Brow Beat

How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?

The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic out this week, stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his first wife, Jane. The New York Times’ Dennis Overbye has criticized the film for eliding and oversimplifying Hawking’s scientific advancements, and indeed the film is more interested in Stephen and Jane’s personal life than in Hawking’s career. My colleague Dana Stevens writes, “More than a portrait of Hawking the scientist, this is a frank dissection of his long and complicated first marriage.”

But how accurate is the movie when it comes to that marriage—and the couple’s relationships with friends and family? I read Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity, from which the film is adapted, and Stephen Hawking’s memoir My Brief History. What follows is a breakdown of fact and fiction in The Theory of Everything. On balance, the film is fairly faithful to Travelling to Infinity, but it makes Hawking out to be more sympathetic than he comes across in the book. The movie also changes the details of several events in the Hawkings’ lives for dramatic effect.

Stephen Hawking
At the beginning of The Theory of Everything, Stephen is a charming, if somewhat awkward, PhD student at Cambridge who excels at physics despite not putting much effort into his work. Hawking was indeed something of a brilliant slacker: Jane writes that he “had never been to a lecture” as an Oxford undergraduate; Hawking says, “I once calculated that I did about a thousand hours’ work in the three years I was there, an average of an hour a day.” As for his personality, Jane says in her memoir that she found Hawking “attentive and charming,” with a “way of hiccoughing with laughter, almost suffocating himself, at the jokes he told, many of them against himself.” But, she adds, “Stephen could be highly critical of people other than his closest relatives…He considered my friends to be easy victims and had no compunction in monopolizing the conversation at parties with his controversial opinions.” The Stephen played by Eddie Redmayne is far gentler and more sensitive than this description suggests.

Photo by Liam Daniel/Universal Pictures; Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, left, and Cosmologist Stephen Hawking in October 1979 in Princeton, New Jersey.

Photo by Liam Daniel/Universal Pictures; Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images

In life, as in the film, Hawking is a staunch atheist, a socialist, and an avid fan of classical music, particularly Wagner.*

In The Theory of Everything, Stephen has a roommate, classmate, and close friend named Brian. In real life, Hawking had no such classmate; Brian is a composite character. But his attitudes seem drawn from Jane’s descriptions of “Stephen’s fellow lodgers and research students” at Cambridge: “They talked to him in his own intellectual terms, sometimes caustically sarcastic, sometimes crushingly critical, always humorous. In personal terms, however, they treated him with a gentle consideration which was almost loving.”

In one scene, Brian carries Stephen up some steps on campus and inquires after his sex life; Stephen impishly replies that he is still fully potent. In real life, Hawking did sometimes get physical help from his research assistant, but Jane claims that he did not ever speak openly about sex, “which for him was as taboo a subject as his illness.” The exchange between Brian and Stephen in the movie seems intended to make audiences understand that Stephen and Jane had sex, but may diverge from Hawking’s real-life personality.

Jane Wilde
Like Hawking, Wilde spent her childhood in Saint Albans, a small town north of London. In the movie, it’s implied that Jane goes to college at Cambridge, but in real life Wilde went to Westfield College in London, where she later got her PhD. She did, however, as the movie indicates, study Medieval poets from the Iberian peninsula, and Jane Hawking spends a few passages of her memoir explaining her academic work and her favorite poems. In the movie, as in real life, she is a faithful Christian.*

In the movie, Jane has a fear of flying that is never explained. In the memoir Jane says she developed this phobia after a disastrous trip to Seattle when her firstborn son, Robert, was still an infant. She recalls overcoming this phobia years later with the help of a clinic specialized in flying phobias. She overcame her phobia before Hawking went on his fateful trip to Geneva; in the movie, though, the phobia prevents her from accompanying Stephen to Switzerland.

The Meet-Cute
In the movie, Stephen and Jane meet at a party, presumably at Cambridge, and Stephen later finds Jane at her church and invites her to dinner at his parents’ home. In reality, Wilde met Hawking at a New Year’s party hosted by a friend who had gone out with Hawking previously. At the time, Wilde was still finishing secondary school, and Hawking had just graduated with highest honors from Oxford and was embarking on his PhD. Jane writes, “we exchanged names and addresses, but I did not expect to see him again.” Hawking invited her to his 21st birthday party, after which they didn’t see each other for a few weeks. They only began dating after a chance meeting on a train some weeks later.

