The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything


Howard Adelman

My last blog claimed that The Imitation Game was a summer romance and a few readers thought I was belittling the film. I was not. I really enjoyed the movie and thought it was terrific. However, if a viewer allows the deformations from reality – and there are too many to ignore – to spoil the pleasure of a biopic movie, then that is a pity. For the movie is a very well-made parable and is structured like the mythos of a fairy tale. Northrop Frye taught us that, whatever the variations, fictional structures fell into four archetypes. He dubbed one type “summer romances”. The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turing fell perfectly into such a structure. So does another film that we watched the next evening and also missed when it first came out, The Theory of Everything. Understanding a movie’s structure greatly enriches the experience of watching it.

A summer romance has one key characteristic – there is always a search. The search is for some idyllic entity associated with a particular space. In the case of the movie about Alan Turing, the search is for a universal thinking machine as a means of unlocking the codes of the Nazi enigma machine.  What makes The Theory of Everything perhaps even more interesting is that the search is not just for an idyllic tool as a method for breaking through a mystery that we are faced with – an encrypted code – but the quest by one of the greatest mathematician’s and theorists, Stephen Hawking (played with brilliance by Eddie Redmayne), to understand all of space itself as he searches for and writes about the nature of time itself. Stephen Hawking wants to find the perfect single equation that will explain everything.

Note the characteristics of both films. The effort is persistent, driven even. No scepticism will inhibit the quest however impossible the task seems at first. The object of the quest always has a sense of the idyllic about it. Further, the central characters in the story are a virtuous hero and a beautiful heroine – not just physically beautiful, though she is usually that. She must be spiritually beautiful. In The Imitation Game, Jane Clarke is without a doubt such a heroine. In The Theory of Everything, Jane (yes, another Jane) Wilde played by Felicity Jones, again with exceptional mastery of her craft, is a heroine that falls into the same category. She loves Stephen Hawking and sacrifices her own career and vision to be married to him and to have his children (three in the end) even though Stephen suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and the onset is quite swift just as the romance is budding.

Like The Imitation Game, the story is, in Stephen Hawking’s words, only “broadly true”. The distortion from reality is not simply to please a broader audience as some condescending critics aver, but because fiction has its own demands and without fitting into one structure or another, it is difficult to enjoy a movie or a play or a novel. So the hard times that Stephen and his wife Jane went through are alluded to without becoming the focus of the film. As with The Imitation Game, the script is an adaptation from a book, this time an autobiography rather than a biography, Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen which, helpfully, had the same romantic structure.

If Alan Turing had to succeed in spite of his homosexuality in a society that deemed such activities as not only morally corrupt but illegal, Stephen Hawking had to deal with a very different but also naturally endowed enormous challenge, his disease. Unlike The Imitation Game where the disability is a socio-political one rather than a natural one, in The Theory of Everything, the movie has to spend the first 15-30 minutes establishing the main character as a physically healthy being who will be crippled by his disease but never brought low. So, as the credits role, we watch a young Stephen Hawking cavorting about when he is with his parents in the most formal of settings. And the film begins with him and his friend on bicycles racing through the streets of Cambridge often at great risk to themselves and those around. These are not befuddled, introverted geeks who are odd ducks, but good-looking and virile young men who happen to be brilliant.

The film may progress as Stephen loses one physical faculty after another, eventually even his ability to speak, but it is as perilous a journey as Alan Turing took, but the adventures and the challenges are not in overcoming social obstacles, though there is a hint at some initial intellectual objections to Stephen Hawking’s radical reconceptualising of our cosmos, but the perilous journey he takes is a fight against a disease that ravages his body and not his mind and that placed a death sentence upon him in which he was sentenced to a life expectancy of only two more years. Though his body gradually “dies” and fails him, his mind stalwartly goes on so that the hero’s indomitable spirit overcomes the challenges he faces. In the biopic of Alan Turing, Alan actually dies, first from chemical castration and then, subsequently, by taking his own life. But whatever the various paths each take towards the demise that faces us all, both emerge and are exalted as great heroes of human history.

At the beginning it is made clear that the space in which they live is occupied and controlled by those who not only lack the hero’s vision, but are unalterably opposed to it. In The Theory of Everything, this landscape is controlled by obstreperous villains, some who redeem themselves along the way, but this aspect of the mythos is minimized in this film as Stephen is strongly supported at Cambridge in his audacious thinking while Alan Turing is portrayed as meeting opposition along the way until one by one his enemies are slain and left by the wayside. In the case of Stephen Hawking, the enemy, however, is far more formidable, for the real foe is not simply those in intellectual disagreement, but the very nature of the world that Stephen has set out to understand. Nature in the form of ALS anthropomorphically conspires to prevent him achieving his breakthrough.

In each case, the heroine is a princess in her own right, but her life must be sacrificed when she becomes involved with the hero – Jane Clarke with Alan Turing and Jane (Wilde) Hawking. The Theory of Everything spends a great deal more time on the heroine’s sacrifice than The Imitation Game, for without that sacrifice, there is the message that Stephen could not have survived more than two years. This message becomes completely explicit when Jane Hawking resists the entreaty of the French doctor (he would have to be French in a film about a British hero) who recommends pulling the life support system from Stephen and allowing him to succumb to the killer that has been stalking him.

