When he isn’t pulling stupid faces and wiggling his hips to draw a chortle from his audience, somewhere, sometimes, Jim Carrey can act. He demonstrates this in his 1998 hit The Truman Show directed by Peter Weir.
Truman Burbank lives in a world that revolves around him. His relationships are fake, his work is not real and his life is on display for millions to watch. He is the star of a reality TV show, The Truman Show. There’s just one thing, he doesn’t know. Ever since he was born his every move has been scrutinised by his audience without his knowledge. As he grows older he starts to question the reality around him and finds that he wants to break away from his every day existence.
It does not serve the purposes of this article to discuss the stinging, almost prophetic, critique of everything TV would become in the millennium. Instead I’d like to concentrate on the philosophical themes within the movie and what it has to say about the Christian worldview.
Whether one knows it or not, every movie propounds a worldview. Directors often use their art form to make philosophical, religious or political statements. From Seth Macfarlene’s controversial use of Family Guy to air his leftist views to Mel Gibson’s explicitly Catholic The Passion of the Christ, movies carry a message. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s overt and very frequently it’s convincing. Movies have the power to turn our views around by stating a case that often appeals to our emotions. The Truman Show is no different. Many Christians have seen a positive message in this movie, likening Truman’s escape from his home to the freedom one receives in Christ when they are set free from sin. Comparisons have been made with C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, in so much as the arch evil Hollywood producer tutors his mouthpiece, Truman’s best friend, in order to keep him within the confines of his world in the similar way that Screwtape tutors Wormwood in the art of demonic manipulation of his subject. But I believe a closer analysis tells a very different story, one which fits more clearly with analogous religious criticism through the ideological framework of many contemporary artists.
I do want to say from the outset that I am not condemning this movie. It’s a favourite of mine. The well paced story strikes a balance between humour and thought provoking themes making it awash with opportunities to discuss the philosophy of film, religious themes and the ethics of media. But if you’re not that way inclined it can just be a great Saturday night movie rental. While this is a top draw movie that can be enjoyed for its entertainment value, I do believe that it is important that we understand the themes and messages therein lest we find ourselves absorbing its teachings and allowing them to become a part of our worldview without critical evaluation. In short, I suggest that we follow Paul’s teaching to “test all things” as it is useful for understanding what a person is advocating below the skin of their art.
Let’s explore two of the central characters. First we are introduced to Truman, the kind hearted, lovable hero of our story. It doesn’t take a whole lot of letter re-arranging and chin stroking to spot the inference. Truman is a true man. Or is he? What is a true man? Is Truman’s real personality that of what he has grown up as or is he a product of a manufactured environment? He inhabits an artificial world but he himself is real. Does that mean we are watching truth or an appearance of truth? The director of the show Christof (in the film, not the director himself) is interviewed and gives an apologetic to this criticism claiming that while the world is manufactured and on sale in the Truman store (a cynical, if justified, bite at western consumerism) everything that one sees in Truman is real because it comes from himself. Nothing is rehearsed we are told, nothing is planned because he doesn’t know he’s being watched. And if this is the case then that makes him real. The implication is that he is only as real as the world around him makes him.
Free will and determinism are up stage and center in our considerations then. Is Truman free to make his own choices and develop his own desires or are his actions an illusion, an imitation of free will brought on by an inability to see his predetermined fate? While he may make his own day to day decisions they are influenced by what would rightly be described as a higher power. One example of this conflict is the persistent need to manufacture ways to suppress Truman’s natural explorative tendencies. He has an insatiable desire to discover new lands, particularly Fiji, a place where “you can’t get any further away before you start coming back.” Quick fixes are needed of keeping him on the island so that he doesn’t find life outside and end the reality which so many people are finding entertainment in.
The producer’s methods employ questionable ethics to accomplish this such as choosing to kill off Truman’s father in a boat accident (he doesn’t really die of course because he’s an actor), thus causing Truman to be afraid of water consequently rendering him unable to leave the island. Truman may think he is afraid of water because of a traumatic event in his childhood but in reality he had no choice in it because it was an action taken by his puppeteers to suppress the true man who wants to be real to himself. Is it right that this man should be unwittingly driven to fear through the secret power of his creator?
While Truman’s actions are unrehearsed and superficially take on the appearance of free choice, the manipulation by his unseen environment makes them predetermined by the creator. The obvious implication is that Truman’s controllers represent classical perceptions of the Christian God. In Christian theology God is regarded as being master over the world’s destiny, working out a plan to bring about his own end. While we as humans may appear to make our own decisions, if God is omnipotent then we have never made a decision that he either didn’t know about or predetermine before we did it. In the words of the Westminster Confession “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”1. The theme of the movie echoes this by suggesting that this idea makes free will illusory and, if you’re cynical to go far enough, a cruel game played by God.
This God theme is explored through The Truman Show’s fictional creator, Christof.
