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The 36 Dramatic Situations: The Truman Show (1998) and Conflict With a God

Truman Show
By  · Published on August 26th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t jam a beret-wearing Ed Harris into our heads.

Part 18 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Conflict With a God” with The Truman Show.

The Synopsis

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) seems to have it all. He lives in a beautiful little town, has a charming and attentive wife named Meryl (Laura Linney), a great job in insurance, a best friend named Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and an extremely sunny disposition. But he also has questions. Why did his father have to die when Truman was a child? What’s across the water and outside of town? And why does his wife always seem like she’s marketing products to him in their own house? The answer is simple… Truman’s entire life is a reality TV show watched by millions in the real world. Everyone he encounters in his daily life is an actor playing a role, including his wife, and he’s the only one unaware of the truth. His questions turn to doubts and further curiosities, and when he begins to act upon them he finds a formidable opponent in the TV show’s director, Christof (Ed Harris).

The Situation

“Conflict With a God” – This scenario contains two parts, the immortal and the mortal. Basically, the mortal challenges, offends, or stands up to the the god, and is punished for his/her actions with dire consequences.

The selection of The Truman Show may seem like a cheat for this situation, but I’d argue (obviously) that it’s in fact the perfect fit for the scenario. Truman is clearly the mortal here living a life completely at the whim of Christof. The TV show’s director and creator is intentionally placed in a control room in the sky because for all intents and purposes he is God. He controls the weather, the lighting, events both big and small… he is the only deity that matters in Truman’s world. When Truman starts questioning not only his own existence but that of the world around him this god, Christof, punishes him with calamity, drama, and conflict.

The Movie

This is one of those eminently watchable films that is difficult to turn away from once started. Like A Few Good Men, Galaxy Quest, and Street Kings (don’t judge), if my channel surfing crosses paths with The Truman Show it’s almost guaranteed to stay on my TV until the end credits. It’s the perfect combination of idea, script, director, and cast coming together to create a film that just flows perfectly between drama and comedy. Director Peter Weir keeps things light as he slowly teases out the details of Andrew Niccol’s script, but as Truman’s world darkens our concern for him grows. And for a non-genre film that doesn’t involve car chases, murderers, and the like, the final twenty minutes manages to be incredibly suspenseful and ultimately satisfying.

The cast and caliber of acting here is also what sells the story as a whole and Truman’s journey in particular. The role was the first to truly stretch Carrey’s acting muscles after a series of box-office comedy hits, and he succeeds brilliantly. The balance of humor and humanity in his performance is perfect for engaging both the fictional TV show’s audience and the film’s real one. The supporting cast is equally good including Linney’s nervous actress asked to play wife, Emmerich as the ideal pretend friend, Natascha McElhone as the girl of Truman’s dreams who was written out of the show, and others. Harris’ performance received an Oscar nomination (one of three for the film), and he does a smartly nuanced job of making Christof more than just a simple egomaniac. Like most gods that ego is only half the story with the other half being a true bond between creator and the created.

The Truman Show is obviously its own self-contained story, but it’s also a metaphor for what happens when an unexamined life begins to awaken. Christof is God or destiny or any other force viewed as in control of things, and Truman’s new awareness of his own place in the universe triggers a response from that force. Can this mortal, any mortal, long under the thumb of a perceived outside control, ever break free? (Hint: the answer is yes.)

Bonus Examples: Oh God, Prophecy, Bruce Almighty, Time Bandits, Clash of the Titans

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.