Have you seen 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction lately? It’s really cute.
So here I am, giving it a shout-out.
(It’s on Netflix, if you’re interested.)
IRS agent Harold Crick starts hearing a voice in his head narrating his life and thinks he might be a character in someone’s book. He seeks the help of a literature professor who tells him he needs to figure out whether he’s in a comedy or tragedy.
Harold, who lives a very routine, boring, and lonely life, starts branching out of his comfort zone to put this question to the test and see what might happen, good or bad. He learns guitar, pursues an unlikely love interest, and slowly loosens his rigid way of life in favor of some chance and fun.
Once he hears the voice narrate about how he will die soon, along with learning that the author narrating his life has a penchant for killing off her protagonists, he’s saddened by his impending death, mourning the life he could have had now that he’s learned to truly live.
I won’t say how it ends.
The cast is great—Will Ferrell should do more subdued roles like this. His Harold is super sweet and you can’t help but like him a lot. He and love interest Maggie Gyllenhaal have a lovely chemistry; I actually said aww out loud a couple times. Add Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson as the glum, chain-smoking, death-obsessed author, and it’s a solid ensemble.
And it’s got lit. jokes.
When Harold tells the literature professor that the author narrated the line, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death,” about him, the professor is intrigued. The phrase “little did he know” tips him off that this is a third-person omniscient narrator—meaning one that knows more than the characters—and Harold might be telling the truth about the voice he hears. Because if the protagonist were just narrating what he knows of his own life, i.e. if Harold were making the voice up, he wouldn’t use an omniscient phrase such as this.
“I’ve taught classes on little did he know,” Hoffman’s professor says, smiling knowingly. This seems like a jokey stab at how absurdly granular lit. theory can get, and I know from countless college lit. analysis classes that it’s wildly accurate.
Another funny stab at the lit. world: the author has an assistant whose sole job is to GET THE WRITER TO WRITE THE DAMN BOOK. It’s a trope based in (some) truth that (some) authors drag their feet finishing a project after having accepted the advance; they feel trapped and locked in by the deadline, lose their creative mojo, and come down with the dreaded writer’s block.
Seeing Queen Latifah calmly but sternly hound Emma Thompson into actually writing something instead of brooding and pondering death made me LOL, and it made me want a similar assistant of my own to keep me on task.
While it might not dive super deep, and while you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit, Stranger Than Fiction is a charming film about our relationship with fictional characters.
Fiction is based in reality. Characters are often based on or inspired by real people. We want our fiction to have an element of realness, and sometimes we want our lives to have a spark of fiction. This movie blurs those lines, trying to answer the question from each side: “What if characters in books existed in real life?” and “What if I was a character in a story?”
It’s a love letter to writing, storytelling, and how fictional characters can seem so very real to us.
Harold Crick: You have to understand that this isn’t a philosophy or a literary theory or a story to me. It’s my life.
Professor Hilbert: Absolutely. So just go make it the one you’ve always wanted.—Stranger Than Fiction