WIJDW: Harold Crick meets Karen Eiffel
Posted by Chris Lang on November 14, 2012 at 11:30 AM
Revised March 11, 2022, at 11:04 PM
Hello and welcome to another installment of Why It Just Doesn’t Work (WIJDW). Here, I analyze scenes and elements of movies, comic books, and other entertainments and explain why they are illogical, nonsensical, and/or otherwise just … don’t work.
This time, I’ll be discussing the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the movie. It had lots of good moments and great performances. However, not all of it worked for me. So here, I’ll be discussing a certain part of it that threw me out of the story, so to speak.
The film concerns Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent who lives a lonely life, with very little going for him outside of his job. Every morning, he brushes his teeth and counts brushstrokes, he then counts his steps on the way to the bus, and so forth. In short, his life’s pretty dull. And then one day, he hears a woman’s voice narrating his daily routine.
The voice seems to follow his actions, narrating his activities at work, and even describing his feelings towards the woman he meets on auditing business, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhall). It starts seriously annoying him, as his attempts to speak with the voice go unanswered.
When the voice says that his death is imminent (“Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death” are the exact words), and the voice had so far been right about everything, he begins to get seriously concerned. After meeting with a therapist, he talks to a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) about how someone’s narrating his life, and is predicting his death. The professor tells him to go about his activities to find out what kind of story he’s in, a comedy or a tragedy.
However, just when he decides that his story’s a comedy (Ana Pascal is falling for him, and it seems his immediate future’s going to be a happy one), he overhears a television interview in the professor’s office. The woman being interviewed is the same woman whose voice has been narrating his life, and therefore the person writing his story. She is also Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an author known for killing off her main characters in creative ways. This would mean that Harold is almost guaranteed to die soon.
Unless he finds a way to get her to change the story. And this is where, to me, things don’t quite fit together.
Warning: The following will contain spoilers not only for Stranger Than Fiction, but Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.
Harold eventually finds Karen Eiffel’s phone number, and calls her. Karen Eiffel is, at that moment, typing a sentence about the phone ringing … and at first, I thought “Okay, this is like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and she’s arranging a meeting between character and writer.”
But no, that’s not what’s happening. She’s seriously spooked when the phone rings as she types the sentence, and rings again when she types a sentence about the phone ringing again. All this leads to a face-to-face meeting between Harold Crick and Karen Eiffel.
Now I know what many of you are thinking. How can Harold Crick, a fictional character, meet his writer? Does he pass through a dimensional portal taking him from his world to hers? Does the writer write herself into her story world?
No. None of the above. He just shows up at Karen Eiffel’s office with no explanation as to why the character and the writer are in the same universe.
And this, to me, just doesn’t work. To compare, let’s take a look at the conclusion to Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, (reprinted in the ‘Deus Ex Machina’ trade paperback). After a number of experiences, including a bizarre hallucinogenic experience in the desert, the sudden murder of his family, and briefly encountering another version of himself, Buddy Baker, aka Animal Man, realizes he’s a character in a story. Eventually, after a trip through Comic Book Limbo (here presented as the comic book character equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys, where characters who haven’t been used in years wait for some writer to use them in a story), he plays a hunch and decides to draw a door. The door leads him to the writer of the story, Grant Morrison.
What follows is a 20-page discussion between the writer and the character about everything that’s happened. But all this is just fine, because there’s an explanation for how the character and the writer meet.
In Animal Man, Grant Morrison tells the title character that the writer arranged for this face-to-face meeting to happen. Furthermore, the writer explains that they’re not in ‘the real world’. Animal Man cannot really enter the real world. “You can’t get into my world, but I can get into yours. I can fake the real world here on the comic page.”
But in Stranger Than Fiction, there is no explanation at all. None that makes any kind of sense.
Now, I know what the writers of Stranger Than Fiction were going for. They were going for the same thing that Grant Morrison was going for — the idea that a character can take a life of their own, change and evolve, and in effect tell the writers what to write. And both stories have similar endings — the writer ends up deciding to be kind to the main character for a change. Grant Morrison brings Animal Man’s family back to life, and Karen Eiffel decides to have Harold Crick survive the originally fatal accident even though it interferes with all the foreshadowing she was doing earlier.
But in my opinion, Grant Morrison had the better take on the same basic premise because Morrison made sure the meeting between writer and character had logic to it, and an explanation. Stranger Than Fiction, meanwhile, just has the writer and the character apparently live in the same universe with no explanation as to how that could possibly work.
And to me, anyway, that just doesn’t work.
That being said, I did like the movie. It had plenty of wonderful moments, some funny, some heartfelt. Particular favorite moments of mine are the ‘little did he know’ discussion, and the moment where Harold Crick stops counting brushstrokes and starts truly appreciating life.
I think I’ve made my point. Feel free to leave comments and other musings below. If you have any insights that I might have missed, I’d love to see them.