The Theory of Everything: Book, Script, and Film

I was not a fan of The Theory of Everything. I was anticipating seeing a film about the life and trials of Stephen Hawking and was disappointed when it was the life and trials of his ex-wife, Jane.

I went to the source, Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking, to see where the filmmakers went wrong. The filmmakers actually deserve more credit. The film had tried to incorporate more of Stephen’s life and theories while Jane’s book focused on her experiences taking care of a famous man.

In the comparison of the book, script, and film, I ask the following questions:

  • Is this book or story worthy of an adaptation for screen?
  • How loyal was the script and film to the book?
  • Would I recommend the book over the film or vice versa?

In short, the answer to the first question is, ‘no.’ The book, written by Jane Hawking in 1999 and then updated in 2007, is a detail by detail account of every boring moment of Jane’s life. In 500 pages, she manages to recount memories from when she first knew of Stephen as a child, then formally meeting him as a university student, followed by her marriage and then eventual divorce. She talks about the exams she took, the houses they lived in including their extensive renovations, and each and every trip they made together or separate.

Most stories had a point…once you got to the end of it. But these mundane tales made for an extremely slow read making me want to claw my ears out (thanks to Audible). One story detailed ,with no point whatsoever, was an evening at their friends’ home. Jane was cleaning baby bottles in the kitchen and completely forgot about them while they were all socializing in the living room. In dramatic flair, she describes the acrid smell of burned plastic and the mortification she felt for the incident. She said she feared her friends would throw her out and never see them again. A tad over-the-top, no?

Jane gives off an air throughout the book that she is put upon and undeserving of her plight when she married Stephen full-well knowing what would happen. She complains constantly about all the responsibility she bares and the literal weight of carrying her husband and three children. But her complaining gets old. I have very little sympathy for her or desire to sympathize with her, especially when she delivers these sweeping generalizations about entire countries always saying her beloved Cambridge, UK is a haven and only place Stephen can be looked after.

“It was unheard of for doctors to home visit [in America]. Especially on a Sunday afternoon. They doubted very much they would be able to persuade any doctor to come. After a long succession of telephone calls, they were finally put in touch with a general practitioner who, as an exception, agreed to come and inspect Stephen. When he arrived, he received right, royal treatment. As he conducted his tests, which indicated nothing amiss, I concluded that America was a fine place for the healthy and successful. But for the strugglers and infirm, for the people through no fault of their own but through accidents of birth, prejudice or illness were less able to help themselves–it was a harsh society–where only the fittest survived.”

When Stephen is in critical condition during a stay in Geneva, she insists on bringing him back to Cambridge even if it was against the doctor’s wishes and could have caused him more harm. In these moments, I wonder if Jane was doing this in Stephen’s best interest or only interested in being a martyr.

The last third of the book delves into the home health care Stephen received through a23EAFC5800000578-0-image-m-36_1418164751037 litany of nurses leading to the eventual hiring of Elaine Mason, Stephen’s second wife. But before we are told about Elaine, we are told story after story of each and every nurse that came through the revolving door that was the Hawking household. Anyone from pickpockets, gossip queens, and OCD obsessives were discussed at length. Jane had no problem bashing the NHS system in the UK with how poorly they were treated and dealt with Stephen’s entire life. Does Jane have anything nice to say about anyone other than her lover, Jonathan (who apparently can do no wrong)?

The last point I will make about the book is about Jane’s education. She got her undergraduate degree in arts leading to a PhD in romance languages and medieval poetry. She brings up, in incredible detail, a lot of history and factoids about the things she learned and studied. I felt very little need to care about this information.

A question I asked in the middle of the reading was if she ever actually finished her thesis to complete her PhD because if she didn’t, I was stuck here reading it. Much to my chagrin, she did finish her thesis after working on it for nearly thirteen years. If her autobiography was this boring, I would hate to have to read what she put together for that.

* * * * *

The script is about 90 pages in length. In movie time (1 page = 1 minute), we’re looking about an hour and a half, but the full film clocks in over two hours. I wanted to know what had been added to the film that wasn’t on the page. Much to my surprise, there were things trimmed.

