Sunday, May 6, 2007

Films for Writers: Stranger Than Fiction

As a writer, I consider myself principally a storyteller. Whether the tale is one of fiction or non-fiction, everything I write aims to describe or convey some message, even when it's an advertorial on a lanscaping service. I think writers are inherently drawn to storytelling. We're fascinated by human nature, by the interactions between people, and we aim to capture that essence into our work, whatever our current project may be.

Since a very young age, I was attracted to storytelling. However, in addition to the written word, one of my biggest passions was (and still is) film. While Hollywood nowadays seems content with peddling the same old recycled bundle of cliches, brilliant storytelling still exists in today's cinematic landscape, and when it's truly acheived, the results can be exhibilirating and very inspiring, especially for writers

Personally, films are a great source of inspiration for me, and in keeping with the Table's "for writers by writers" tone, I have decided to institute an ongoing segment called Films for Writers, in which contributors can select a film which they feel will provide us writers with a sense of inspiration or which contributes some incisive commentary on the writing process (I'm sure Adaptation will turn up at some point...).

For the first entry in this series, I would like to place the spotlight on one of my favorite writing-related films: the unlikely gem Stranger Than Fiction. Directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), this brilliant comedy/drama stars Will Ferrell in a rare escape from his usual Ron Burgundy/Ricky Bobby schtick.

In a shockingly heartfelt and believeable performance, Ferrell plays tax auditor Harold Crick who one day discovers that a woman is narrating his every action, as he says, "accurately...and with a better vocabulary." As it turns out, this mysterious narrator is best-selling novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is stricken with writer's block as she attempts to find a way to kill off the protagonist of her latest novel, a protagonist named... Harold Crick. When Harold discovers, via the voice in his head, that he is marked for death, he seeks out the help of Dr. Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and tries desperately to thwart his own demise.

As a writer, I naturally connected to the very premise of this film, and it never fails to deliver on the promise it exhibits in the opening scenes. First-time screenwriter Zach Helm's ingenious script touches on numerous themes that will undoubtedly be familiar to many viewers, especially us writers. The film sets out to tell a wholly original and clever portrait of a man seizing his destiny rather than idling watching the days fall off the calender, and on that note, it succeeds remarkably. The film makes a rather explicit case for the carpe diem approach to life and addresses the interconnectedness that surrounds us but that we rarely (or never) see. Every moment, every action, as the laws of physics say, has a reaction. As in the film, every instance is a vital part of life and should be paid attention to... and cherished. And therein lies the film's greatest strength. In addtion to simply telling Harold's story, Stranger Than Fiction weaves in layers of subtext.

Kay's dilemma with writer's block is clearly a common environment for writers, and the film's idea that her writing has a direct effect on the real world (for example, her power over Harold's life) is certainly food for thought. As the driving force behind the film's plot, Kay's struggle ultimately must decide the film's ending. In a strange way, the film is a cinematic representation of her still-in-progress novel. We, the viewers, become just as invested in this character as his creator, and the film's final statement regarding Harold's fate is a fitting conclusion, one that simultaneously reaffirms and disregards the entire writing process.

In short, Stranger Than Fiction shines as one of the very best films of 2006. While all lovers of a smart, moving story are sure to be pleased, writers are certain to appreciate the film's literary connections and will be particularly inspired by its outstanding finale. After seeing the film for the first time, I left the theater unbelievably charged and inspired. Hopefully, your response will be the same.

Have any of you seen this film? Feel free to comment on my selection.

Also, I'd love to hear your suggestions on other films to include in Films for Writers. Ask me to be a contributor and perhaps you can even cover it yourself!

Shoot me some comments, people!


Spotlight Scene: Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Dr. Jules Hilbert: I've devised a test. How exciting is that? Composed of 23 questions which I think might help uncover more truths about this narrator. Now Howard... Harold, these may seem silly but your candor is paramount.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: So. We know it's a woman's voice. The story involves your death. It's modern. It's in English and I'm assuming the author has a cursory knowledge of the city.
Harold Crick: Sure.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: O.k., good. Question one. Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything. Gum, money, a large wooden horse.
Harold Crick: I'm sorry?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Just answer the question.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes to which you, let me finish, to which you may or may not have been invited?
Harold Crick: No. No, no, no.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Alright. On a scale of one to ten, what would you consider the likelihood you might be assassinated?
Harold Crick: Assassinated?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: One being very unlikely ten being expecting it around every corner.
Harold Crick: I have no idea.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: O.k. let me rephrase. [takes a deep breath] Are you the king of anything? Harold Crick: Like what?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Anything. King of the lanes at the local bowling alley.
Harold Crick: King of the lanes?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: King of the lanes, king of the trolls...
Harold Crick: King of the Trolls?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Yes, uh uh uh a clandestine land found underneath your floor boards.
Harold Crick: No. That's ridiculous.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Agreed. Let's start with ridiculous and move backwards. Now, was any part of you at one time part of something else?
Harold Crick: Like do I have someone else's arms?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Well is it possible at one time that you were made of stone, wood, lye, varied corpse parts? Or, earth made holy by rabbinical elders?
Harold Crick: No. Look, look. I'm sorry, but what do these questions have to do with anything?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Nothing. The only way to find out what story you're in is to determine what stories you're not in. Odd as it may seem, I've just ruled out half of Greek literature, seven fairy tales, ten Chinese fables, and determined conclusively that you are not King Hamlet, Scout Finch, Miss Marple, Frankenstein's Monster, or a golem. Hmm? Aren't you relieved to know you're not a golem?
Harold Crick: Yes. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Good. Do you have magical powers?
Stranger Than Fiction is available now on DVD.


  1. I really want to see this...I'll have to rent it....

  2. I agree with you completely on this film. I was inspired and grateful for Stranger than Fiction. It evoked a feeling within me that had gone numb from the daily grind as a writer/editor for a TV news station. I revisited my passion for words and story. Beautiful.