As a rabbinical student, I would often have discussions with classmates and teachers about theological questions that, in the final analysis, have no definitive answers. One classic question relates to the notion of free will. Simply put, if God is in charge and knows all, how can man have free will to choose? One response that a teacher gave to me made some sense and I share it with you.
We are finite creatures and can only live in the present. In this life, we are watching a video which opens with the caution: formatted to fit your screen. In contrast, God sees past, present, and future and his view is the wide-screen version. God is infinite and exists in all three time periods: past, present, and future. This is why He knows all and we cannot. Yet in spite of God’s knowledge of our future, traditional Judaism believes that God, in his infinite kindness, limited Himself and gave man the freedom to act. This problem of free will versus destiny is the crux of Stranger than Fiction, which depicts the ordinary and extraordinary life of Harold Crick.
Harold is an IRS agent whose life is defined by numbers. He also is a lonely man with few friends. The film opens with the viewer observing Harold’s robotic lifestyle, where everything is calculated down to the last second. Then the camera switches to brief scenes of a little boy receiving the gift of a bicycle from his parents and a woman looking for a job. These two characters appear at various points in the movie, and one wonders why since they seemingly have no connection to the plot.
Harold begins to hear a writer’s voice narrating what is happening to him at that moment. He is aware of the voice, but cannot fathom how it can describe his every action as he experiences it. The conceit of the film is that an author, Karen Eiffel, is actually writing his life, leaving him with little free will to exercise. It is frightening when Harold realizes that he no longer is in control of his destiny, especially when Karen writes that he will die “imminently.” The circuitous plot of the film describes Harold’s attempt to come to terms with his seeming inability to affect his future.
This realization that life will end soon moves Harold to be more proactive in the time he has left. He begins a romantic relationship and even learns to play the guitar. Jewish tradition tells us that we do not know the day of our death; it could be any day. For example, the rabbis teach us to “repent one day before your death.” The commentators explain this to mean that since no man knows the day of his death, he should repent every day. In other words, make every day a special day and fill it with meaning. We should value time and value the people with whom we come into contact.
Harold understands this life lesson. One of his mentors in the film poetically observes that only we can determine if our life will be a comedy or a tragedy. Will our lives affirm the continuity of life or the inevitability of death? The spiritually sensitive person lives with this constant dialectic as he makes decisions each and every day of his life.
The lives of the boy on the bike, the woman looking for job who is now working as a bus driver, and Harold finally converge in the last segment of the film. Harold is at a bus stop and the boy on the bicycle rides in front of the bus. Harold reaches out to save the boy and is hit by the bus. Does he die as the author writes or does he live and exercise free will? The film raises the question of how much free will does man have. Jewish tradition tells us that God is in charge of the world, but God gives man a limited area to exercise free will. As it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers, “everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given….everything depends on the abundance of good deeds.”
Man’s destiny is not totally pre-determined. Man cannot change some things, but there are some things he can do, and that is what Stranger than Fiction affirms. In the face of an all- knowing God, man can still influence his destiny, especially through the performance of a good deed, which is what Harold does when he saves the boy who rides in front of the bus.
Moreover, the film presents a morally sensitive character in the author, Karen Eiffel. She decides to change the tragic ending of her novel. She changes it from a literary perspective; she moves it from a masterpiece to just an average work of fiction in order to protect and save someone. What is paramount to her in the final analysis is not fame but doing the right thing. Morality trumps personal ego.
The movie concludes with Eiffel reminding the viewer that we need to thank God for the small pleasures of life that we often take for granted in our busy daily lives, for the “accessories of life” that are here to serve nobler causes and save our lives emotionally and spiritually. She speaks of the importance of the loving gesture, the subtle encouragement, the warm embrace. It is these little things that make life precious. Harold Crick appreciates this truth when he finds life after almost losing it.