INT. GREENLAW 302 -- AFTERNOON As the movie starts playing, Harrison turns his attention to the screen. NARRATOR (V.O.) So the projector thrust him onto the mercy of the immitigable path of fate. For as he fixes his gaze onto the screen, little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in him appreciating a film that he disregarded three years ago on a flight.
Watching Harold Crick timing everything with his wristwatch, I was surprised to recall that Stranger Than Fiction was played on a big screen on a flight I took to California in 2016. Maybe it was the lack of sound and the uncomfortable inflight conditions that left me unimpressed. However, with a well-written script brimmed with surprising turns and extraordinary acting that preserves the vast majority of highlights, Stranger Than Fiction is actually a film that is truly worth watching.
First off, Stranger Than Fiction has an exciting plot. Some people might expect a film that has literature as a significant component to be tedious, but this film distinguishes itself from the ordinary. Just as we are certain that Harold is in a tragedy after knowing his “imminent death” and witnessing the demolition of his apartment, he appears to be a comedy as he starts dating Ana. Similarly, just as we are ready for the tragic ending, it turns out that the one that dies tragically is his wristwatch. An excellent plot should also portray characters in a way that displays their personalities. Stranger Than Fiction effectively depicts Harold Crick as a seemingly over-meticulous person who is inherently kind and Ana Pascal as a rebellious anarchist with a caring side (as we see when she offers a homeless person food and bakes Harold cookies). At first sight, they appear to be two people with very distinct personalities, but it is exactly those differences that give rise to their mutual attractions and eventually build rapport between them.
Talking about the plot, we cannot ignore the screenplay which is a great literary work itself. The frequent switch of places and characters enables the simultaneous development of story from two sides, Harold Crick’s and Karen Eiffel’s. Literary language such as “little did he know” and “deep and endless ocean” has made reading the screenplay a pleasure. The screenplay is also sprinkled with gentle humor. His interaction with the old lady about whether it’s Wednesday and the way he yells at the sky regarding his death show that Harold is a frank person whose straightforwardness makes him lovely sometimes. I do think a few small details in the screenplay can be portrayed better in the film. For instance, more close-ups should be given to the watch, especially those moments that humanize the watch. Also, “her lips part” and “his fingers twitch”, which occurred at least two times in the play, might be worth some shots in the film. Nevertheless, small blemishes do not change the fact that both the screenplay and the film are outstanding overall.
What I like the most about Stranger Than Fiction is actually its theme. The film explores the concept of life. Is life strange? Are we in a comedy or a tragedy? I do think life is strange in that there is no way for us to be figure out if we are in a comedy or a tragedy. Edgar Allan Poe talks about reading humans as books in his book Man of the Crowd. As far as I am concerned, we can read other people’s personalities through observations and interactions, but the hardest person to read might ironically be ourselves. We try to understand ourselves through our interactions and we change our behaviors for a better self, but unlike literature works, it is not apparent what genres our life stories are in. We try to attribute failures to bad luck, thinking we might be in a tragedy. But tragedies can turn into comedies and vice versa. We use a lifetime to understand ourselves, but even deaths might not be the final revelation to the question of comedy or tragedy. I consider most lives to be a mix of both. Probably that is something that “does not permit itself to be read.”
At the end, the book reveals that life is not about where you end up at. It is about finding happiness and gaining satisfaction in the most subtle things. Being in a tragedy doesn’t mean it is the end of the world—there is still consolation in sugar cookies; feeling alone doesn’t mean life is boring—pick up a guitar and you’ll be happy…
Stranger Than Fiction has made me think beyond life. It encourages me to consider the idea of destiny. In the film, every major character in Karen Eiffel’s books has a destiny. Do we all have a destiny? Harold Crick thinks he will keep living his mundane life as an IRS agent, but he has made his life more interesting than he has ever imagined by discovering his passion in music and falling in love with Ana. Fate likes to take people on interesting paths, and Harold’s biggest destiny might be his “imminent death,” a heroic act that would be remembered. If we all have a destiny, who has control over it? Harold’s is under Karen Eiffel’s control, but the control to ours is often a mystery.
