In November 2014, Focus Features is set to release a new movie about Stephen Hawking’s life and relationship with his first wife, Jane. (The trailer is available to watch on the article referenced below.) The movie is called “The Theory of Everything” and focuses on, at least as far as can be told by the trailer, on the duration of Hawking’s relationship with Jane from the beginning, where Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, to perhaps its end, when he left Jane for one of his nurses.
From the tone of the trailer, the film seems to center around the common theme of a love story overcoming the odds. Admittedly, it was strange to see a trailer for a Hawking biopic that focused so heavily on a love story and not on his disability or even excellence in physics, the two things for which he is arguably the most known. I would venture to say that most people are not aware Hawking has children or was married and was thus intrigued to see more of a focus on Hawking’s rarely discussed personal life.
It is, however, worrisome at the least that “The Theory of Everything” will merely reinforce the idea that people can “overcome” disability through love and positive thinking, or any other platitude for that matter. Especially with a progressive condition like ALS, there is no concrete way to fight the illness (although thanks to the ice bucket challenge, donations are flooding in). Though Hawking didn’t consider himself a disability rights activist during his marriage to Jane, and doesn’t care to read biographies of himself, I wonder if the film will be as full of hackneyed tropes as I fear it is bound to be and, if so, if more input from Hawking himself could have made it better – or at least more accurate. I’m not trying to discount Jane’s perspective, the film is based on her book, but I feel that any biopic should have substantial input from its subject. This is especially true for films dealing with underrepresented subjects such as disability. I don’t want “The Theory of Everything” to completely leave out the all-too-real facets and struggles of Hawking’s disability, but I also don’t want it to make him seem helpless and pitiful, a tough line to walk in the representation of disabilty. I can only hope that the filmmakers are conscious of what image they portray of Hawking, as it is the same image that will be given to others facing his same ailment.
In the end, this movie is not just about Stephen Hawking, or even just about his relationship. Like it or not, Hawking has become the poster child for people with and without disabilities. Seeing him on the news, although I could not understand his complex scientific notions, was one of my earliest sources of hope that people would be able to see me for my mind and not my body, or even that my mind and body could work together. Hawking prompted my first realization that I could have a future in academia despite my body’s limits. Even able-bodied individuals cite Hawking as a man who changed their feelings about severely disabled people and their worth in society. That’s why it’s so important that the film does Hawking justice; millions of people look to him as an example, and I would like to see him portrayed not as an “inspiration” or a “poor thing” but as a brilliant man.
Krulwich, Robert. “Stephen Hawking’s Dazzling Life Becomes A Movie, But What Sort Of Movie?” NPR. NPR, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.
“Stephen Hawking.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.