As with Truman, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who this is referring to. Christof is a portmanteau of Christ and of, in that he is the Christ of Truman, his own personal creator. He is unseen and all powerful wielding total control over the show. He decides the direction of the show, who goes and who remains. In one particularly thought provoking scene Truman is out on the water sailing toward freedom. To stop him Christof brings about a huge storm. Persistent in his rebellion, Truman continues to fight his fear as Christof orders an editor to increase the waves. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience!” barks one of the show’s stakeholders. “He was born in front of a live audience.” he quickly replies. The editor refuses to increase the obey causing Christof to react angrily and do it himself. His behaviour embodies much of what is criticised about the Christian God in today’s culture. There is a hint that this creator is a tyrant who is selfishly exploiting the freedom of a human being for his own gain, reckoning his desires more important than Truman’s free will. Such is a common argument amongst the new atheists, summed up rather eloquently by Dawkins’ in his book The God Delusion. There he says
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomanical, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
While Dawkins’ portrayal of the Christian God is extreme polemic, perhaps even bordering on hysetrical, we see a softer version of this in Christof. He is egocentric, defensive of his decisions and quick to turn against those who disagree with him. In a TV interview he engages with an ex-cast member who is campaigning to free Truman from his artificial world. When she spits at him “What you have done to Truman is sick.” his reply appears petty and arrogant as he shouts her down declaring “Do you think because you stole some air time with him you know him?” This seemingly echoes much of God’s prophetic judgment against the nations in the Old Testament, in which the prophets declare “Thus saith the Lord” as He then goes on to declare that he knows the end from the beginning, that He knows all things and in knowing all things man should not oppose or question him. Of course the whims of Christof appear selfish and petty and he comes across as a weak, needful being who believes that he has the right to behave in this way because he is the creator of the show. The parallel is very clear, Christof is the Dawkins-lite version of God with only hints of the jealousy and mass genocidal tendencies.
At the end of the film Truman makes it to the edge of the world and is seen slamming his fists against the set to find a way out. He is interrupted by the voice of his creator coming from the clouds. There he explains everything. Truman asks “Was nothing real?” to which Christof replies “You were real.” At the final moment Christof excitedly blurts out “Well say something dammit, you’re on TV.” Truman gives his trademark catchphrase and walks through the open door and out of the world he has been an unwitting prisoner of for all his life. The music is jubilant, triumphant and we see the fallen face of Christof. Our last shot of him is one of a rejected father slumped in his chair, grieving the loss of his son. He is dejected, crest fallen and helpless. This echoes Nietzsche’s famous quote
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
And the world so quickly forgets as the two security guards turn to one another, shrug and say “Wanna see what else is on?”
The writers have nailed their colours to the mast in characterising Christof the way they have. They are standing with Nietzsche proclaiming that man’s thoughts are above God’s, that God is created in our image as a projection of our own selfish desires and our willingness to trample the rights and dignity of the people around us in order to get it.
In this article we have briefly explored the metaphysical themes of The Truman Show. The movie is littered with references to breaking free from the control that you are artificially put under. It is highly existential in it’s philosophy. Existentialism is the name given to a group of philosophical works from writers and thinkers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. While many of these thinkers disagreed in points of doctrine they shared in common the belief that man should focus on giving life his own meaning and that he should be individual and autonomous. The Truman Show thoroughly and cleverly analogises this and what it’s producers regard as the tyrannical mind control that subservience to a higher power can have on oneself. It is interesting to note that Truman’s first sign of his world not being quite what it seems is when a light falls from the sky. It turns out to be a broken studio lamp. Written on the side in bold writing is the word Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. This is a reference to Satan, who in classical protestant theology is also called the day star in Isaiah 14 that fell from the sky. In Genesis he appears as the serpent or the Nachash, the shining one, who tempts Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Likewise, in The Truman Show, the sirius light falls from the sky and is Truman’s first indication that everything is not what it seems. From this moment on he takes a journey into knowledge to find that his life is a fraud, eventually freeing himself from his Lockeanesque prison. We are not so naive to think that the writers are advocating following Satan. Instead what they are suggesting is that religion throughout the ages has regarded knowledge as evil and through it’s various writings has symbolised this in whatever its version of Satan is. Knowledge was the thirst of the Enlightenment thinkers who regarded the churches’ caution against certain types as a suppression of the truth that too much of it would lead one to realise that belief in God was an enterprise for keeping the masses under control. Or as Karl Marx said, “Die religion…ist das Opium des Volkes [Religion is the opium of the masses]”4
But these ideas are much older. For example, speaking in the mid 1st Century, Seneca is quoted as saying “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”5 Today they find not only a new expression through the development of enlightenment philosophy but also a new form in the arts which allows these philosophies to reach the wider collective conscience. From there, slowly but surely generations begin to absorb these ideas and most do so unwittingly. Recognising these messages is essential for the Christian so that we are able to filter and analyse them and see what sermon is being preached to us from the pulpit of the arts.
1 Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), Chapter III, article II, recovered from http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ An online version of the Confession.
2 Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pg.51
3 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann
4 Marx, K. 1976. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3. New York.
5 This quote is disputed as no original source can be found for it. It is found in What Great Men Think About Religion (1945) by Ira D. Cardiff, p. 342. It is used here with caution.