Hmmm, I wonder how they're going to handle this one. It's a messy tale. In November, Focus Features will release a new movie, The Theory of Everything, which describes what happened to the young physicist Stephen Hawking back when he was a student, newly in love, not yet sick (but about to be) and at the very start of his storied science career. The script is based on a book by Jane Hawking, Stephen's first wife. Here's the trailer. Take a look, then we'll talk.
The trailer seems crazy sweet, very lovey-dovey, which, by all accounts, is how it was back in the early 1960s when they met. Jane was into literature. She would later get a Ph.D. in medieval Spanish poetry. Stephen was just 21, looking for an interesting physics problem to explore. Not long after they began dating, he developed balance problems, then speech issues, then was told that he had a fatal disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), and would be dead in two years. Jane's friends warned her not to stick with a boy with so little life ahead of him. Stephen fell into a dark patch, spending hours listening to melancholic Richard Wagner music. But he and Jane didn't quit each other. Instead, they willfully pushed on.
"In spite of it all," Jane told reporter Tim Adams, in 2004, they decided that "everything was going to be possible. That Stephen was going to do his physics, and we were going to raise a wonderful family and have a nice house and live happily ever after."
With A 4-Minute Warning, Everything Ends
It wasn't like they didn't believe the diagnosis. They did. They just ignored it. She "did not want to think about that," she told Adams. "Also, we had this very strong sense at the time that our generation lived anyway under this most awful nuclear cloud — that with a four-minute warning the world itself could likely end. That made us feel above all that we had to do our bit, that we had to follow an idealistic course in life. That may seem naive now, but that was exactly the spirit in which Stephen and I set out in the '60s — to make the most of whatever gifts were given us."
The problem was — at least to hear her tell it — as the disease progressed, they (or rather, Stephen) wouldn't talk at all about what was happening. Not even to her. "He would never mention his illness," she wrote. "It was as if it did not exist." They had one child. Then another. He, meanwhile, kept losing ground. He needed help dressing, then washing, then eating. She tried to keep up.
A 'Rather Impossible' Life
As she says in the Guardian interview, "I had two tiny babies, I was running the home and looking after Stephen full time: dressing, bathing, and he refused to have any help with that other than from me. I thought that to coerce him into taking these measures would have been too cruel. One of the great battles was getting Stephen to use a wheelchair. I'd be going out with Stephen on one arm, carrying the baby in the other, and the toddler running alongside. Well, it was hopeless because the toddler would run off and I would be unable to chase. So that kind of thing made life rather impossible."
The center didn't hold. He became more involved in his work, more celebrated, more needy. She had a third child, and found herself increasingly telling her husband "that he was not God." Stephen lost his voice, got a mechanical one, allowed others to help him, and eventually fell in love with a nurse, left his wife and got remarried. (That second marriage didn't last.) Jane, meantime, after 26 years, married a family friend (who was also her choirmaster), Jonathan Hellyer Jones. They are still together.
How much of this will be in the movie, I don't know. Stephen and Jane, as the trailer says, were, at the beginning of their time together, crazy with hope, daring the world to get out of their way, and for decades, against the odds, they persevered. This is not the first biopic to describe their romance. The BBC's Hawking, (starring Benedict Cumberbatch, more recently famous for becoming Sherlock Holmes), came out in 2011. This time young Stephen will be played by Eddie Redmayne (who was in Les Miserables and got a Tony nomination on Broadway for playing Mark Rothko's artistic assistant in Red, where he dazzled while priming canvases and sifting paint.) Redmayne is a smart, subtle actor.
Don't, Can't, Shouldn't
It's not like Stephen Hawking lacks attention. His theories about time, black holes and the origins of the universe have been described in his best-selling book, in cartoons, videos, TV shows; he even did a children's book with his daughter. But his fame goes beyond what he's taught us about the universe. In his person — because he looks like he does, sounds like he does, curled up in that wheelchair, punching out words using cheek muscles and a computer, following his thoughts where they will — he has come to symbolize what it's like to have a mind that travels free. "Don't," "Can't," "Shouldn't" don't hold him back. He has, in his way, overcome. But at a cost.
Which is why I'm curious to see this movie. It's important that even an exemplary, heroic life can still be messed up, ferocious, flawed and broken — but not so broken that it isn't beautiful. That's the thing to remember about Stephen Hawking — that he gambled everything, and then, in his own way, he won, and lost — like all the rest of us.