by Erin GardinerOkay, what if — just maybe — the earth is really a giant cosmic ant farm, and some aliens out in the universe are just casually observing and commenting on the day-to-day life of all the humans that have ever lived? Has anyone else (other than the writers of The Twilight Zone) ever stopped to entertain this fascinating, albeit wildly improbable possibility? Truman Burbank certainly hasn’t. This is unfortunate for him, because he’s the one person who should be a little suspicious. Truman has spent his entire life literally sheltered under a huge bubble, which doubles as a television studio (a very cleverly hidden television studio). The poor guy has no idea that an entire world exists outside of his little town, that every person he has ever met is an actor, and that he’s constantly being watched on TV screens everywhere. To put it lightly, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show tackles some intense themes: religion, existentialism and the power of the media, just to name a few.
Discussion surrounding the relationship between the media and the masses has been around as long as any type of media has existed. The Catholic Church published several versions of book-banning publications as early as AD 170 and the Motion Picture Production Code regulated American film content in the 1930s. There is a widespread concern for the effect of the media on the general public. If the producers of “The Truman Show” have the ability to control the entire life of one man, what don’t they have the ability to control? They already have the public within their grasp.
The opening of the film establishes that the show has been running for 30 years (Truman’s whole life so far). Some viewers have grown up simultaneously with Truman and no doubt feel a deep connection to his story. Connections like this allow the people who contrive them to have an unnerving amount of power. Christof, the director of “The Truman Show,” exhibits this type of power throughout the film. In a search for the increasingly self-aware Truman, Christof at one point exerts his godlike abilities over the set and orders that the sun rise much earlier than usual in order to allow for more light in the search. Christof’s spine-chilling tendency to take advantage of his own authority also comes in much more subtle ways.
The comparison of Christof’s character to God in the context of his power is just the beginning of more allusions to religion in The Truman Show. If Christof represents a godlike figure, he certainly isn’t a benevolent god. He is concerned about his success, and what Truman, as entertainment, means for that success. He often shows no compassion for Truman, despite having directed his life for 30 years. His relationship to Truman is similar to that of Dumbledore and Harry Potter, as the audience finds in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A man discovers an infant in need of a direction in life and uses that vulnerability to his own advantage. For Harry, that means being raised to be a weapon against the most evil of all wizards. For Truman, it means being raised as a product for the public to consume as entertainment.It’s surely dangerous for people to have this kind of power. Looking deeper, Truman is not the only one who is under Christof’s control. Truman’s entire hometown is made up exclusively of actors, interacting with him and the rest of the town at all hours of the day. Most of these people have essentially devoted their lives to “The Truman Show.” Since Truman lives on set full-time, there is a question about what kind of hours the actors work. Say Truman wants to make last minute dinner plans with his best friend Marlon — does that mean that Marlon, whose name in real life is actually Louis, might have to tell his own family that he won’t be home for dinner? What about Truman’s wife, Meryl? She probably spends the most time with Truman, making a life outside of the show impossible for her to have, considering her job is to have a life with Truman. There is one overarching question about the entire concept of a show like this: How can a so-called “real life” exist for anyone who works on it? Christof has an unbelievable hold on a group of people so large they could fill a small city — literally. He seems to be able to not only construct a life for Truman, but for all the actors as well.
This question of “real life” versus Truman’s constructed life spurs further discussion on the question of reality. Is Truman’s life real? The film opens with commentary by some of the actors as well as Christof, who says, “it may not be Shakespeare, but it’s genuine, it’s a life.” This theme of reality and existentialism is by far the most complex theme in the film and is one that may have no objective truth to discover via analysis. However, what may or may not be true can certainly be debated. Start small: Truman exists. That is not a question. He is flesh and blood, has thoughts and feelings and can function in all the same ways that the rest of humanity can. The doubt arises when the word “real” is applied to Truman’s experiences. Can his life really be considered real when everyone he has ever met is constructing a reality for him?
It’s often hard for the audience to get a grip on the reality of the film as well. There are several levels of reality to think about. Sometimes the audience sees Truman’s life from a relatively objective and omniscient standpoint. The action is framed as it would be in any other film. Other times, it seems as if what is on screen is exactly the same as what a viewer of “The Truman Show” in the universe of the film would be seeing. There might be a vignette around the frame or an abnormal angle that suggests we’re looking through a hidden camera. There are also occasions when the audience knows it is looking at the TV show as it exists within the film. Every once in awhile, the narrative pulls back and actually shows some of the viewers of the show in “real life” as they comment on Truman’s story and actions. With so many representations of different realities in one film, it’s difficult to determine what can or can’t be called “real.” The idea of layers of reality leaves one thinking about what it means to have a genuine life, and what kinds of experiences are essential to living a fulfilled life.The Truman Show is a film clearly filled with all kinds of complex issues and themes to talk about. To analyze them on a surface level is nearly impossible because questions just lead to more questions and the discussion ends up in an infinite loop of “what ifs.” However interpreted, the film raises important inquiries that can lead people to be more aware of their surroundings, just as Truman becomes aware of his surroundings throughout the story. The film is a journey for Truman from ignorance to enlightenment, and the themes that can be uncovered along this journey can serve a similar purpose for anyone who is looking to discover something about themselves or the world around them.