Jim Carey’s The Truman Show and Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies: Two Meditations on Existential Freedom

Jim Carey’s The Truman Show and Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, The Flies, are existentialist parables of human freedom.

The Truman Show explores the terror underlying the notion that there might be an all controlling father above who manipulates the situation of his creatures for his pleasure. If such a being exists, the film suggests that the proper response to him is resistence.

One scene that I think is especially chilling is when the TV show’s director says over a microphone, in a God-like voice, “Cue the sun,” and it rises on Truman’s day (which unbeknownst to him is scripted for the “higher” pleasure of the director and the audience). 

Likewise, if the earth is a kind of theatre for God and the angels to look down over and watch, The Truman Show depicts what would constitute, for a free person discovering this, a reasonable response. 

At the end of the movie, when Truman discovers that he is living on a television stage-set, he is urged by the fatherly director to absorb this fact, and continue to stay on.

The director pulls out all the emotional stops, appealing to Truman’s deepest fears and needs for security. Truman almost succumbs to the appeal, but after a moment of anguish, he recovers, sees a door through which he can escape, then says triumphantly, “No thanks,” and steps out into an uncertain future.

To refuse to have your life reduced to being an object in another’s show, even if that other is a heavenly being, or even God himself, is part of what it means to be free and human.

The Truman Show has a number of resonances with Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies, which is Sartre’s 20th century take on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. For example, in the third act, Zeus argues with Orestes in a way that recalls the ending of The Truman Show:

Orestes, I created you, and I created all things. . . . See those planets wheeling on their appointed ways, never swerving, never clashing.

Part of Orestes’s response is to make a distinction between things that are determined in their course, such as planets, and human beings, who are free. Orestes insists that, to go on being human, he must not submit himself to Zeus for his pleasure:

You are the king of the gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves and the sea. But you are not the king of man. . . . I am my freedom. No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours.

This is what Truman, in his agony of choice, also discovers, and why, at the end of the film, he leaves the father-director controlled stage.

Truman, like Sartre’s Orestes, wants to live a human life; that is, one that is free, and without guarantees about what the future holds. 

Here’s Siskel & Ebert’s original review of the film:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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