Local legend stated that those who look into the eye of the witch would be able to see into the future and learn how they die. So says young Ed Bloom, creeping through the rural Alabama darkness surrounded by a flock of neighborhood children. The spookiness is courtesy of director Tim Burton, the movie is Big Fish, the year is 2003, and one of the young neighborhood children is a pre-fame Miley Cyrus. What could possibly go wrong?
As young Ed Bloom discusses with the witch (Helena Bonham Carter), “I was thinking about death and all. About seeing how you’re gonna die. I mean, on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up. But it could kind of help you, couldn’t it? Because you’d know that everything else you can survive.” In response, the witch smiles and winks at him. Thus Ed Bloom learns the manner of his death, never revealed to audiences until the very end of the movie. But the realization sets the scene for the misadventures that follow, as Ed Bloom’s life becomes shaped by knowing the end of the story.
This year marks twenty years since this quirky, comedic tearjerker debuted. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks of dubious veracity told by Ed Bloom (Albert Finny) as his son Will (Billy Crudup) struggles to separate fact from yarn before his father’s death. Throughout the fantastical tales, one thread remains constant: knowing the end of the story changes everything in between. If this truth can transform the storyline of a Tim Burton comedy, imagine the implications for the Christian life? While the future can feel uncertain and cloudy in a temporal sense, the true end of the story is brilliantly fixed in glory. And like Ed Bloom, that hope of glory has the power to change everything. Knowing how the story ends imparts fearless compassion, persistent perseverance, and courageous love.
Early on in the story we see young adult Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor) facing a giant, quite literally. In a crowd of townspeople armed and ready to take the giant by mob, Ed Bloom volunteers to go talk to him. Having seen how his story ends, he knows that death-by-giant is not for him. He stands at the mouth of a fearful, bone-strewn cave, and asks the giant’s name (Karl, endearingly played by the late Matthew McGrory). Through matted hair and clothes patched together from animal skins, Karl explains: “I don’t want to eat you. I just get so hungry. I’m just too big.” Bloom replies to this: “Did you ever think that maybe you’re not too big, but maybe this town is just too small?”
A giant haircut and tailored suit later, the two of them set off together to discover a bigger world. The town is once again gathered, but this time to send the pair off through fanfare. Through the lens of fearless compassion, Karl is transformed from a monster to a lifelong friend.
Later in the story, Bloom finds himself at the snarling hands of Danny DeVito-turned-werewolf. Remembering that this, too, is not how he dies, he throws a stick, instantly turning the werewolf into a playful pup eager to fetch. “It was that night,” Bloom recalls, “I discovered that most things you consider evil or wicked are simply lonely, and lacking in the social niceties.” Yet again, a creature that would have most fleeing for their lives is tamed by the fearless compassion of someone who knows it’s not the end of his story.
Knowing the end of the story also gives Bloom persistent perseverance. Walking through the haunted forest faced with monstrous spiders and tree vines that threaten to come to life, he remembers, “And what I recall of Sunday school was that the more difficult something became, the more rewarding it was in the end.” So he presses on and the forest clears, leading him to a picturesque town that holds characters who will become friends for the rest of his story. Ensnared by vines, terrified by spiders, and worn out from his journey, he could easily have given into despair. But he knows his story does not end in that forest. Not only does he believe he will make it through, but he dares to hope that the difficulty of these trials will lead to even greater reward. And he is right.
Knowing the end of the story also gives him courageous love. After meeting the love of his life, Sandra (played in youth and age by Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange respectively), he labors Jacob-style in a circus with the promise of learning bits of information about her. When he is finally reunited with her, he embarks on a succession of attempts to win her love, including filling a whole field with daffodils and commissioning a plane to declare his love in the sky. These attempts culminate in him taking both a beating from her fiancé Don (played by serial-scumbag fiancé David Denman) and achieving victory in his quest.
However, just when happily ever after seems within reach, he is drafted. Armed with the knowledge that the army is not how he dies, he volunteers for all the most dangerous missions in hopes of getting home quicker. His tenure in the army sees him parachuting behind enemy lines, beating up a squadron of attackers, befriending conjoined twin performers, and traveling with them around the world until he returns home to his wife.
His courageous love is one that not only exists in the fantastic flashbacks of a dying man, but in the real-world timeline of a son trying to discover the truth. Convinced his father has been cheating on his mother, Will Bloom visits a woman whose address he finds on a deed among his father’s papers. She recounts to him the story of their growing friendship and the help his father gave her in restoring her home. He never allowed the relationship to move past the platonic, despite her advances toward him. As she explains to Will in hindsight, to his father there are only ever two women in the world: “Your mother and everyone else.” In a rare convergence between his father’s world and his own, Will Bloom learns that his father’s courageous love spans worlds.
So what is the end of his story? In a hospital room alone, father and son reverse roles and Will Bloom narrates the ending. Father and son break out of the hospital and head to the river. As Will carries his father to the river, the cast of characters from his tales appear for a deathbed curtain call. Then slipping into the water, he becomes in the words of Will, “what you always were. A big fish.” His death is not so much an ending, but a transformation, a rebirth in a new form. As Will reflects in narration, “A man tells so many stories, that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”
The image of a fish in the river is significant symbolically to the storyline as an allusion to a grandiose fishing tale Ed Bloom is known to repeat. However, the Bible is also replete with images of rivers, from the waters of baptism that symbolize death and resurrection to the river of life in Revelation. In Christ, the river of death becomes the river of life, and it is there that our stories end. And what a happy ending it is:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).
Ed Bloom saw the end of his story and all that he was capable of surviving in the meantime. But the hope for the believer is infinitely greater. The end of our story is the death of death. How might living in light of this knowledge transform our present realities, like Ed Bloom?
Fearless compassion, persistent perseverance, and courageous love are just the beginning. God has promised us in 2 Corinthians 4:17 that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And again in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The present reality with its trials, discouragement, and despair can feel all consuming, but there is great hope to be found in remembering: “This is not the end of the story.”