Changing Fate: The Power Dynamics in ‘Stranger Than Fiction’

The movie Stranger Than Fiction plays with the idea of fate, the unknown, and the inevitability of death. Harold, the main character, has to contemplate these in his adventure to uncover the one pulling his strings to his preordained death. Throughout the movie, I kept wondering about the power dynamics between Harold and his writer Karen in the grand scheme of Harold’s story. Considering that the story doesn’t in fact end with Harold’s death, questions began to arise about how preordained each scene and action is up to the final moments where Harold should in fact die. I personally argue that while Harold may feel that Karen is controlling his every step that she is in fact guiding him to a conclusion that she wanted. I don’t think fate had anything to do with the death that had been outlined for him…

From the moment that Harold began hearing Karen narrate his life, I felt that the way she wrote ranged from declarations to suggestions. For example, in the beginning, Karen is narrating the mundane task of getting ready for the morning. She writes of how many strokes he brushes his teeth, how he picks his tie, and always nearly misses the bus. We the audience see this even before she speaks, these are facts. This task isn’t something that she ‘programmed’ into her character. It’s just something is.

 

When Karen’s writing becomes ‘suggestive’ she is pushing the plot along. In this case, I don’t see her have power either. For example, when Harold sees Anna for the first time at the bakery, he is professional towards her until Karen begins to mention her body. In our reality, the moment a person mentions something, it often directs the person listening to look at what they are talking about. For example, if I were to say “The sky’s so blue today,” my friend and maybe even a few passersby would look up at the sky and either think “Yeah, it is,” or “What’re you talking about, it’s 8 o’clock at night.” Either, I created a sentence that placed a suggestion into someone’s mind that warranted an action. In this way, I believe that Karen began to roll the plot along in Harold’s story.

While Karen didn’t start off with the power to control Harold, I do think that Harold gave her the power to control him. The moment Harold begins to hear Karen, he becomes hyper aware of his actions and how they may affect the progression of the story to what he believes to be his eventual death. He even begins to seek out his plot at the Professor’s behest. It is at this point that he begins to become a ‘character’. By this I mean that he acknowledges that he must be in a literary work and should act the part. In some ways, he takes advantage of his shrinking life span to go do what he never let himself do.

Still as his death creeps ever closer, he begins to search for Karen in earnest when he discovers her identity. It is at this point in the movie that the power dynamics really show. The greatest example is when Harold goes back to the IRS to look into information on the writer. From what is narrated up to the moment Karen’s own phone rings, it is obvious that she doesn’t know what Harold is really doing. Her gaze, like any omniscient writer really, shifts from within the character’s mind to the outside. She sees his actions but the detail of it. It is in this scene, that I feel the depth of their power dynamics show the brightest where Ana isn’t present.

Arguably, the only point in the movie that I believe Karen stood to have direct control over Harold’s life is the point in which he should have died. I personally believe though that Harold knowing the details of his death and the fact that he greeted it with open arms affected the outcome of what was to be his final moment. By this, I mean that Harold effectively changed the outcome precisely because he was aware that it would happen. It had the same effect of telling someone in a drug trial that they were the placebo. It skewed the results. Therefore, while Karen was omniscient, I feel that she had no true control of Harold outside of suggestion which he allowed to take control of his reality.

Tamara Lane