Film & TV

Stranger Than Fiction: Death and Taxes, and the Meaning of Life

Stranger Than Fiction is a perfect example of the Virgo archetype on film. It’s a modern fable about the interconnectivity of life and the power of stories and literature. The story follows Harold Crick, a taxman who lives a very ordered life until his wristwatch decides to stir things up a bit. The film is quite surreal, but gentle and sweet-natured – just like Harold.

Expect *SPOILERS!* from here on…

Harold Crick is a tax agent for the IRS and every morning he goes through the same routine on autopilot. He’s fastidiously tidy and compulsively counts everything so he can maximise efficiency and save time. He wants to get things right and play by the rules. He’s a nice guy but lives alone and doesn’t appear to have any close friends.

Then one day Harold starts to hear a woman’s voice narrating his every move and how he feels about his life. Understandably, this freaks him out. The narration tells us that the details of his life are about to become the catalyst for a whole new life. But now Harold can’t concentrate because the voice is making him self-conscious.

Harold goes to audit a bakery run by the free-spirited Ana Pascal, who hasn’t paid her taxes because she disagrees with how the money is spent by the government. She hates him on sight, but Harold realises he can’t stop thinking about her.

“Miscreant!” – Ana Pascal welcomes the taxman

Then his watch decides to take matters into its own hands and intervenes to get Harold to pay attention and make some changes to his life – it stops working. As Harold resets his watch, the narrator gives us a fateful piece of information:

“Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

Harold freaks out. He has no reason to doubt the voice is telling the truth and he doesn’t want to die. The voice makes it sound like he’s a character in his own life, but it comes and goes. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern and he can’t control it. He knows there are things he’s not being told and is determined to find out what they are before he dies.

So he goes to see literature professor, Jules Hilbert, to learn more about stories and find out who might be writing his narration. Hilbert tells Harold he must decide if his life is a comedy or a tragedy. Comedy is about the continuity of life, but tragedy is about death, so it’s not looking good.

Knowing he’s about to die, Harold begins to live a more interesting life. He decides to do some of the things he wanted to do as a child – like learn to play the guitar. He finds romance with Ana Pascal by winning her over with some flours and singing the only song he knows.

“I brought you some flours.”

Meanwhile, Harold discovers the narration is being written by Karen Eiffel, a writer notorious for killing her protagonists. Her latest book is called Death and Taxes, but she’s struggling with writer’s block and can’t decide how to kill Harold. She’s neurotic and reclusive, but Harold finds her using her tax records – and pops round to see her.

When Karen sees that Harold is real, she has a crisis of confidence and isn’t sure she can finish the book. But she allows Harold to read it and to see how the story ends. She has finally worked out how to kill him, but hasn’t typed it yet. Apparently, the story doesn’t become real until it’s typed.

Harold doesn’t want to die and thinks he may have a chance to persuade Karen to change the ending – perhaps he could go away or be someone else. But Professor Hilbert points out that Harold will die anyway eventually and that when he does, it won’t be as poetic or meaningful as the death in the book. Harold has to die because the book is a masterpiece.

So Harold reads the book and comes to terms with his death. He tells Karen to go ahead and finish typing the manuscript. The next day on the way to work, Harold saves a boy from being hit by a bus. Karen is typing but stops halfway through the word “dead”… and Harold wakes up in hospital. He’s alive – saved by a shard of metal from his wristwatch.

Karen goes to see Professor Hilbert and explains why she couldn’t kill Harold:

This is what Virgo understands better than anyone else: it’s the details that matter – the tiny moments and the way everything interconnects, all the little things that make life meaningful:

“And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties which we assume only accessorise our days are, in fact, here for a much larger and nobler cause: they are here to save our lives.”

Harold goes through a kind of awakening or spiritual transformation. At the start of the story his life is well-structured but dull. The first thing we hear is the sound of ticking clocks – Harold’s life is ticking away, counting down to his inevitable death. He’s not really living, just going through the motions – carefully calculated and deliberate motions.

He thinks he has everything under control, but then his life is over taken by things he can’t control. The voice wakes him up and he becomes more self-aware. It makes him notice what he’s doing, like a witness stepping back to observe his life from the outside. And what he sees is absurd.

His routines are full of data and information and numbers, and this makes him feel safe. But they also keep the world at a distance and stop him from connecting with others. His life has no meaning – or if it does, he’s not aware of it.

