My freshman year of high school, I took a Leadership for Life class, where we wrote our own eulogies and discussed our bucket lists—pretty heavy, I know. We also watched many thought-provoking movies, my favorite being Tim Burton’s Big Fish. I forgot, until recently, that the story of a dying father recreating his life as a series of fantastic adventures, was a book, so imagine my delight when I happened upon it at my favorite used book store.
Edward Bloom is dying, so it’s time for him and his only child, Will, to make peace. But Edward and Will have a rocky relationship, thanks to Edward’s jokester personality. He likes to deflect with jokes, but he also really loves to tell stories—stories that Will knows well: how his father befriended a giant; how his father saved a beautiful, naked woman at sea; how his father bought and befriended an entire hidden town; how his father outsmarted a witch with a magical glass eye. Will only wants the truth, but Edward will not relent, even on his deathbed, so the best thing Will can do is recount his father’s fantastical life the way he was told it.
Seeing Big Fish as a naïve fourteen-year-old, I wondered, in a blind streak of admiration, how I would tell my own life story as a series of fairy tales. But, returning to Big Fish twelve years later, I’m moved less by the fantastical elements, and more by the central human element: a son trying to understand his father once and for all, before it’s too late.
The tension between Edward’s wide-eyed wonder and Will’s wish for truth is a tug-of-war for the reader. That tension comes from wanting to believe all these wondrous tales, yet knowing that they may not be true. That bittersweet truth, coupled with Edward’s imminent death, makes for effective drama.
But that might be because I’m reading this book as a twenty-something, when I’m questioning not only my own mortality, but my loved ones’ too.
Big Fish may be a collection of tall tales, but it’s ultimately about the legacy we choose to leave behind. Edward leaves an ambiguous life of magic and mystery, which leaves Will—and the reader—with the same choice. Some readers may question Edward’s decision to focus more on the fantastic than the realistic, but I think Will never seeing any tangible evidence of his father’s stories is more effective (spoiler alert: in the movie, Will carries Edward to a river as he dies, while all the characters from Edward’s stories—in less fantastical versions of themselves—look on). Maybe Edward was telling the truth. Maybe they do in fact live in a world of giants and glass-eyed witches. It’s about whether we allow the wonder and beauty of what we cannot see for ourselves into our lives. We’ve never seen fairies or unicorns, but how we do know they haven’t been seen by someone who just cannot tell their story yet?