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The Truman Show on free will and status quo in fiction

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

The Truman Show has been praised for either depicting human vulnerability, or for having portrayed a narcissistic worldview for its sheer ridiculousness. What I loved about the film is its take on the idea of free will. Free will is one of my favourite ethical discussions, from the battle of freedom against order, to the idea that free will does not exist at all. The Truman Show adds a layer to this discussion by giving us Truman, someone whose entire reality is a controlled experiment.

Some people believe that this film is a character study on Truman, but I believe that the film is about more than that. Truman can be replaced by anyone (of course, no one can beat Jim Carrey's performance) and it will show similar results, since the decisions made by Truman in this film are less about Truman and more about human nature.

Throughout Truman's life, every experience he has had has been controlled and manipulated. However, he has had one truly unmanufactured experience: the beach walk with Sylvia. The film wants the audience to know that not only does Truman remember this very small event sandwiched between other major events in his life, but that he is more obsessed with that one woman who gave him the most freedom that he has ever TRULY felt. We can never forget these amazing spontaneous events. Throughout most of our lives, our actions are just reactions to events surrounding us, and we can never forget moments where we have been the active decision-maker. For someone, it could be deciding to start playing the guitar because they just want to, for another, it could be a cathartic outburst on someone they feel wronged by. For Truman, it was literally the only such experience.

The most painful scene for me has to be the recovery made by Christof to convince Truman that he is not on a set. A genuine talk with his lifelong best friend, a heartfelt reunion with his father were preplanned decisions to provide narrative closure to the audience. This could be seen as a meta-cinematic reference. Every bit of closure we have seen in literature has been written by a higher being, the author. We can see the author torturing their characters to make their redemption stronger for us. In The Truman Show, we see this play out with a real person, and it is every bit as messed up as we could imagine.

The third act begins with what we believe is dramatic irony, where we, the audience, know something the protagonist does not. Truman begins his day as he used to, more enthusiastic than ever, and it became much easier to get him to go along with the plot. This allowed Truman to trick the audience (another meta-cinematic wink) into believing that he was ready to go back to the status quo. However, while Truman's audience is delighted to get their show back, the cinematic audience is horrified. More than anything, I see this as the film highlighting the contrast between what status quo means for a television show compared to a film. In a film, the goal of a writer is to improve the characters so that it feels like a complete journey, while in episodic television shows, the writers do not wish to change the characters in substantial ways, or else they would suffer burnout and writer's block.

However, we know that is not what happened. Truman, upon seeing the utter shamelessness of the writers when they presented him with his father, knew that the enemies were too big to take head on. He went along with the writing and escaped them without raising suspicion. After a painful sail away from Seahaven, Truman reached the end of the world, where he met his god. Christof presented him with a choice: Leave and suffer against the unpredictability of the real world, or stay in his safe world, which is no faker than the world outside. If this kind of scenario seems familiar, let me rephrase it, a god telling their human, who lives in a utopia, that they can live there without facing any challenges, as long as they give away their freedom to do something. Yep, I'm pulling out the bible card. Only here, instead of a devil-snake, we have Sylvia. Even if we take away Sylvia from the equation, I think Truman would still leave, since it is human nature to want to be free. When we have an abundance of it, we can forget just how absolutely valuable freedom is, but for someone like Truman, who can only get it by giving up a utopia, we see our most basic instinct presented as it is.

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