Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Dying to live: an Easter season variation on a theme by Peter Weir

By Craig Thompson - posted Friday, 5 April 2024

Peter Weir's The Truman Show turned 25 last year. Impressive when it first aired, it remains so in view of its deep engagement with the human condition in our media-ridden post-Christian world, under a cheery comic guise. Yet the film's comedic commitments finally distract us from the problem it seeks to highlight, and so from what life in such a world demands.

As well as simply being funny, The Truman Show is a comedy in the literary sense: it follows the standard comedic arc from the happy condition of its central protagonist through his downfall to a final restoration of good fortune. Portrayed to goofy perfection by Jim Carey, central protagonist Truman Burbank's opening happy condition is the almost paradisial world in which he lives: Seahaven. His beautiful wife smiles, the sun shines, and his neighbours call out joyfully to him as he makes his way to work. We know, however, that Truman is the unwitting central interest in a lifelong soap opera watched by zillions – "The Truman Show". Truman's world is a massive TV studio embracing city, sky, sea and weather. He doesn't learn this until the film's end, but hints emerge that something is seriously wrong, and everything he has believed crumbles around him. The comedic upturn comes with his learning the truth and choosing to leave Seahaven.

Trhuman and the gods

The film works as simple, distracting entertainment, but its parody of media motivations, manipulations and power is an important subtext. Yet it presses more deeply in its final scenes, as Truman takes to the sea to escape what is clearly not right while still not knowing precisely what is wrong. He is now less the victim of unaccountable media power and more the embodiment of a question about the nature of the human being in the world: Who or what is a Truâ€'man, a "Trhuman", a true and free human being?


The symbolism now becomes overtly and Christianly theological, as if to reveal what the film is really about. Crucial is the self-revealing from the "sky" of the director of the TV show within which Truman is trapped – one "Christof" – who identifies himself as the "creator [momentary pause] of a television show…". With other similar hints, this theologises the subtext: the powers in the world are godlike, if not gods per se. The tension in the narrative now hangs on Truman's response to Christof's revelation. Does the true human embrace such godlike powers when they are exposed as reducing our humanity, or reject them?

An anti-religious polemic seems clear in Truman's final turning away from Christof and stepping out of his little world into the wider, real world. Yet it is not possible to resolve so easily the question of human being in the midst of the kinds of powers the film shows to be active not only in Truman's illusory world but in our own real one. The storyteller's trick is a play here – the necessary but obfuscating lie that the storyteller is clear-sighted, and so also the listener. We who watch the film are with Weir "above" Truman and Christof, and so are placed to make a judgement about what is at stake. When Truman turns from Christof, we cheer and resolve to do the same.

Yet this cannot work because Truman steps out of his little world into one that is larger but in which all the same problems parodied in the first part of the film are felt with the same force. There can be no final escaping such powers, but only an ongoing contending with them. Only if Truman died would he have been freed from all this, and yet his departure from Seahaven –the comedic arc's upturn – is cast more as resurrection than death. If The Truman Show were honest, it would foreshadow Christof's reincarnation outside Seahaven, not now in small-target, traditional theological garb but in the guise of the life-constraining powers that wait to envelop even the true, secularised human being. If Truman's exit is the climax of the film, we should less cheer him than pity him as we might pity the newly born, for this is no escape from the powers.

Exit as resurrection?

The resolution of Truman's problem – and ours – cannot then properly be his almost flippant turn away from Christof's Seahaven into the new world outside. This simply shifts the problem of oppression by real or perceived powers into the larger world. The story would now be less comedy than tragedy, for there is no escaping Christofs hidden under every advertisement, behind every politician's smile and in every storyteller's lie.

A more satisfactory account of what is at stake in Truman's crisis and decision might be found in a conceptualisation missing from the film, or at least not well developed. While theological motifs are laid on thick to give interpretative context to the drama, the most important ones are not explicit: death and resurrection. Indeed, as just hinted above, something resurrection-like is seen in Truman's escape from his little world. Yet, as is usual with resurrection talk, the possibilities of his new life outside Seahaven are overstated and over-rated. In the same way that Truman disappears through the exit door, a resurrection per se has no content we can see. Hidden from our eyes, its content is radically negative: it is purportedly the opposite of any negative experience we might have had or imagine, but is also not (by virtue of being more than) any particular or knowable positive experience we already know. Such a negation of the limitations of worldly existence appeals as a passing fantasy, but that is about as useful as it gets. Resurrection as sheer exit – Truman's or our own, realised or promised – signifies nothing.

Resurrection talk is only limited in this way when posed as the final comedic upturn – the happily-ever-after resolution of all preceding tension – and as if there were no more real tomorrows, and so no potential for more downturns. However, resurrection talk can also signify what is past – what has been achieved. In biblical terms, Jesus' resurrection (let us grant the storyteller this proposal for a moment!) is less an open promise about his future than a judgement upon his past – and on the crucifixion in particular. His resurrection signals that the cross was unjust, as were the powers that put him there. On this reading, the climax in Jesus' story is not the bright light of resurrection but the dark crucifixion as his defining "achievement", in fidelity to true (if oppressed) human being. The resurrection reveals that Jesus was Trhuman in the face of the Seahaven-like duplicity of his own world.


Dying to live

The true human being, on this reading, is not the one who takes the nearest exit to step out of the world towards a life-beyond-death fantasy but the one who steps up in the world. The Truman Show's climax is now Truman's struggling on in his boat against the life-threatening storm Christof whips up to shake him from his resolve to be, well, true. Truman "truths" himself not at the exit door but in the midst of the storm – preferring death over a life without truth. To leave Seahaven is nothing once he has stood firm in the face of the deep and the void of Christof's waves.

This is as close to resurrection as the story can get – indeed, as any story can get – if resurrection talk is to have any positive content, and so is to be about what might take place within the world and not conveniently beyond it. Or, what is more important to say, this is as close as we can get to truly comedic existence – as close as we can get to the undoing of what is going wrong around and within us. The comedic, feel-good, happy-ever-after arc of our favourite stories is necessary to point beyond what we now see. But such comedy also tempts us to imagine that the beyond is the only place we can be Trhuman. Yet there is no final comedic upturn we can know definitively, so long as there is a real tomorrow. The best we can manage is a present ironic take on what looks to be tragedy: that this now is bad, but we can still be true, and will live as if this were the case.

Superficially, at least, The Truman Show might tempt us to step out of it all, just as trivial accounts of Easter might tempt us to imagine that only eternity's future matters. Yet, in the light of the theology it plays with but doesn't quite grasp, we might learn from the film not that there is a better world "out there" into which we can escape, but that this power-ridden world is the only one available to us. That would be tragic, were it not for the possibility that we might live by dying to the powers, living as if they were not, contradicting them in words and actions which are as light to darkness. This would be to live in such a way as to declare that, however much our world might be burning and duplicitous and oppressed, it can be rendered beautiful and dependable and open, even if only momentarily.

To live like this would be to begin to look a little more Trhuman.


  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

3 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Rev Dr Craig Thompson is a Uniting Church minister in North Melbourne. His research interests include the relationships between different spheres of philosophical and religious discourse, and the theological dimensions of political life and thought.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Craig Thompson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Craig Thompson
Article Tools
Comment 3 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy