting to construct a civilization based upon human reason without belief in a divine creator.  The overarching narrative or metanarrative of modernity is tragic and necessarily so.  All men are fated to die.    Men can act freely and even nobly, but there is no escaping their fate or overcoming it because there is no God and no possibility of a happy ending.  Ultimately, to hope and to strive is an absurd, pointless act of rebellious folly.  Thus, tragedy reflects the truth and is consequently more profound than comedy.

It is highly significant that medieval civilization found its greatest literary expression in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The reason for this was its essentially Christian worldview.  The Christian metanarrative is fundamentally comedic.  At the center is a God who loves mankind and acts for its benefit.  This is the story of the gospel, the good news, which ends triumphantly with the new heavens and the new earth and a world freed from suffering and injustice.

Stranger than Fiction’s triumphant and happy ending recognizes the limitations of the tragic worldview.  In an almost unheard of affirmation of the writer’s moral responsibility for the effect of her work, Eiffel states that Crick’s sacrifice for the good demonstrates that he is a man who ought to live, even though it goes against the narrative that she has created and will force her to rewrite the story.  The film ends with a strong affirmation of the significance of our small lives in a larger story and even alludes to God’s overarching plan.

Nevertheless, Stranger than Fiction does not attain the profundity of the Christian gospel.  The movie’s story is that the author/creator responds to the goodness of a man’s sacrifice and willingly changes her story.  In Christianity, the creator, the author of reality’s metanarrative, sacrifices himself in the person of Jesus Christ to overcome man’s fatal flaws and frees him from their tragic consequences.  It is a totally unexpected ending.  Human reason could never have seen it.

Human reason still can’t, which is why the film is called Stranger than Fiction. “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.  Truth isn’t.”[1]  This fascinating quotation from Mark Twain gives room for more freedom in reality or truth than there is in fiction.  Why is that?  Fiction needs to be credible to the human mind, even in its more imaginative genres.  Reality does not have to.

G. K. Chesterton has his fictional detective Basil Grant agree with Twain’s quotation, but with an explanation. His brother Rupert asks whether he believes that truth is stranger than fiction. Basil replies, “Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction … For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”[2] The implication is that human reason has its limitations.  It works in fixed patterns and seeks to impose order on reality.  When given absolute power as the final arbiter of truth, unaided reason will create the tragic worldview or something similar to it.

The human mind needs something from the outside to free it.  The revelation of God in the Christian gospel catches human reason off guard, even shocks it.  Yet the gospel reveals to man something that he desires—that there is hope and meaning in the world.  If reason submits to the gospel, it is able to see reality as something expansive and exhilarating and not finally tragic.  So, yes, truth is stranger than fiction.   Now, go watch the movie, and if you have, watch it again.

[1] I’m indebted to for the source of the full quotation from which the movie’s title is taken.  The article includes numerous references to Twain’s quotation from writer’s as diverse as G. K. Chesterton and Tom Clancy.  I’ve reflected a little on the quotation from Chesterton, who was the subject of my dissertation.

[2] “The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent,” The Club of Queer Trades (London: Penguin Books, 1946) , 66.

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