Dying for Beauty in Stranger than Fiction

After watching Elf for the umpteenth time, my son mentioned it is the only Will Ferrell film he can stand to watch, Ferrell being too far “over the top” in his other films. While I confess I’m not an aficionado of Ferrell’s films, I suggested my son watch Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction, a 2006 film in which Ferrell also demonstrates that less is more. (Spoilers below.)

In Stranger than Fiction, IRS agent Harold Crick (Ferrell) wakes up one morning to hear his life being narrated by an authorial voice (Emma Thompson). The narrator keeps getting everything right about his life and his thoughts. This, naturally, disturbs Harold. Given the narrator knows Harold inside out, he becomes concerned when, after he resets the time on his watch, he hears the narrator observe, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

In addition to changing aspects of his all-too-linear life as an IRS agent, Harold begins a search for the narrator. In doing so, Harold approaches Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor at a local university. With Hilbert’s assistance, Harold ultimately identifies the author as Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Eiffel writes well-regarded novels in which the main character always dies tragically. After wrestling with writer’s block, Eiffel finally figures out how she will kill off Harold in the book. She writes out the ending on a yellow pad and begins to type it up when Harold finally finds her phone number (in an old tax file) and calls her. They then meet. Harold naturally expects Eiffel to change the story so he doesn’t die. She resists. At the behest of her assistant (Queen Latifah)—sent by the publisher to help her through her writer’s block—she gives Harold the typed pages and the hand-written ending.

Harold gives the manuscript to Hilbert to read. When Harold meets with Hilbert the next day Hilbert informs Harold that the story is so good that Harold must die: The novel is a masterpiece and the story won’t work without Harold’s death. Dustin Hoffman does a great job delivering the lines of a cold-blooded academic, providing Harold reason after reason he should be reconcile himself to his imminent death for the sake of the novel.

Harold is naturally taken aback by Hilbert’s position. He expected Hilbert to help him live. Harold then takes the novel and reads it at one sitting while riding on a city bus. After reading it through, Harold meets up with Eiffel and returns the manuscript. He tells her, “I read it, and I loved it. And there’s only one way it can end.  . . .  I think you should finish it.”

After reading the novel Harold agrees with Hilbert: He must die for the sake of the story.

It’s a good screenplay, not least because of the characters and their interaction. Yet it is the philosophical question that is most diverting: What is appropriate to sacrifice for aesthetics?

We are at first shocked with Hilbert’s cold-blooded argument that Harold should sacrifice himself for the integrity of the novel. Yet after reading the novel, Harold himself takes the edge off Hilbert’s cold bloodedness by agreeing with him. It’s one thing for the academic to tell the victim to reconcile himself to being sacrificed for the sake of art; it is quite another thing for the victim himself—the one with rather more skin in the game—to accept the sacrificial tradeoff as worthwhile.

Here, as well, the screenplay parallels the fictional novel. In the screenplay Eiffel rewrites the novel’s conclusion so that Harold lives (even if banged up in the process). Eiffel then shares the rewritten story with Professor Hilbert. After reading the rewritten conclusion Hilbert is deflated. “It’s o.k. It’s not bad. It’s not the most amazing piece of English literature in several years. But it’s o.k.” Eiffel responds, “I think I’m fine with o.k. . . . If the man knows he’s going to die, but dies anyway, dies willingly knowing he could stop it, I mean, isn’t that the type of man you want to keep alive?”

It’s a pretext that makes the film a comedy rather than a tragedy. Nonetheless, as my daughter observed, “Harold should have died.” It would have been a great film had Harold died—and almost certainly a far less popular one. But this ending would have offered a far more provocative storyline.

And not provocative simply for being tragedy rather than comedy. It would be provocative for affirming the radical transcendence of beauty. We are familiar with self-sacrifice, and sacrifice of others, for the true and the good even when, at times, we understand the unwillingness to do so. While the suffering artist is a familiar trope, sacrifice of others for the mere principle of objective beauty is less familiar. Today most of us evaluate beauty in emotive terms, as something one “likes” or “doesn’t like,” even when we affirm the existence of objective truth and morality.