The script doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, which does slow down the read and force the reader to imagine more than what is written in the action. But also, the more action you have, the more time it takes to show it on the screen.

For example, a screenwriter could write:

The car crashes.

This will not just take a fraction of a second on the screen. It could take several minutes to get through an action sequence or dramatic climax to the crash.

This was the case for The Theory of Everything.

Only one sequence stood out to me that was in the script and not in the film that I had wished made it. Toward the beginning of the film, Stephen is at a pub debating whether or not to call Jane from the payphone.

STEPHEN
Do you have any change for the payphone?

BARMAN
Sure.

The Barman takes Stephen’s pound and glances at the NAPKIN.

BARMAN
I’d commit that number to memory if I were you.

Stephen smiles–then glances at the mirror backed bar. Reflected, a woman who looks like Jane.

BARMAN
Here you go…Are you okay?

STEPHEN
Uh–my napkin just walked in.

In the film version, the scene cuts at, “sure,” leaving out the almost romantic exchange about number memorization. The final filmed version has Stephen come across as arrogant, as if he expected her to forgive him for not calling sooner but showing this exchange with the Barman would have shown that he wanted to call Jane, but was nervous or anxious.

The next scene has Stephen making up for his gaff, but after reading the version of Stephen in the book, I find this hard to believe. The arrogant man in the bar is more true to form to the real life depiction than the Hollywood-ized romantic hero portrayed in the rest of the film.

* * * * *

Speaking of Hollywood, the ending of this film is a severe left turn from the book.

In the book, the divorce was not a peaceful parting. Jane discusses how Stephen moves out to live with Elaine and then is basically evicted from her home because the house is rented under Stephen’s name. Jane has no claim over the property, and Stephen is unwilling to help his ex-wife and three children.

The film; however, shows a peaceful conversation of Stephen telling Jane he has asked Elaine to go with him to America for his newest award and that he is simply sorry. They have a tearful exchange and then movers come to collect Stephen’s things in an eerie peace that feels like relief rather than tragedy.

Stephen dedicated very little copy in his memoir, My Brief History, about the separation saying he was growing unhappy with the relationship between Jane and Jonathan, so he moved in with Elaine. Period.

Reading this put a sour taste in my mouth about Stephen and his treatment of his family. I can see why Hollywood tried to keep him a noble character.

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* * * * *

While the story of Stephen Hawking is a strong one, the story of Jane is not. The book was a vapid, self-centered account of her life giving mundane details of a struggling “single parent.” While her situation is unique and she sports a famous name, her storytelling is not interesting. If the book was structured differently and cut nearly in half, I believe she could have told a compelling tale of love and loss, but Travelling to Infinity was not it.

The screenwriter, Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero), did the best he could to pick scenes and adapt the source material to a respectable 95 page script. While critics have called him out on the altering of events, I am grateful. If each event in the book was carbon-copied to the screen, I would still be watching it three days later through my eyelids. The dramatizations were necessary to keep the audience’s attention.

However, the final film, was still rather dull. Knowing what I know now about the source material, I believe the filmmakers tried to make the story interesting, but they failed. It’s a film about a woman with a famous husband and how she was taken for granted for so many years. I just want to shake her and say, Welcome to the real world, honey. Grab a helmet.

* * * * *

To recap on my questions:

  • Is this book or story worthy of an adaptation for screen?

Yes and no. Yes, the story of Stephen Hawking is worthy of adaptation for screen because he is an inspiration for those with illnesses and also for his brain, but of Jane Hawking, no. The saying, “Behind every strong man is a strong woman” falls on deaf ears here.

  • How loyal was the script, and then film, to the book?

The script and film were not loyal to the book in many respects. For one, Stephen is much more vilified in the book, and for another, Jane complains about her life on every page. The film makes them much more sympathetic and romantic to the Hollywood standard.

  • Would I recommend the book over the film or vice versa?

I would not recommend either. My full film review can be found here, which I originally watched before reading the book. But even after seeing it a second time, I’m more disappointed by it because of the gross inaccuracies. But if you had to pick one, watch the film. The book is too boring and life is too short.

The Theory of Everything:

SCRIPT > FILM > BOOK

 

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