We Can Borrow It for You Wholesale
The Truman Show is generally, and lavishly, being praised for three things: Jim Carrey's performance as the hapless guinea pig in a 24-7 TV spectacle; Peter Weir's easy direction of Truman's gradual discovery of his predicament; and what is widely thought of as the refreshing social analysis of the Andrew Niccol screenplay. While Carrey and Weir indeed do much to keep the film both enjoyable and grounded in some sort of human emotion, this viewer, at least, finds the film's satire of the mass media very confused -- and any implication that the whole idea is original very much a myth.
Is the audience rooting for Truman supposed to be sadistic rubes? Or hapless dupes themselves? Or is Truman the stand-in for us, immersed in a televisual universe we don't even see anymore? The filmmakers don't seem to know, which suggests the hollowness of Truman's critique -- which to my mind is not what the film is about anyway. What makes the film work is Truman's gradual discovery that his reality is spurious and that he's been living a lie. These are psychological, and even ontological, issues of great personal weight, for Truman and I dare say for many audience members. The light that dawns in Truman's eyes further parallels my own realization while watching The Truman Show that, once the glib glaze of media satire is stripped away, Niccol's "original" idea has been lifted in many vital particulars from Philip K. Dick's 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. In that book, which happens to be set in 1998, the government has psychologically regressed one Ragle Gumm back to the era of his idyllic 1950s childhood, where he lives in a bogus, TV-sitcom-like "Old Town." There he is constantly monitored while producing daily solutions to a newspaper puzzle of great moment to the outside world. He, like Truman, thinks he's just living an ordinary life.
Ragle's friends and family are all government agents -- his best friend works as a grocer, just as Truman's buddy does. That's just one of several too-close-for-comfort similarities between book and film. Another is that a radio broadcast plays a key part in both characters' discovering the truth. Ragle and Truman each try to escape, and have similarly frustrating experiences at bus terminals. Both men discover they're celebrities; Ragle even gets to see himself on TV. ("No wonder everyone recognizes me.") Film audiences know Dick, a master of paranoid science fiction, from the several films sourced in his material, although he's been a general, uncredited influence on other films for years -- including Niccol's directorial debut, Gattaca. The Truman Show is actually closer to Time Out of Joint than Blade Runner is to Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Total Recall is to its source, the story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale."
Science-fiction writers, like movie screenwriters, freely borrow ideas and concepts from each other all the time; my colleague Michael Sragow has already listed the Twilight Zone episodes that Truman reminded him of -- to which list could be added the old TV series The Prisoner (also set in a seaside paradise), and, for its open-ended finale, THX 1138. But the similarity between The Truman Show and Time Out of Joint is extreme even for Hollywood. I'd like to see Niccol deny he's ever read it.