How Accurate is “The Theory of Everything”‘s Depiction of Their Courtship and Marriage?

While the central romance in The Theory of Everything (2014) is based on Stephen and Jane Hawking’s real-life marriage, the film takes many dramatic liberties – such as accelerating the pace of their courtship – with the result that their relationship is transformed into a swooning Hollywood-style romance that becomes unmoored by the diagnosis of Stephen’s degenerative neuron disease. In the real version of events, the couple’s first encounters were spread out over a greater length of time - they knew each other from university well before they began dating. One of the film’s central scenes depicts their early romantic experience at the May Ball at Cambridge. While the pair did actually go to the May Ball, the film embellishes the encounter with a movie-ready climax involving a dramatic kiss on a bridge.

The most significant chronological change that drastically alters the nature of the couple’s relationship is the filmmakers’ decision to shift the timing of Stephen’s diagnosis. In real life, Stephen already knew he had ALS before he started dating Jane, and she was well aware of his condition, having heard about it from others. In the film, Stephen isn’t diagnosed with ALS until well after they’ve begun dating. The sudden revelation not only creates dramatic tension, but is framed as a catalyst for the characters to further commit to one another. This simple change in chronology fundamentally changes the dynamic in their relationship.

A smaller chronological change occurs at the end of the film, when Stephen and Jane are shown as reconciled after their break-up when Stephen is made a Companion of Honour. In real life, he received the commendation much earlier, before he and Jane parted ways. But, for the purpose of crafting a satisfying narrative arc, the filmmakers use the scene to end on a note of reconciliation and to illustrate the fact that the real-life Stephen and Jane continue to be cordial friends years after the dissolution of their marriage.

While the couple has managed to remain friends after their divorce both onscreen and off, the end of their marriage has been softened substantially in the film. Onscreen, when it’s clear that it’s finally over, the moment is quiet and sad, but it’s almost an expected and mutual decision. In Jane’s book, however, it comes off as much more drawn out and painful, climaxing with screaming and intense anger. In real life, the turning point was a vacation in France where, according to Jane’s memoir, “flames of vituperation, hatred, desire for revenge leapt at me from all sides, scorching me to the quick with accusations.” Stephen did leave Jane for Elaine, as seen in the film, but, according to Jane’s memoir, Stephen then “sought to control” Jane, even though they were no longer cohabiting. Jane wrote that she felt like Stephen had come to view her as “simply a piece of property.”

While the film strays significantly from the concrete details of Jane and Stephen Hawking’s lives, The Theory of Everything transforms the story to craft a cohesive narrative while still capturing the essence of the couple’s relationship.