Tim Burton’s film Big Fish, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, is one of my top ten favorites of all time. I recently shared it with my kids who love everything Burton. Their favorite Christmas movie is The Nightmare Before Christmas which means I’m either really rocking this parenting thing or I’m raising warped little cynics.
But I love Big Fish above all others. It has all the quirky, fantastical, and sometimes dark elements of a typical Burton film while diving even deeper into rich themes like family, love, and death. But what has always struck me the about Big Fish is what the film shows us about story.
One of my pet peeves is hearing people say, “such-and-such is JUST a story” whenever a book or film is critiqued. Yes, it’s a story but not JUST a story. Nothing is just a story. Story is powerful. One of the most powerful tools we have. And its power can be terrifying when the story is crafted to deceive and manipulate. Such stories are what got us Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton as presidential nominees. These campaigns speak powerful stories, but the stories are lies.
The power of story is why the disabled community is up in arms over the new film Me Before You. Yes, it’s a fiction, but the story it tells is that unless your body performs like everyone else’s, your life isn’t worth living. It’s just a story, but one that’s dangerous and deadly. It’s a lie and that’s why people are speaking the truth to say, being in a wheelchair doesn’t make my life any less valuable.
But truth is not the same as facts. And just as a fiction can tell a lie, fiction can also speak powerful truth. And that’s the heart of Big Fish.
If you’ve never seen Big Fish well just stop right here and remedy that. If you have then you’ll remember that the plots follows the life of Edward Bloom, a larger-than-life Southerner who is dying of cancer. Edward spins yarns about his life for his daughter-in-law Josephine during a visit from his estranged son, Will, who is about to become a father himself.
Edward Bloom’s tales are brought to life as he tells them through colorful flashbacks, but they are fantastical. And yet….are they false? What is it that makes a story true? To Will, his father’s stories are “lies,” “fictions.” He desperately wants to know the facts about his father and thinks Edward is hiding behind this facade of tall tales.
The way Will categorizes the world into fact vs. fiction causes him to misunderstand his dad. He misses the concept that Edward is sharing truths, not facts. He is sharing who he really is through his fanciful renderings of the past.
When Edward tells Josephine about how he met Will’s mother Sandra and wooed her, his story is over-the-top incredible. It includes love at first sight, months of servitude to a werewolf circus master to discover her name, larger-than-life romantic gestures, a public brawl with Sandra’s then fiance, and taking on unbelievable military missions during WWII to speed his return back to her.
The details are impossible. It couldn’t happened just how he told it. But Edward wasn’t thinking about the details, he was trying to explain his love for his wife. He would have worked as a slave for a werewolf for months in order to have finally met Sandra. He would have planted a field of daffodils for her. He would have taken on any mission, no matter how perilous, if only he could get back to the woman he loved. He was telling the truth by embellishing the facts.
Will’s estrangement from his father began over a fight at Will and Josephine’s wedding. Will was upset that Edward told a story about the day of Will’s birth–thinking it was an attempt to steal the spotlight from the bride and groom. Edward’s tall tale revolved around the catching of a legendary fish in a river–a fish that had swallowed his wedding ring–to explain why he couldn’t be at the birth.
During his final visit with his dad, Edward’s doctor (and friend of the family) tells Will what really happened the day he was born.
Dr. Bennett: Did your father ever tell you about the day you were born?
Will Bloom: A thousand times. He caught an uncatchable fish.
Dr. Bennett: Not that one. The real story. Did he ever tell you that?
Will Bloom: No.
Dr. Bennett: Your mother came in about three in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her, on account of your father was on business in Wichita. You were born a week early, but there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Now, your father was sorry to miss it, but it wasn’t the custom for the men to be in the room for deliveries then, so I can’t see as it would have been much different had he been there. And that’s the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version. But that’s just me.
Will remains unconvinced, but this theme of his father and the fish in the river keeps coming up.
When Will tries to discuss Edward’s inevitable death with him, Edward dismisses his concerns saying, “This isn’t how I go.” He reminds Will of a story he told him many times about seeing an image of his death in a witch’s glass eye when he was a little boy. When Will asks for details, Edward says, “Surprise ending. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for ya.”
It is a surprise ending and so beautiful. While Sandra and Josephine get some rest, Will sits with Edward in the hospital and it becomes clear that Edward is in his final minutes on earth. He asks Will to tell him the story of how he dies. Will is confused and doesn’t know what to say, but he decides to humor this dying man and he begins to make up a story by Edward’s hospital bed.
In the story Will tells, he and his father make a dramatic break from the hospital and head for the river. When they arrive everyone from all the stories Edward has told is there, cheering, and greeting Edward as Will carries him down the bank to the river. Edward cheerfully bids them farewell, kisses Sandra, and jumps into the water to become the big fish of his tale. “That’s it. Exactly,” Edward whispers before passing out of this life in his hospital bed.
In his final moments, father and son understand each other. They are united by story. While Edward died a very uninteresting death in the hospital, something much more significant was happening. He was bidding farewell to this world while in the arms of his son and courageously accepting his death and the new life to come, just as Will told in his fiction about his father’s death.
And Edward’s funeral that follows is a reflection of Will’s tale. Everyone is swapping stories Edward had told them, laughing, hugging, and comforting each other. And in the final scene Will with his young son, now born, is passing on Edward’s tales to become part of family legend. Despite being parted by death, Will and Edward are still connected by the stories and Edward’s grandson will know him through the same tales.
If you can get through the final 10 minutes of the film dry-eyed, you’re a heartless monster. There is such a poignant depiction of reconciliation and love between a father and son that death cannot marr or lessen. And it’s such a hopeful and joyful ending, a reminder that even death is no match for a good story when that story is created from love.
Big Fish shows us that story is what makes life colorful. And that every person transcends the mere dates and details of his/her life. But most of all, Big Fish shows us that story can bind us together to reveal the truth and that often the most powerful thing we can share is our story.
So let’s take stories seriously. Nothing is just a story. But let’s be sure that the stories we tell and the stories we believe are full of truth, even when they’re fictions.