Stranger than Fiction (2006) is another in a succession films and novels that explore, sometimes in highly fanciful ways, the relationship to reality of literature, art, and the human imagination. Such films as The Truman Show, Adaptation, Tristram Shandy, Pleasantville, The Fountain, and Being John Malkovich are examples, and there are others. In Stranger than Fiction a man named Harold Crick gradually becomes aware that he is a character in a novel being written by a famous reclusive novelist, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Crick is an IRS auditor who lives a life of carefully observed routine that never veers outside established boundaries. He is what we call a "flat" character. He becomes aware that he is bring written about when he begins hearing a voice that is narrating his life. (He is brushing his teeth when the voice first speaks). The voice turns out to belong to a writer who always brings her main characters to a bad end—as she puts it, she "kills them off." As Crick begins to fall in love with a bohemian cookie store owner, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), we see him begin to develop a three-dimensional personality. We also see a developing relationship between the demands and value of art as embodied in the novel in progress and the value of an individual human life. Eiffel is experiencing the worst writer's block of her career and cannot decide how to end her novel in progress. Her publisher appoints a literary agent, nicely played by Queen Latifah, to assist her. Harold consults a literature professor, Jules Hilbert, played by Dustin Hoffman, for advice. Hoffman's character is an expert on Eiffel's work, though he has never met her. Just at the moment when Eiffel has resolved how to finish her novel, Harold tracks her down and confronts her with his situation, and his desire to live. She in turn takes her manuscript to Hoffman. He reads it, judges it her best work, and concludes that she should not change a word, that Crick must die, that not to let him die would destroy a great literature. He advises Crick that there is nothing he can or should do, that he should accept his pending demise as a necessary sacrifice for the cause of great art.
The point of the film boils down to the question of what Eiffel will do—will she complete her novel as she planned it, or will she change it?
This film is a fantasy. If you try to see it as anything more, you become aware of numerous points of illogic and narrative errancy, not to mention the impossible premise of the film. But if you view it as the story of a man in the process of discovering himself, of accepting a fate over which he may have no control, of having perhaps to die not just for literature but to preserve someone else's life, and if you view it as the story of a writer suddenly confronted with the notion that her stories may possibly have a life-and-death impact on a man's existence, it's an entertaining and moving film.
It's also a film built around a false conceit—the notion that imaginative literature, art in general, directly and forcefully affects reality. Imaginative literature usually does not have a bearing on the physical fates of actual human beings. Writers can determine the fates of their fictional fabrications, their characters, but not of real people. Only when a Mark Wayne Chapman or John Hinckley becomes obsessed with an author and a literary work do we have the rare and disruptive intrusion of art, of literature, into the realm of human life. Yet one may argue that both these men are extreme and unrepresentative examples of the impact that literature, in far more subtle and moderate ways, actually does have on the lives of individuals and thus of nations. It may not determine whether we live or die, but it does help develop our character, our views of the world. At least this is true for those of us who read.