- Scott Hatley
A Beautiful Mind vs The Theory of Everything
The prevalence of Hollywood movies with protagonists
experiencing a disability or significant barrier has risen
exponentially in the past twenty years. This type of
progress has significantly elevated the power of story in
our society through the authentic portrayal of the lives
of individuals filled with barriers.
Two critically acclaimed films with powerful stories further highlighting this shift, include: the 2001 Ron Howard directed film A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe and the 2014 James Marsh directed film The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne. Each movie’s main character experiences a disability, considerably impacting their ability to function normally (as some in society may define it), while also charting their extraordinary genius and achievements.
The Theory of Everything chronicles the life of Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist, during his time at Cambridge. It depicts his life before contracting ALS (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease made famous by legendary New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig) as well as his journey to tremendous scientific accomplishment while this progressive neurodegenerative disease slowly steals his physical ability. Further highlighted are the relationship challenges Hawking’s changing condition and rising fame create between he and his wife in their lives.
Beautiful Mind is, in contrast, about the life of John Nash, a mathematician suffering from schizophrenia. Throughout the movie, Nash hears voices and communicates frequently with characters he hallucinates, a phenomenon highlighted in the cover story of this edition of The Understanding. Much like Hawking, as Nash gets more caught up in the challenges of his mind, the audience sees it begin to take a toll on both him and his wife. He, in fact, struggles with his illness throughout much of his life, yet his condition slowly improves and he’s able to return to his academic work after a long absence.
The beauty of the two films is the reflection of each man’s focus of mind-over-matter in their lives. Their minds become greater than their physical bodies could ever be. Case in point, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal disease with a 3-5 year prognosis of life, at the age of 21, and yet he lived 55 years beyond his initial diagnosis with tremendous contributions to the scientific community.
Despite their significant challenges, both men were driven by scientific discovery, constantly being stimulated by their superhuman brain power. Neither one gave up or gave into their disabilities, no matter how much it took from them. Each learned to overcome barriers and achieve success in life in spite of their obvious significant impediments. The story doesn’t always turn out happy for each in their personal lives, but in their professional lives, Nash captures a Nobel Prize in Economics and Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time becomes a bestseller along with a bookcase full of awards.
In the end, it’s more than a worthwhile investment of time to become engrossed in, inspired by and ultimately challenged by the stories presented in these two movies of these geniuses.