Stranger Than Fiction Theme Analysis Essay

On By In 1

Will Farrell in Stranger Than Fiction. Columbia Pictures hide caption

toggle caption
Columbia Pictures

The premise of the new movie Stranger Than Fiction sounds perfect for comedian Will Farrell. He plays a man who discovers that he's a character in a novel, and that his every action is controlled by the novel's author.

But what sounds like a knockabout comic premise turns out to have some interesting nuances.

Harold Crick is the most boring guy you can imagine. A tax auditor for the IRS, he has no life, not even a fantasy life, which makes it strange when he starts to hear a voice. It's an omnicient female narrator (Emma Thompson) with a British accent, talking about HIM, as he does the things he usually does... like brushing his teeth.

The voice-of-God thing gets disconcerting enough after a few days that Harold decides to get outside help. Since his problem is a narrator, he goes to a literary critic — played by Dustin Hoffman — who asks him a series of questions to determine what kind of a story the narrator is telling.

The critic figures that by a process of elimination, he can figure out what's likely to happen to Harold, but it's a slow process, and Harold may not have a lot of time.

The reason Harold is so upset is that everything the narrator has SAID would happen, has actually happened. And while writers' block seems to have his author stymied for the moment, he can hardly count on that staying the case.

The slapstick possibilities are obviously, especially with Farrell playing Harold and Thompson playing a semi-suicidal author with Queen Latifah as her assistant. But the actors and the filmmakers all take a more restrained approach than you might expect, keeping the humor gentle, and the jokes mostly as literary as the premise.

When Harold gets involved with a lovely young baker played by Maggie Gyllenhall, for instance, he brings her flours — not the kind with blossoms, the kind she can bake with. A nice conceit.

Most of the storytelling is equally sharp. Characters are defined by the spaces they occupy and story elements blend with existential logic.

It's executed so cleverly in fact, that until the last five minutes it may not even occur to you that a movie about an author who has trouble with endings is likely to have trouble with an ending of its own.

And so it does. But Stranger Than Fiction also has the wit to comment on that development, too.

Stranger than Fiction is a 2006 American fantasycomedy-drama film directed by Marc Forster, produced by Lindsay Doran, and written by Zach Helm. The film stars Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson. The main plot follows Harold Crick (portrayed by Ferrell), an IRS worker who begins hearing a disembodied voice narrating his life as it happens – seemingly the text of a novel in which it is stated that he will soon die – and he frantically seeks to somehow prevent that ending. The film was shot on location in Chicago, and has been praised for its innovative, intelligent story and fine performances. Ferrell, who came to prominence playing brash comedic parts, garnered particular attention for offering a restrained performance in his first starring dramatic role.


Harold Crick, an agent for the Internal Revenue Service, lives his life by his wristwatch. He is assigned to audit an intentionally tax-delinquent baker, Ana Pascal, to whom he is attracted. On the same day, he begins hearing the voice of a woman omnisciently narrating his life but is unable to communicate with it. Harold's watch stops working and he resets it using the time given by a bystander; the voice narrates, "little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death". Worried by this prediction, Harold consults a psychiatrist who attributes the voice to schizophrenia, though they consider that if there really is a narrator, he should visit an expert in literature. Crick visits Jules Hilbert, a literature professor, and relates his story. When Jules recognizes aspects of a literary work in Harold's story, he encourages Harold to identify the author, first by determining if the work is a comedy or tragedy.

As Harold audits Ana, the two fall for each other, but when Harold refuses to accept cookies that Ana made for him because they could be viewed as a bribe, Ana tells him to leave, making Harold believe the story is a tragedy. On the advice of Jules, Harold spends the next day at home trying to control his destiny by doing nothing, but his apartment is partially demolished by a wrecking crew that mistook the building for an abandoned one. Jules believes that since Harold cannot control the plot, he should accept his impending death and enjoy whatever time he has left. Harold takes a vacation from work, develops his friendship with his co-worker Dave, fulfills his dream of learning to play the guitar, and dates Ana. Harold reassesses his story as a comedy. When he returns to Jules with this revelation, Harold inadvertently identifies the voice in his head from a television interview as author Karen Eiffel. Jules, an admirer of Karen's work, reveals that all of her books feature the main character's tragic death.

Karen struggles from writer's block and researches ways to kill the character Harold to complete her next book. Her publisher sends an assistant, Penny Escher, to ensure the book is completed. Harold finds Karen through her tax records. When Karen learns that Harold experiences everything she writes, she is horrified by the thought that her books may have killed real people. She tells Harold she wrote a draft of his death, but has not typed it up yet; the events in the book manifest when she strikes the period key. Penny suggests Harold read the drafted ending to get his opinion. Harold cannot bring himself to read it and gives the manuscript to Jules to review. Jules confirms its excellence, labeling it as Karen's masterpiece; Harold's death is integral to its genius. Though Harold is distressed over his fate, Jules comforts him by stating the inevitability of death: this one death, at least, will have a deeper meaning. Harold reads the manuscript, then returns it to Karen, telling her the death she has written for him is "beautiful" and she should keep it intact. He spends one last night with Ana.

The next day, Harold prepares to return to work, despite Karen's voice narrating as she types up her ending. Because Harold's watch is three minutes fast owing to the imprecise time given to him days ago, he reaches the bus stop early and watches as a young boy falls in front of the oncoming bus. Karen continues writing; Harold leaps from the curb and pushes the child out of the way, but is struck by the bus. Karen cannot complete the sentence confirming Harold's death, and Harold wakes up in a hospital, injured but alive. He learns that fragments of his wristwatch blocked the right ulnar artery in his body after the collision, saving his life. When Jules reads Karen's final manuscript, he notes that the story is weaker without Harold's death. Karen admits the flaw, but points out that the story was meant to be about a man that dies unexpectedly; with Harold sacrificing himself, the story would have lost its tragic impact. In place of Harold, his wristwatch—anthropomorphized throughout the film—is the character who died tragically.




In 2001, writer Zach Helm was working with producer Clarence Helmus on a project they called "The Disassociate".[2] Helm came to Doran with a new idea involving a man who finds himself accompanied by a narrator that only he can hear. Helm next decided that the narrator should state that the man is going to die since, as Helm described, "There's something very poetic about the understanding of one's place in the universe, but it's far more dramatic when such understanding occurs only days before that life ends." Helm and Doran began referring to the new project as "The Narrator Project" and developed the story through a process of Helm bringing ideas and Doran asking questions. One of Helm's main ideas involved engaging the movie's form as much as its content.[3]

Helm named each of the film's chief characters after a famous scientist or scientifically influential artist, examples including Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, and Hilbert. When the character of Dr. Hilbert tells Harold that he has devised a series of 23 questions in order to investigate the narrator, it is a playful reference to Hilbert's 23 problems. The film's title derives from a quote by Mark Twain: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."[4]

According to Helm, one of the film's major themes is of interconnectivity. As Helm stated, "Each of these characters ends up doing little things to save one another. There's an underlying theme that the things we take most for granted are often the ones that make life worth living and actually keep us alive."[3]


The film was shot on location in Chicago, Illinois. Dave's apartment, in which Harold takes residence after his own building is partially demolished, is part of the River City Condominiums.[5] Hilbert's office was in a lecture hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The CNA Center at 333 South Wabash Avenue in the Loop served as the location for the IRS office. The bakery that Ana Pascal runs is actually located in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago and is presently called La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant.[6] The movie theatre in the film is the Logan Theatre located in the Logan Square neighborhood.[7] Many downtown Chicago locations were used for scenes involving Karen Eiffel, Penny Escher, and Harold Crick.[5]Columbia Pictures distributed the film.[3]

The film was in part inspired by Playtime (1967), Jacques Tati's visionary comedy about modern urban life, and the cinematography and production design help create a claustrophobic sense of life in the city.[8]


Main article: Stranger than Fiction (soundtrack)

The music for this film includes original scores by the collaborative effort of Britt Daniel (singer/songwriter of Spoon) and Brian Reitzell (composer for Friday Night Lights, The Bling Ring and Hannibal), as well as a mix of indie rock songs from various artists including Spoon. Reitzell is also the film's music supervisor. The soundtrack includes an original recording of the song that Harold plays for Ana, "Whole Wide World" by Wreckless Eric.[citation needed]


Stranger than Fiction was released in the United States on November 10, 2006. It opened at #4 in the box office and grossed $13.4 million in 2264 theaters. Its widest release was 2270 theaters, across which it grossed $40.7 million. Outside the US, it grossed another $13 million, for a worldwide total of $53.6 million.[1]


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 72% approval rating based on 172 reviews; the average rating is 6.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "A fun, whimsical tale about an office drone trying to save his life from his narrator, Stranger Than Fiction features a subdued performance from Will Ferrell that contributes mightily to its quirky, mind-bending affect."[9] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 67 out of 100 based on 35 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[10]

Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, stating that the film was thought-provoking and moral, and that "Such an uncommonly intelligent film does not often get made...which requires us to enter the lives of these specific quiet, sweet, worthy people", and he also praised Ferrell's performance saying, "Will Ferrell stars, in another role showing that like Steve Martin and Robin Williams he has dramatic gifts to equal his comedic talent".[11]

Rolling Stone rated the film 3 out of 4 stars, stating that though the premise of Ferrell's life being narrated is a set-up for farce, the film is "less self-reflexively clever and more intimate".[12] Todd McCarthy in Variety positively reviewed the film, praising its invention and Ferrell's performance as nuanced: first playing a tight focused caricature of the company man, then exercising more humanity and wit without being "goofy".[8]


Will Ferrell

Zach Helm

Emma Thompson

Maggie Gyllenhaal

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abc"Stranger Than Fiction (2006) – Box Office Mojo". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 13, 2011. 
  2. ^Lindsey Doran, "Words on a Page" bonus featurette on DVD
  3. ^ abcSONY Pictures Entertainment (2006). "Stranger than Fiction: Production Notes", document archived at WebCite July 6, 2008 based on the version posted at this original URL.
  4. ^The Mark Twain Calendar. New York: Harper and Kleinteich. 1917. 
  5. ^ abIMDB: Filming locations for – Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
  6. ^La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant
  7. ^The Logan Theatre
  8. ^ abMcCarthy, T. Stranger Than FictionVariety, September 12, 2006; retrieved February 18, 2011.
  9. ^"Stranger Than Fiction". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  10. ^"Stranger Than Fiction". Metacritic. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 
  11. ^"Stranger Than Fiction Review". Roger Ebert. Retrieved May 20, 2009. 
  12. ^"Stranger Than Fiction Review". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 20, 2009. 

External links[edit]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *