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The Truman Show Tried to Warn Us

The Truman Show is that rare film that feels even more relevant today than when it came out. The 1998 story about a man (Jim Carrey) who doesn’t know his life is being filmed and broadcast live to a large audience foreshadowed our present landscape of oversharing, which often encourages us to act like an audience is always watching. It also exposes how turning real life into entertainment can dehumanize people, and reminds us that privacy is a valuable, even essential component of an authentic life. Here’s our Take on why it’s chilling to watch The Truman Show today and reckon with whether we’ve ignored its warnings.

TRANSCRIPT

The Truman Show is that rare film that feels even more relevant today than when it came out. Amid the growing influence of 90s reality shows like MTV’s The Real World, the 1998 film predicted the way social media and reality TV would come to dominate our lives.

This story about a man who doesn’t know his life is filmed and broadcast live to a large audience portrays a media experience that’s not too far from the feel of numerous shows and apps today. It foreshadowed our present landscape of oversharing, which often encourages us to act like the entire world does revolve around us. The Truman Show has also influenced our culture, even giving rise to a mental condition called the Truman Show Delusion, which refers to people’s paranoia that they’re unknowingly starring in a covert reality show.

Yet the message The Truman Show actually sends is that we should fight back against the impulse to reduce our lives to hyper-controlled, artificial narratives. The film exposes how turning real life into entertainment can dehumanize people, and reminds us that privacy is a valuable, even essential component of an authentic life.

Here’s our Take on why it’s chilling to watch The Truman Show today and reckon with whether we’ve ignored its warnings.

Living for the Camera

Today social media allows each of us to each to star in our own personal Truman Show — the difference being that (in most cases) we control them ourselves, without a Christof director-type pulling the strings for an unknowing Truman. Many people now live like Truman by choice, making almost every aspect of their private existence public knowledge. But The Truman Show points to central questions that we need to be asking ourselves in this climate: what’s lost when you no longer have privacy? And if you live life with others always watching, is it possible to live authentically? How can you even know if you’re being authentically yourself?

The people who work on The Truman Show insist that there’s no difference between a reality show and the real world. But the movie itself disagrees. It underlines that, in this completely fake environment, the elements of truth are what resonate most of all. The name “Truman” sounds like “true man” — reflecting that what makes Truman both refreshing entertainment and a compelling human being is that he’s not trying to curate an image — he’s just being himself. The most affecting moments of The Truman Show, like Truman’s collage portraits of Sylvia or his taking to the sea at the end, are not planned or manipulated — they’re powerful because they’re real.

Christof:We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions.” - The Truman Show

Truman’s life might have a lot in common with reality TV and social media, but we almost never find actual Trumans on those mediums, because people are conscious participants in broadcasting their lives, inevitably self-conscious, playing a part. And it’s fitting that those public figures and creators who often appeal to us most are the ones who do, in some way, achieve the feeling of authenticity.

Unlike Truman who doesn’t know he’s being filmed, the other “characters” who knowingly take part in the show have sacrificed their personal lives and their integrity to their fictional roles. While Truman’s wife Meryl may view herself as an actor who’s made a professional commitment, she’s also given up the opportunity to have any kind of real home life, in order to full-time play-act a marriage with a man she doesn’t like. And the fact is that many, if not most, people today are more like Meryl and the “best friend” character Marlon than we are like Truman — because the majority have chosen to engage with sharing culture to some degree and perform our lives for a public.

Meryl Burbank: “All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.”

Truman Burbank: “What the hell are you talking about?... Who are you talking to?!” - The Truman Show

One of The Truman Show’s insights, though, is that — if you don’t draw a line between your private and public life — the danger is not only losing the ability to decipher what’s real or not but also no longer even caring to know. Thus, nothing in your life will be real — and you won’t even realize what you’re missing.

