In the 1980s, there was one nonfiction book that seemingly could be found on every bookshelf, mixed in with the Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy novels, and that was Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” Hawking’s theories of the origins of the universe and of black holes, combined with his personal story of being confined to a wheelchair, communicating one letter at a time through an electric clicker, were compelling stuff, even if most of it went way over the average Stephen King reader’s head.
They did not seem like compelling material for a movie, but UW grad Errol Morris, fresh off the success of “A Thin Blue Line,” threw himself into the project. The resulting film, 1991’s “A Brief History of Time,” is very much a Morris film rather than a Hawking film, which may be part of the reason it’s been unseen for so many years. But, as Morris told the Dissolve, he finally was able to buy back the rights to the film a few years ago, and went to Criterion with the hopes of finally getting it a proper release.
Morris recoiled at the idea of making a cinematic physics lecture — which was what Hawking wanted — instead wanting to make a film that combined science and biography, that drew poetic connections between the concept of far-flung black holes emitting radiation, and the sight of Hawking, his only connection with the wider world through that little clicker, one letter at a time.
The film includes plenty of the playful visual touches that Morris has become known for in his documentaries, such as a cameo by a live chicken and footage from the 1979 Disney film “The Black Hole.” Also, if there seems something a little off about the talking-heads interviews with Morris’ family and colleagues, it’s because Morris built artificial sets that resembled research labs and drawing rooms for them to sit in, rather than interviewing them in their own drawing rooms and offices. Even Hawking is filmed on a soundstage that closely resembles his own office, right down to the Marilyn Monroe posters on the wall. (Morris has a great story on the 30-minute interview included with the Criterion disc in which he asked Hawking about his Marilyn fixation.)
Morris has never been interested in the idea of documentary film as “truth,” and seems to flaunt the untruthiness of things like stage sets and random chickens. But that’s all in service of getting to another truth that a conventional documentary (one that so easily could have been made of Hawking) might have missed.
Morris said Hawking fought him on including elements of his personal life in the film, and in fact Hawking was going through a messy divorce at the time, making Morris’ job even harder. Hawking wanted a movie about the science, but Morris, who called the book a “work of literature,” always insisted “that’s not the book you wrote.” The resulting film does work as a primer on Hawking’s theories, but also works even better as a glimpse inside the man who dreamed them up.