Friday, November 28, 2008

The Truman Show: Another Retelling of Hamlet

In an earlier post ("Why Hollywood Movies Are Like Hamlet," May 4, 2008), I described the experience of seeing Iron Man and realizing that Hollywood was again giving us, whether it (or its audience) realized it or not, another retelling of Hamlet. As the tale of a brilliant, troubled young man who, pursued by private demons, acts badly -- especially towards women -- and finds himself (rather being roundly censured by those around him) having everyone wondering exactly is going on in his head (could it have something to do with his intimidatingly impressive father? or maybe the seemingly benign figure who has now taken his place?), its affinities with Shakespeare's 1601 drama seem obvious enough, at least to me. Tony Stark ends up triumphant, rather than dead, but that particular Hollywood revision -- that the hero, a roguishly charming bastard at the film's beginning who quickly turns into a roguishly charming hero, shows his redemption by doing the the Right Thing, at the certain cost of all he values most, but ends up not having to pay the cost after all, and is shown at film's end victorious and universally adored -- is so fundamental as to apply even to, say, Cars.

A few days ago I showed the first forty minutes of The Truman Show to my twelfth graders, who had just finished reading Hamlet. They picked up on the parallels immediately: The Truman Show tells the story of a charismatic young man of seemingly limitless promise, admired by everyone in his tiny clockwork community, who has recently fallen prey to a seemingly unaccountable malaise. Everybody wants him to feel better, and assures him that this will happen if only he stops asking questions about things. His mother wants him to stop worrying and enjoy life; so does the best friend who is choreographed into his path at every turn. The love of a fair woman is dangled before him, inducement enough, people seem to hope, for him to forgo his wish to be elsewhere. But there is some mystery involving his beloved father, who is dead -- or is he? A ghostly appearance one evening . . . .

I mean, that sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? The Truman Show has two Ophelia figures -- one good, one bad -- and it conflates Horatio with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into one composite figure. But there is a true father (marginalized, indeed only problematically alive), and a would-be, seemingly benevolent father figure who controls all, and who wishes to control Truman as well. It ends in sappy triumph, rather than profound tragedy, but what recent movie doesn't? (Well, Sweeney Todd -- whose protagonist offers us another avatar of Hamlet -- doesn't, but it had its origins far from Hollywood.)

One of my students asked me whether The Truman Show had been intended as a modern-day riff on Hamlet. I told her that so far as I was aware, nobody had noticed the similarities but me. A few days later I checked online, and indeed, there are no references at all to such a parallel. They certainly seem evident to me.