The Theory of Everything is a fantastic movie about the story of the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking. The movie revolves mainly around the story of him, his wife Jane, and his work on his PhD thesis at Cambridge, black holes and time. As we all know, Stephen Hawking came down with the disease ALS, originally called motor neuron disease in the 1960s. The plot of the movie tracks Hawking at the beginning of his career at Cambridge and when he first meets his wife Jane. From there, the story progresses to the unfolding of his disease on his 21-year-old body and his quick marriage to Jane. Lastly the movie continues with his defending of his PhD thesis all while his body is becoming mangled over the effects of ALS. We end the movie with the building of Jane and Stephen’s family and how they all manage to cope with the progression of his disease and how the science world handles the disconnect between the man with the mangled body and the brilliance behind his theories. I chose this movie because of the irony behind Hawking’s mental illness and how this affects his human experience and his place in our culture.
Firstly, I especially like this movie because it does a great job describing an illness to the rest of the world that can be challenging to understand. In a world where science advancements were just beginning to show it’s faces, the culture of the 1960s was faced with two shocking discoveries by Hawking. First, his theories in general were completely abstract to the rest of the scientific world: from black holes to quite literally the theory of everything. In an attempt to persuade a gallery of the world’s smartest physicists, it was Hawking’s other proponent (secondly) that stunted his scientific progress. He was barely able to speak at this point in his disease when he tried to defend his theories to the gallery. In the movie you see a lot of them shift in discomfort and once they hear his theories, they simply stand up and leave, unable to take him seriously. You have two factors coming into play: science and illness. This type of illness at the time was only just beginning to become a more accepted illness with less of a stigma with movements for “deinstitutionalizing” patients flourishing (UniteforSight). Nonetheless, brain illnesses then and now will always make someone somewhere uncomfortable. The science portion comes into play in the same way that his illness came into play. The physics field was just on the rise in this time frame and there was a lot of debate about it. Our culture is based on a religious background, even now. To question the creation of the Earth and the surrounding galaxies by something other than a God was a controversial topic. Back in Week 3 of this course, we had a lecture about religion and medicine. I like to think that medicine and science can go hand in hand because most medicine uses a great deal of science. In one of the lectures, there was an attempt to distinguish between religion, where people question the meaning of life, and science, where people look at the medical side of things instead of the meaning of things (Gabriel). This plays into Stephen Hawking’s role very well because he is challenging religion during a time where the culture of his surroundings is shaped by Christian belief (Barron). I also want to touch on a scene in the movie between Stephen and his doctor when he first got diagnosed with ALS. His doctor is explaining his disease to him but in complete medical jargon. Hawking manages to ask about the only thing that matters to him and that was how his disease will affect the brain, and the doctor said that it wouldn’t, but that there is nothing else that he can do for him, and that he will live for about another two years, and he gets up and leaves. The scene ends with Hawking in disbelief. I immediately was able to reference back to the piece, “The Illness Narratives.” The way that the doctor just leaves Hawking, in the movie at least, with this bout of information is exactly what Arthur Kleinman is talking about in the piece. He argues that there is a gap between the doctor and the patient, where the doctor is only seeing the medical symptoms of the patient (Kleinman), and not seeing him as a man who has just found out that he will only have two years to live. There was no support from him, no referrals to places for help, and no sympathy. Hawking proceeded to shut out his girlfriend at the time Jane, and his friends, from lack of knowledge about what to do next. I think this concept is arguably the most important take away from this class because the relationship between a patient and the doctor is so critically important.
I absolutely love this movie because while it only touches on a few issues that we have covered in this class, I think it touches on important ones that will always be relevant in the world. It also is great because it shows how an illness can take over your world, regardless of the culture and the field of study. Illness knows no boundaries, and that is why I think it would be a good addition to the class.
Barron, Bishop Robert. “The Theory of Everything: A God Haunted Film.” Last modified 2014. http://www.strangenotions.com/a-theory-of-everything-a-god-haunted-film/
Gabriel, Cynthia. “Cartesian Duality, Biomedicine, and “Spirit” (Or “what’s the difference between Medicine and Religion?”)”. Lecture 3.1, http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp370-us16/lecture-videos/cartesian-duality-biomedicine-and-spirit/
Kleinman, Arthur. 1988. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books. Accessed Aug. 14, 2016. http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp370-us16/files/2015/05/2.2-Kleinman.pdf
Unite for Sight. “Module 2: A Brief History of Mental Illness and the US Mental Health Care System.” Last modified 2015. http://www.uniteforsight.org/mental-health/module2