This is but one of the many adventures along the way, but these adventures have a totally different character in The Theory of Everything versus The Imitation Game. For the dragon that must be tied up and debilitated in the Stephen Hawking film is not embodied in an old misguided social forces and norms but in his own body. It is his own flesh that conspires to defeat his brain. But Hawking, with the help of the sacrificial heroine, wins in the end and Stephen goes on, however wounded and debilitated he became, to become an intellectual hero for the whole world. Alan Turing, however, had to wait for his resurrection until well after he actually died.

Thus, the disease is the demon, not elements in society. That demon, even though never slain, must be stopped in its tracks even if disempowering that demon goes against the very laws of nature. Hence, like all heroes in summer romances, the hero will evince a sense of divinity, a sense of the divine spirit which he himself only comes to acknowledge near the end of the movie, whereas faith in a divine spirit, including within Stephen, who was constantly prompted to espouse such a belief by Jane Wilde both before and after her marriage to him.

We in the audience have difficulty in identifying with geniuses like Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, but, like the heroine, we can gain proximity through identifying with the heroine who will become the mediating element between the demonic and the divine. For the hero comes from an upper world, a remote intellectual mountain top, that ordinary mortals cannot experience or aspire to experiencing. At the same time, the divine spirit is embodied in the hero so his body and its passions and weaknesses are crucial to the story. So the hero must unequivocally evince youth and energy, vigour and determination in the spring of the life of each individual. In the case of Stephen Turing, his ability to be fertile in spite of ALS, to be able to propagate is critical, for his body, as well as his mind in his case, must achieve immortality in spite of the weaknesses of the flesh.

So both movies are about battles, different kinds of battle in each case and different again from the battles portrayed in the fairy tales we were all told when we grew up. But there is always a dragon, a dark enemy that stands for what is moribund, that is proven through the tale to be sterile in spite of the initial fire power and apparent strength the dragon first evinces. In contrast, whatever the idiosyncrasies of the character of the hero, he is ultimately a man of great virtue in every classical sense of that term. Ultimately, he is the wisest of them all, though he may be helped by other wise men who recognize the extraordinary qualities of the young hero. Further, there is always the underlying message that the heroine is a sibylline figure who sees what no one else can see nearly as clearly and is the true oracular voice that maintains without doubt or hesitation her faith in the divine qualities of the hero. There is also a subliminal quest that the great deed is really performed on her behalf and because of her faith and support.

The enemies, usually all around as in the Turing film, but in the Stephen Hawking film, live at the sub-atomic level of quarks within Stephen Hawking’s own body. They are the keepers of the gold at the end of the rainbow Those keepers must be passed by the hero to get that gold.  As in The Imitation Game, the monsters are horrific, but in this case are even more formidable because they are completely hidden and invisible to the naked eye, making that world even more mysterious, especially when Stephen can thwart its will in spite of all predictions and the obstacles he encounters. The monster may have their aides (Turing’s fellow mathematicians until they are won over, pneumonia as a partner of ALS in the Hawking film), but they too will meet defeat. However, without such aides for the monster, the conflict would not develop in such an intense and focused way.

In the end, both films have a dialectical structure as the forces of good do battle with the forces of evil. Evil in the form of ASL or obstreperous stubborn old men may be overcome this time, but they are never exterminated. They continue on in this world to manifest in another context and for another hero is the making. There is no subtlety is this battle. The competing forces are clearly demarcated and the message of the parable is always very simple and straightforward. The characters around are either for or against this evil, but may shift roles over the course of the tale.  It is, in the end, a tale of virtue out to defeat sinister forces.

As I indicated in my blog on The Imitation Game, the sequence followed is very rigid in a summer romance. We begin with idealistic innocence that characterizes the “birth” of the hero, in these two cases, the intellectual birth, and the role he will adopt. In the second stage, the inexperience of the hero is made evident, in the case of Alan Turing, in facing the social/political forces allied against him while Stephen Hawking has to take into account the new experience of his own body effectively attacking him. Only then does the third stage take centre stage when the hero musters the force and the will to overcome the obstacles and fight to realize his vision and dream, for the ideal must be completed and brought to fruition. The fourth stage focuses on the resistances encountered along the way and, depending on the circumstances set out in the different expressions of this mythos, the resistances and steps in overcoming them will occupy the central bulk of the movie. It is here that the moral message of the narrative is played out, in the case of The Theory of Everything, a moral message about the indomitable spirit of man against all odds to overcome the oppositional forces the hero faces.

So in the fifth stage, the hero and the heroine each comes to a self-realization that neither possessed at the beginning of the tale. In effect, each goes through a similar metamorphosis as when the initial innocent first counters and engages in the world, but this time, near the end of the journey, and at a much more mature level. In the Hawking film, there is the recognition that human love is itself not divine but has its limits. There is nothing wrong in coming to recognize those limits and give up on the romanticized idealistic vision of that love. In the final stage, the audience is taken out of history and into the realm of contemplation beyond the ordinary world. The movies work, using exquisite acting and directing skills and all the other relevant appurtenances to come to completion with a sense that we ourselves have been transported and put on a higher plain compared to the period before we even watched the movie.

Too much reality, and the film does not work. It functions by discarding any elements of the “true” story that will interfere with this progression. So enjoy the films and set aside any carping about the failures of the movie to deal adequately with the experience. In the case of the Stephen Hawking biopic, there is even less attempt to make sense of the science at stake, for the makers of these movies recognize in some core of their being that any fictional representation must obey the laws governing fiction just as the natural world is governed by the laws of mathematics and physics.

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