By Leigh Lim
Nothing illustrates the difficulty in coming up with a masterpiece better than “Stranger Than Fiction,” a fable about a person living his life and a writer writing about his thoughts and choices. In a crazily “meta” twist on the idea of the unseen hand (I guess in this film it is a “seen hand”)—the writer Karen (Emma Thompson, in a role that made me want to then watch every movie she’s ever done) discovers that her main character is actually a living breathing being, not just an idea running around in her imagination.
The beautiful thing about this arrangement is that the main character Harold (played brilliantly by Will Ferrell)—reads his own manuscript. Suddenly, gets a glimpse of what his life might look to an outsider—and knowing that his life is being written by another person, he gets to be his own story’s audience. This is a particularly brilliant stroke, because he is able to experience his own life’s dramatic irony, seeing foreshadowed where his life is heading.
Being able to hear Karen Eiffel’s narration about his life changes him somehow, and helps him make bigger changes later on. Kind of like this scene in 16 Blocks (link to film) when Jack Mosley “wakes up.” No flying bullets for Harold, yet that jolt (a voice narrating your every move) is enough for his story.
The pivotal scene in the film is when Harold Crick visits Karen Eiffel to let her know that he’s read her book, and that it is beautiful. He surrenders completely and accepts his fate, even if it means his death. While re-watching the film recently, this scene just felt a bit more emotional to me. I could imagine having a conversation with the wiser version of myself who exists in the near future, and eventually realising that it’s likely the small things (like making sure I have a consistent sleep/wake time) that would enable me to be a better canvas so Christ can continue painting his masterpiece.
The most difficult thing about being a Christ-follower is being able to say: “Sure God…let me get right on that,” without seeing the masterpiece. You know it’s there but since you’re human, there’s that doubt creeping in in the form of: “Wait…did you really ask me to do that? Are you sure God?”
Unlike Harold, we are unable to read that masterpiece, or even get specific clues about it. I have come across a number of sermons that could be distilled this way: “Well…if God explained to you why He wanted you to do something, either you wouldn’t believe that what He is saying is possible, or your limited mind would just be unable to comprehend the complexity.” And I remind myself of my commitment when I became a Christian: trust wherever God leads me.
There is an amusing scene in the film which takes place from the point of view of Harold’s watch. While Harold waits for the bus, both the audience and the watch see Ana, his love interest, walking by on the opposite side of the street, but Harold doesn’t notice her. The watch tries to get Harold’s attention in the only way it can: by repeated beeps and displaying all sorts of things on the display. Because Harold never paid attention to his watch before, he misses an opportunity to apologise to Ana. Because Stranger Than Fiction is indeed as strange a storyline as possible, Harold’s watch was hoping to get him to the epiphany: risks are necessary to find the best version of yourself. It constantly amazes me the myriad things God uses get us to the same “lightbulb moments.”
There are things in our own lives that serve to nudge us toward change, just like Harold’s watch—that friend who you didn’t want to ask for advice despite knowing that they seem to be sensitive to God’s voice in their life; that book that you have been avoiding reading because it will feel uncomfortable. Change can be subtle, (especially if it’s something that requires little steps, like daily workouts) yet still painful (it’s so easy to skip that workout for today!).
Masterpieces are not without risks. Just like being able to successfully land a restaurant in the Zagat guide, the people who made it aren’t just living their day to day, like Harold did before his awakening—they understand that it is crucial to be willing to fail and then keep going. At one point Harold is at wit’s end because he wants to hear the narration, and there is none. He visits a therapist and explains what is going on with him. The therapist stresses that Harold hears voices, but instead of being defensive, Harold explains that the voice is not addressing him: it is describing his life as he lives it. He mentions to his therapist that his concern is that because the voice comes and goes, he feels like there are parts of his story that he’s not privy to. The therapist repeats her diagnosis: schizophrenia. Because Harold is wise in choosing his words, he is able to postulate a hypothetical scenario in which he is actually part of the story, and his therapist is able to refer him to someone who leads him to find Karen.
I ponder this film more deeply each time I watch it, and its themes of faith are so apparent to me that I’m quite surprised it isn’t used for church movie night more often. While reading film reviews, I chanced upon Roger Egbert’s and was reminded how we are each a masterpiece: “How rare, to find a pensive film about the responsibilities we have to art. If Karen Eiffel’s novel would be a masterpiece with Harold’s death, does he have a right to live?” In our walk with Christ, we are left to decide which parts of us have to die.
Two verses serve as loving reminders for us about our responsibility to the masterpiece that is our life:
Ephesians 2:10 (New Living Translation) For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
Isaiah 64:8 (New International Version) Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
The beauty of life is that despite all the situations we face where there are no good choices, no easy answers, we remain captains of our journey—we still get to have a say in what we choose to do. We get to choose regardless of how our anxiety-ridden minds try to convince us we don’t. That is the gift we are given: the power to choose where to steer our ships, and the kind of input we take to heart during our voyage.
So the two big questions I can leave you with (even if you are a person who is not interested in exploring your faith at the moment) are: ‘What masterpiece are you painting?’ and ‘Whose masterpiece are you a part of?’
Leigh Lim is a Sydney composer helping brands accelerate their influence. When she is not doing that, she can be found pondering story ideas for a music discovery project. Her recent frustration is finding engaging talks and if you have a suggestion you can send it here. Meanwhile she is thankful that Northpoint makes their messages available for public viewing.