Last but not least, Stranger Than Fiction elaborates on future and time. Is it a good thing to know about the future? Apparently, the existence of a narrator in Harold’s life is not something he is glad about. Is there anything we can do to prevent the future if we know it? But even with Poppet’s superpower in The Night Circus, there might not be anything we can do.
Life can indeed be stranger than fiction. But even if that is the case, after all, the narrator/author of our lives is not Karen Eiffel or Zach Helm (he only wrote Stranger Than Fiction, not the stranger than fiction aspect of our lives) but ourselves.
“The circus arrives without warning.” As the exact same sentence used to unfold the entire story at Le Cirque des Rêves brings The Night Circus to an end, it is the beginning of Widget’s story and it seems that everything has just begun. Perhaps it gave me that feeling in the same way circuses amaze their audience. Like Erin Morgenstern said, the word “circus” is derived from “the Greek kirkos meaning circle, or ring.” The end of a circle is its beginning and the end of a show marks the start of the next. The end of Celia and Marco’s story brings the circus to a new start under Bailey, Poppet, and Widget, and the end of The Night Circus took my mind back to the moment I opened this book on Audible…
As a fantasy novel, The Night Circus intrigues readers with its supernatural world where afterlife exists, the past can be read, and the future can be glimpsed. Erin Morgenstern condensed a plot spanning exactly thirty years, yet under clever planning, almost every scene is detailed and enjoyable to read. Every part in the book starts with a quote by Friedrick Thiessen, who is ideal to give the introduction as a talented clockmaker and a leading rêveur. Also, the story is told with a discontinuous timeline from different perspectives. Although most of the story is told from a third person perspective, the beginning and ending are told from a second person perspective, pulling readers into the story. Upon hearing “you are amongst them (spectators)” at the start of the book, I seemed to be experiencing the story myself, standing on the black and white ground of the circus and admiring the towering tents. The discontinuous timeline facilitates storytelling and makes the book more interesting, allowing readers to meet Bailey in the first part and experience the circus from both the inside (with Celia) and the outside (with Bailey).
While The Night Circus is a fantasy novel, it is not an aimless book solely for the sake of telling a fantasy. It has some great themes. The Night Circus elaborates on time and the unknown. Can we prevent the future if we can see it with Poppet’s superpower? But even the fortune-teller at Le Cirque des Rêves will tell you that “the most difficult thing to read is time” and “the future is never set in stone.” What will people do if details of an awaiting challenge is an enigma? The Night Circus also delves into the power of love. What do people choose between love and self-interest? Can love transcend life and death? Or is it “fickle and fleeting” according to Tsukiko? Last but not least, The Night Circus explores the concept of binding and competition. Is there always a “winner” and a “loser” in a competition? Are competitions a good measure of capability? Or is it like what Hector said, competitions are “a test of strength?”
The Night Circus is an excellent book to be turned into an audiobook. Listening to the beautiful language is a pleasure: the entire book flows smoothly and a sprinkle of french words add on to the mystery. Imagery used throughout the book brings sights, smells, and sounds to listeners, and Jim Dale’s voice acting brought the characters to life. As a visual learner, I actually found listening and reading at the same time to be efficient. Listening forced me to focus while reading made me pay attention to every word and appreciate the language. Having an ebook allowed me to highlight noteworthy sentences and notice more details, like three mentions that Marco and Mr. AH “have no shadow.”
However, is audiobook the best format for The Night Circus?
If we think about the evolution of books in recent years, a lot of things have changed. The invention of ebooks changed reading by making paper optional, and audiobooks take it to the next level by making eyes optional. We have turned the location of reading from libraries to casual places like gyms and cars, the goal of reading from self-enrichment to entertainment and utilitarian reasons, and the norm of reading from obsessive reading to the increasingly often fragmented reading.
It reminds me of a story: a group of adventurers went to a cave. They lit up candles and found a flock of gorgeous butterflies. Adventurers retreated. The next time they came to the cave, butterflies had already flown to the depth of the cave… Audiobooks might be the candles, and words are those butterflies. While audiobooks allow us to read easier like the candles allowed the adventurers to see the butterflies, the beauty of words sometimes lie in their silent form. Don’t let the candlelight disturb the peace of those tiny creatures in the cave. And we probably don’t want audiobooks to take away our endless imaginations while reading books word by word and the unique smell that each book possesses.