The Dehumanizing Effect of Reality Media

The Truman Show illustrates the dehumanizing effects of reality media, as well as the way viewers are complicit in this process. Director Peter Weir has said, quote, “the viewers in my film are part of the monstrous exploitation of a person, to the point where they have lost the ability to differentiate between real and unreal.” In theory, because Reality TV and social media offer privileged views of people’s intimate lives, peering through this window at their private humanity should make us more empathetic. But in practice, seeing human life turned into entertainment has the opposite effect — viewers don’t relate to the people we’re watching as humans, but as props and tools for spectacle. The Truman Show‘s entertainment value relies on the complete absence of humanity — because Truman is being exploited, manipulated, and deceived by everyone he loves. So the implied lesson is that both creating and watching reality TV can lead to major failures of empathy.

Marlon: “I mean, think about it, Truman, if everybody is in on it, I’d have to be in on it too.” - The Truman Show

The movie underlines the ethical transgressions that may be required to manipulate reality into gripping entertainment. Modern reality TV frequently involves interference from producers guiding the participants to act and live their lives in a certain direction — from subtle suggestion to more active meddling. In The Truman Show, this is taken to a dark extreme. The creators condition a young Truman into developing a phobia of water by staging a storm that supposedly kills the boy’s father, and the poor kid is even made to feel responsible. They prevent him from pursuing a romance with the woman he has deep feelings for. And near the end, in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, Christof goes to such extremes to prevent his star from escaping the set that Truman has to risk killing himself. Meanwhile, the viewers who are glued to the screen watching Truman go overboard are also implicated in this ethical violation. The scene has an eerie parallel in real-world events that shortly preceded the film’s release. In 1997, while The Truman Show was being edited, Princess Diana died in a car crash that was partly caused by the paparazzi pursuing her. Weir has said, quote, “If there had been cameras trained on her that last night, people would have gone on watching.” In Weir’s view, the paparazzi who followed Princess Diana were essentially working for the public, who expressed with their wallets that they were hungry for this kind of media coverage.

This fascination with famous people’s lives rarely comes from a hateful or malicious place. Weir has said, quote, “the very people who were outraged at the perceived cause of her death, which were the paparazzi chasing the car, were the same people who bought the magazines and the sensational tabloid papers… They loved her, but they wanted to watch every moment of her life. If they’d had a camera in her house, they would have had the viewership of The Truman Show or more.” Likewise in The Truman Show, there’s a huge audience who adore Truman yet who tune in every day to support a show they know treats him unethically. So the film reveals that while we may think we care about the people we watch through reality media, ultimately we’re using them — turning them into puppets for our own entertainment.

Mike Michaelson: “I believe Truman is the first child to have been legally adopted by a corporation?” - The Truman Show

Blurring the line between human life and entertainment makes it hard to see the people we’re watching as real human beings who deserve privacy — a world all their own which isn’t accessible to us. This was something that people were grappling with in the late ‘90s, even beyond the media circus surrounding Princess Diana. In 1998 (after The Truman Show was completed) Daniel V. Jones was engaged in a standoff with police that ended with his suicide being broadcast on live TV, showing that even the rawest human suffering can be co-opted by entertainment. As Weir noted, “We all watched the gulf war as if it were a television show.”

Since then we’ve only seen more and more examples of entertainment mixing with reality in perverse ways that endanger, cheapen, and even destroy human life.

Controlled Reality

The Truman Show speaks to the desire for a more controlled reality. While “reality TV” promises, as the name suggests, real life, a big part of its actual allure is the way that it filters and shapes reality into familiar and comforting narrative packages. In The Truman Show, the director Christof (whose name even contains the word “Christ”) exercises godlike control over Truman’s life. And the show creator is a kind of perverse father who exploits his son figure — who’s even willing to sacrifice that son in the name of entertainment. Christof’s clear talent for creating compelling TV out of the raw material of life underlines how the idea of adapting reality to fit a dazzling, cinematic narrative is dangerously appealing. Likewise, in many of today’s popular reality shows, episodes feel neatly plotted and edited into narratives with satisfying resolutions. In Season 2 Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ Episode, “Kardashian Civil War,” Kim’s excitement over getting a Bentley gives way to crushing disappointment when her sisters don’t behave with the decorum she expects for such an important day. But after their mom drags the girls on a family vacation to bond in the next episode, and Kim dramatically considers leaving but then decides not to, the arc concludes with her being showered in feel-good sisterly love, while the sisters reflect that crucial lessons have been learned.