Hilbert, and then Harold, stake out a claim: objective beauty is worth dying for. To be sure, Harold has a bit more at stake in this conclusion than Hilbert does, but Harold nonetheless pitches in. While I can understand Eiffel’s reticence to kill off Harold—and I am sure I would make the same decision—we all know it’s for lack of conviction on Eiffel’s part. It’s (almost) a self-denying proposition to say one will not sacrifice a person to beauty so that there will be a person around who would willingly sacrifice himself for beauty.

Stranger than Fiction tells a fetching story. More, however, it presses our beliefs about the transcendence of beauty in the modern age.

Reader Discussion

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on December 27, 2018 at 08:35:37 am

Interesting if confused reflection.

The superb novels "In Sunlight And In Shadow" and "Paris In The Present Tense" by the extraordinary writer, Mark Helprin, raise with dramatic power, intellectual subtlety, boundless beauty and moral goodness, and deep reflection on truth the existential questions which Professor Rogers and, ostensibly, "Stranger than Fiction," pose: Must a masterpiece end with an unhappy ending, with the death of a hero? Must one die for beauty if beauty is to be seen as worth dying for? And if so, must the death be voluntary (Othello or Romeo or Marc Antony) or inflicted by others (as with Cicero, Hamlet, Cordelia and even Richard II)? And if a sacrificial death is necessary in order to elevate beauty must their be a moral purpose for the sacrifice if the beautiful death is to be for the "good?" And must that moral purpose be for a good that is intellectually subtle or spiritually transcendent or morally far greater or ethically more fraught with doubt and complication than merely the trivial, e.g., making a work of fiction (or a movie) into a work that is of better literary quality or that is more emotionally provocative or that is more tragic than comical? And if all that is achieved by eluding the sacrificial death is to enhance the work's popularity among the great mass of mindless readers and moviegoers who crave and demand vacuous happy endings, is it not better morally and artistically for the artist to elevate his readers' (and viewers') literary and spiritual sensitivities by killing off his hero? (If George Bailey had lost his bank, his job and then his life, "It's A Wonderful Life" would not play ad nauseam annually in December, but we might value it as a far better work of art and consider the place to which George Bailey ascended a far, far better place than simply returning to his family and Uncle Billy on Christmas Eve.

Dickens taught us, after all, that through self- sacrifice "It is a far, far better thing that (we) do, than (we) have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that (we) go to, than (we) have ever known."

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 27, 2018 at 11:55:10 am

This reminds me of the discussion as to the relative contribution of the pig and the chicken to the *beauty* of a warm breakfast of bacon and eggs. while the chicken's contribution is quite substantial, the pig's may be said to be existential.

Question: just how satisfying is this staple breakfast of mine without the bacon?
And how proper is it for the recipient of this beauty to lay claim to defining what constitutes beauty?
Surely, the pig has some conception of "beauty."
Ought we to consider the pigs perspective?

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Image of gabe
on February 17, 2020 at 01:18:02 am

You completely missed the point. I love the movie- it's my favorite and I never tire of it, but if Harold had been killed off merely for the sake an interesting new novel, I would despise it. The professor is the villain of the movie. He didn't say Harold had to die to save a boy- that would be a moral argument. He argued Harold had to die so a book would be well written. Harold wasn't willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of having the best piece of modern literature. He died to save a human being- that is beauty. Harold was a truly good man- willing to die for the right reason. The professor is a deeply immoral, evil man- willing to sacrifice another for the sake of art.

Beauty matters- it's important and makes life worth living, but true beauty comes from the best aspects of humanity. It's when we value art more than humanity that we run into problems....and also when art ceases to be beautiful. Art merely for the sake of art is not beautiful and if it requires killing to accomplish, that by its nature would make it ugly.

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Image of Eli
on December 29, 2020 at 01:39:04 am

Very detailed article about the movie. The story is amazing. I read sad romance novels with happy ending

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Jean Wilson
on May 05, 2020 at 18:29:16 pm

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