Interestingly, when Harold notices the narration it seems to interrupt the flow and the voice stops talking, as if waiting for him to carry on with what he’s doing. Perhaps this is because Karen has writer’s block so her pauses and doubts cause his interruptions. Or perhaps when he notices the voice it causes her doubt and interrupts the flow, without her knowing why.

This brings up the idea of the observer effect, where the act of observing something, changes it. When Harold starts to observe his life, prompted by the narration, he slowly begins to change the way he lives. Is this caused by the author creating his life? Or is Harold shaping his own life?

The narration is written in third person omniscient POV, or the God’s eye view. We know this because when Harold is sitting on the bus, the narrator reveals that Ana has just got on the bus but Harold hasn’t seen her yet. It’s the narration that makes him look for her through the crowd. This shows that Harold isn’t in control of his own life.

Karen Eiffel – playing God isn’t easy…

However, Harold only hears the voice when Karen is writing, but he still manages to live on the days she’s not writing so she can’t be in total control of her subject. In fact, Karen undergoes her own kind of awakening when she discovers the character she has written exists in real life. This causes her to change the ending of the story because she doesn’t want to kill a man who is willing to die such a noble death.

This is all a bit meta and reminiscent of another film about writing where the writer ends up in his own story, Adaptation. Perhaps this is why Karen’s assistant is called Penny Escher – a possible reference to the self-referential art of M.C. Escher.

The surreal feel of the film is reinforced by one particular image. As part of his morning routine, Harold runs along the road with an apple in his mouth. There’s no reason for this and he could just as easily carry it in his hand, so it must be a reference to the painting by Rene Magritte called The Son of Man.

This much parodied surrealist work shows a business man with an apple hiding his face. The title ‘Son of Man’ is an obvious reference to Jesus being a son of Adam, and the apple represents the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Man’s vision is obscured by the knowledge of original sin. In other words, we struggle to know ourselves because there are things we can’t see or understand.

“Little did he know…”

Harold’s apple also obscures part of his face and shows that he doesn’t know himself or see himself clearly. He’s living an absurd, surreal life without meaning or awareness. By the end of the film, this has changed. He takes an apple to work as usual, but doesn’t carry it in his mouth – he eats it.

Now he knows himself.

Harold’s self-knowledge comes from facing death. Most of us tend to live like Harold, in denial of our mortality. We prefer not to think about it, but the truth is you could die at any moment. You really don’t know how long you’ve got. But because you’re living in denial of reality – the reality of your own death – you end up being inauthentic.

Acknowledging death on an intellectual level isn’t the same as really knowing you could die at any moment. Even when you accept death in the abstract, you still live as if you’ll live forever. But that means what you do, moment by moment, doesn’t really matter. Life is just something that happens to you.

Harold is jolted out of his mindless existence and learns to live by asking:

“What would you do if you knew you were going to die very soon?”

He wakes up to how empty his life is and starts to reconnect with the things he finds meaningful. Instead of living passively, he starts to participate and go after what he wants. Awareness of death opens his heart to others and encourages him to come alive. He gets in touch with his inner integrity and starts to live his life.

Life tastes good when you take the time to notice…

Ana Pascal has integrity, which is why she withheld part of her taxes. She knows who she is and what she believes in. She dropped out of law school when she realised she enjoyed baking more than studying. She wanted to make the world a better place with her cookies and was willing to take a risk.

You can’t live fully without taking risks, something Harold’s wristwatch understands. All the way through the film, his watch keeps trying to wake him up to the meaninglessness of his life. It appears to be sentient and enjoys the feel of the wind against its face as Harold runs for the bus. The watch seems more alive than Harold and represents his hopes and dreams, the things he longs for. So in the end, Harold is saved by his wristwatch – his dreams.

Every detail in your life counts, no matter how small. Knowing you could die at any moment sounds terrible until you realise it makes you pay attention to what you’re doing and why. You have no time to waste. Every choice, every action, every word, could be your last – so make it count.

Images: film stills; Son of Man

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4 thoughts on “Stranger Than Fiction: Death and Taxes, and the Meaning of Life

  1. What a beautiful synopsis of this movie and this Virgo 😉, me. I too finally woke up. Every day is a passionate love affair with life, for me. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Thank you Jessica. I love your writing. Impactful, beautiful, and deep!

    Liked by 1 person

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