Other reality shows, like The Bachelor, Big Brother, or Survivor, use a clearly defined competition or game format that makes this controlled state even more obvious. And all these shows make us feel that, if only our reality were equally structured, everything would make more sense and ultimately feel more satisfying.

In The Truman Show, when Truman is reunited with the actor playing his father, whom Truman thought was dead, we see how Christof puts together the scene to maximize emotional intensity. There’s a sense of creating feeling and meaning the way movies do, and we might imagine that we’d also like, in our own lives, for the music to cue in at the perfect moment and for everything to feel perfectly cinematic. Reality TV, like the show Truman stars in, plays to our desire to map common narrative arcs onto our lives — yet this is exactly what makes most reality TV so limited and derivative. Do we really want to reduce events of our lives to fit a series of hackneyed one-size-fits-all clichés, instead of opening our eyes to what’s really happening to us and letting that potentially be an original thing?

Perhaps the best argument against this kind of controlled reality is the fact that Truman — the guinea pig in the experiment of what it would be like to live totally inside one — isn’t satisfied. As soon as Truman starts to catch on to the truth, it’s like he has a survivalist instinct to escape by any means necessary. Even long before he understands the situation, he instinctively feels he wants more out of life, which is why his writers — slash captors — have to keep artificially devising ways to stop him from following his will to leave this bottled-up world. Thus the movie essentially argues that any predetermined narrative controlling our lives is antithetical to the freedom of the life impulse itself.

Truman Burbank: “I want to get away…. See some of the world, explore!” - The Truman Show

The reason that Truman falls for Sylvia, despite her small role in his scripted story, is that she’s not trying to dupe him like everyone else. Deep down he recognizes an honesty in her that’s missing in the rest of his life. So his attraction suggests that, even if we’re oblivious to the facts, we have a subconscious understanding of what’s real. Following this instinct to chase after truth guides Truman in his journey toward breaking free from the artifice that’s trapping him and making him unhappy. To be a “true man” (or woman) like Truman, we can’t be contained by a scripted formula, or by someone else’s story.

Sylvia: “This! It… it’s fake! It’s all for you!”

Truman Burbank: “I don’t understand!”

Sylvia: “And the sky and the sea… everything!” - The Truman Show

While most of us are not (as far as we know) literally in this character’s situation, like him we tend to accept our society’s norms and assumptions about the goals we should chase after. And like him, if we step outside that daily script, we might realize that there could be a more fulfilling, uncharted reality to go after.

Conclusion

At the end of the movie, Truman steps from his fake world into the great unknown… the viewers watching this within the movie are visibly moved — perhaps, on some level, it gives them hope that they, too, can break out of their own personal prisons. But with its very final lines, the movie also hints that many (both within the story and those watching The Truman Show itself) are likely to miss the message altogether. Reality TV is frequently about escaping our own lives and imagining what it’d be like to be rich, famous, in love, an amazing chef. In The Truman Show, viewers can retreat into a nostalgic past ideal of American life. Weir has said, quote, “We studied Saturday Evening Post covers for this kind of dream of a small-town America that may never have existed but was certainly mythologized in movies and other media.”

This idyllic, old-school setting (in contrast to the modern technology that allows an audience to watch a live broadcast of someone’s entire life) stands in for the fact that what we’re often looking for — even within our newest media formats — is a myth of simpler times, simpler emotions, simpler messages. The Truman Show suggests that the constant consumption of controlled reality TV-style narratives is in fact a means of avoiding messy, challenging, confusing reality. Escaping into glibly packaged versions of others’ lives is a substitute for doing the hard work of living and seeking truth in our own.

The movie ends Truman’s story on an optimistic note, giving him the hopeful ending he’s earned — but watching the film today, it’s clear that it was issuing a serious warning to the rest of us. And that message may have gone right over our heads.

Meryl Burbank: “So, why would you want to go there?”

Truman Burbank: “Because I never have! That’s why people go places, isn’t it?!” - The Truman Show

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