I have to admit that the audiobook version of The Night Circus is wonderful, and it is good that we have audiobooks as alternatives to traditional reading. But I might prefer to read the book in a traditional way to feel the joy it brings us when we “take down a book and slowly read” in William Butler Yeats’ poem When You Are Old. Let us allow Erin Morgenstern’s words take us to the Le Cirque des Rêves silently, through the series of tents and under the caramel smell, one tent at a time.
“How’s the book you read for English?” my friend asked smilingly.
“It’s alright! It is pretty ambiguous, but it is unique.” I replied and smiled back. I wanted to say some more, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Everything I felt about Pierre suddenly felt ambiguous to me. Well, I liked it. Or do I? It wasn’t that hard to read. Or is it? So many scenes in the book rushed to my brain, and I was taken back to the very moment I began reading it.
With the excitement of reading a new book, I sat down at my desk, ready to binge-read a few books of the first nineteenth-century book I read. However, the first chapter quickly made me rethink about my plan. Lucy and Pierre’s conversation about love seemed nothing but ambiguous and abrupt. I told myself I could understand it by reading it again and I knew Pierre might be different from all the books I had read. I did not like Pierre at the beginning.
Just a superficial analysis of Pierre’s plot and writing style will show why it received an overwhelming amount of criticism. From calling his mother “sister” to marrying his unverified half-sister, Pierre’s moral is problematic. The disproportionate amount of narration on characters’ inner thoughts and philosophical debates, together with the book’s frequent references to the Bible and literature works such as Hamlet, easily confuses readers, making it difficult to appreciate every page.
In retrospect, Pierre is confusing to read, but is it actually that terrible?
To me, Pierre is unique in many ways. Unlike fictions that develop along a storyline centering on the protagonist, Pierre seems to be a “cinematic” book that imitates the style of a movie. In the first chapter, a hook of a scene expressing Lucy and Pierre’s mutual love is thrown to readers in the same way directors intrigue the audience with a clip at the beginning of movies. Then there’s a flashback to Pierre’s family background, resembling flashbacks in films. The book is divided into books, and multiple chapters comprise each book in a way like scenes in movies. The narration sometimes jumps from scene to scene, rapidly switching places and characters. For instance, in Book XVII, the first chapter is about Pierre telling Isabel his plan to depart for the city at Isabel’s place but the next chapter takes the audience to the mansion of Mrs. Glendinning. Although the narration style can leave readers confused at times, it facilitates storytelling to some extent.
Melville’s writing style does make Pierre difficult to read and comprehend, especially for foreign readers like myself. However, there are reasons to appreciate Pierre. Melville’s language is beautiful. Archaic English elements can be easily found in conversations between characters and techniques such as metaphor are used for rhetorical effects. Although Pierre is ambiguous, Melville tied the plot together with recurring elements such as Isabel’s guitar and the painting of Pierre’s father. Themes including love and morality underlie the entire book. Therefore, whether people appreciate Pierre or not, ambiguities in Pierre might be an art—they are what make it unique, just like Catcher in the Rye is distinctive due to J.D. Salinger’s colloquial and depressing writing style. Melville wrote the book in a long and ambiguous way that allowed him to include many ideas in a single book, such as criticizing the print media and expressing his feelings for the lukewarm reaction to Moby Dick.
When it comes to the art of ambiguities, ambiguity is central to making short films deep and memorable. The Eagleman Stag might be nothing more than a grey animation on first sight, but it reveals the cycle of life; Cargo might seem like a simple horror film, but it gives people insight into how time can be spent meaningfully… Admittedly, Pierre is ambiguous because it’s long rather than short. But the book’s short ending and pages of ethical debates do allow readers to think deeply.
After reading Pierre, I asked myself what rating I would give to this book that is distinct from everything I read before. It took me a while to come up with one. The difficulty of reading Pierre gave me the urge to rate it one star, the moral is two stars at best, the plot is three stars, the language is four stars, and its uniqueness as an ambiguous book maybe deserves a five star. Alright, I told myself, I would give it a three star—a perfect, truly ambiguous rating for Pierre, the first ambiguous book I read.