How Accurate Is The Depiction of Science in “The Theory of Everything”?

Films that depict the lives of scholars, particularly scientists, face a particular challenge: how can a single film both explore a biographical narrative and do justice to the figure’s complex ideas? Further, when films attempt to address these ideas, how do they depict the process of developing them and how can they distill them in a way that is easily digestible for a general audience?

Answering these questions is particularly difficult for The Theory of Everything (2014), a film that attempts to thoroughly depict the marriage between Stephen and Jane Hawking without ignoring Hawking’s ideas. In fact, the film aspires to integrate the biographical and the intellectual, framing the two as inseparable aspects of Hawking’s life that inform each other. With such strenuous efforts made to incorporate and do justice to Hawking’s work, what did scientists think of the film and its approach to science and Hawking’s theories?

The New York Times’ science writer Dennis Overbye praises Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking, but rebukes the film, “for its drive-by muddling of Dr. Hawking’s scientific work.” Overbye insists that the film, “[Leaves] viewers in the dark about exactly why he is so famous. Instead of showing how he undermined traditional notions of space and time, it panders to religious sensibilities about what his work does or does not say about the existence of God, which in fact is very little.”

Overbye is especially critical of the way the character comes up with his most famous theory, the prediction of black body radiation released by black holes due to quantum effects near the event horizon. (This theoretical black body radiation is widely referred to as “Hawking radiation.”) In the film’s telling, “[He is] staring at glowing coals in the fireplace and has a vision of black holes fizzing and leaking heat. The next thing we know he is telling an audience in an Oxford lecture hall that black holes, contrary to legend and previous theory, are not forever, but will leak particles, shrink and eventually explode.”

In reality, Hawking wasn’t struck by a single moment of inspiration; in fact, the idea was first put forward in 1972 by Jacob Bekenstein, a research student at Princeton. Stephen Hawking is widely credited with building on Bekenstein’s ideas and putting forth his own theory in 1974. (Errol Morris’ documentary adaption of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time actually covers this in succinct detail.) Overbye argues that the filmmakers, “cheated themselves out of what was arguably the most dramatic moment in [Hawking]’s scientific career,” and he laments that by omitting key figures like Dr. Bekenstein and Dr. Alexei Starobinsky, who were crucial in developing the theory, “the movie reinforces the stereotype of the lone genius already ingrained by the media and the Nobel Prizes.”

Films that attempt to depict both the lives and theories of major scientists face enormous storytelling challenges, and The Theory of Everything is no exception. While the film attempts to emphasize the interdependence of Hawking’s emotional life and his work, when filmmakers try to tackle both complex relationships and complicated theories, something’s got to give.