The Diagnosis
In the movie, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neurone disease (ALS) after he has met and wooed Jane, and Stephen’s friends break the news to her in a pub. In real life, Hawking was diagnosed after the pair had first met but before they started dating. In the film, the event that precipitates Stephen’s diagnosis is a nasty fall on a sidewalk on campus; in real life, his mother made him see a doctor after he fell while ice skating and “couldn’t get up.” He was given a life expectancy of two years. Wilde heard the news through the grapevine; she writes, “I was stunned. I had only just met Stephen and for all his eccentricity I liked him.”

The Courtship
In real life, Hawking and Wilde began dating after Hawking had been diagnosed with ALS, and their dates usually consisted of going to the theater and opera in London. The movie doesn’t depict these dates, but it does take a couple of anecdotes from Jane’s memoir: Hawking took her to the May Ball, an annual dance and festival at Cambridge, and in a room with “weird blueish lights,” he “explained that the lights were picking up the fluorescent elements contained in washing powder, which was why the men’s shirts were so visible.” This conversation is adapted faithfully. Jane also recalls in her memoir that she persuaded Stephen to dance after he had said “I don’t dance.” This, too, is in the movie.

The movie portrays Stephen’s diagnosis as a turning point in the young couple’s relationship, manipulating the timeline for dramatic effect. In a memorable scene, Jane comes to find Stephen after his diagnosis and tells him that if he doesn’t play a game of croquet with her, she “won’t come back here again, ever.” This didn’t happen, and in fact Jane appears to have generally been submissive to Hawking, making such an ultimatum seem unlikely. But the ensuing croquet scene does draw from life: Jane writes in her memoir of a time when Hawking was “so absorbed in himself that when he offered to teach me to play croquet on the Trinity Hall lawn, for example, he seemed to forget I was there.” Stephen “scarcely bothered to veil his hostility and frustration, as if he were deliberately trying to deter me from further association with him,” a dynamic that comes through in that scene in The Theory of Everything.

Stephen’s Parents
In The Theory of Everything, Stephen’s father, Frank, warns her away from marrying him, and she responds by affirming their love for each other. This conversation is fairly true to life: Jane writes that Frank “was only able to warn me that Stephen’s life would be short, as would his ability to fulfill a marital relationship,” and she recalls telling Hawking’s mother that “I loved Stephen so much that nothing could deter me from wanting to marry him.”

In real life, there was a great deal of tension between Jane and her in-laws; to her, they “seemed intent on undermining our relationship and our happiness” and seemed indifferent to the difficulties involved in taking care of Hawking. In the movie, this dynamic comes out when Jane and Stephen arrive at Stephen’s parents’ new house to find that there’s a steep hill to climb without easy access for Stephen’s wheelchair. This really happened; according to Jane, at her in-law’s cottage, “the hillside was little short of vertical.”

The movie also portrays a dramatic confrontation between Stephen’s mother, Isobel, and Jane, after the birth of the Hawkings’ third child, Tim. This, too, comes directly from Jane’s memoir: “‘Jane,’ she said, adopting a stentorian tone, ‘I have a right to know whose child Timothy is. Is he Stephen’s or is he Jonathan’s?’” In the film, as in real life, Jane replies that there’s no way Timothy could have any father other than Stephen. In the book, Hawking’s mother replies, “we have never really liked you, Jane, you do not fit into our family.” In the movie, Jonathan overhears the exchange between Jane and Isobel, and then confesses his feelings for Jane, but in real life they had already acknowledged their attraction for each other.

Hawking’s father really did make his own wine, and Jane really did like it, while Hawking “would wrinkle his nose in disgust.”

Stephen’s Disability
Redmayne’s performance captures the progressive symptoms of Stephen’s ALS: slurred speech, curled fingers, and the eventual inability to walk, dress himself, eat, bathe, or go to the bathroom without help.

Jane writes, “one of the most perplexing stumbling blocks for some time had been Stephen’s absolute rejection of any outside help with his care.” In The Theory of Everything, Stephen relents after Jane meets Jonathan, who offers to assist the family in any way he can. In real life, Hawking’s obstinacy went on for several years, and he refused to accept help even when Robert, his oldest son, had to begin helping Jane take care of Hawking’s bodily needs when Robert was 9. Compared to the book, The Theory of Everything underemphasizes Stephen’s stubbornness on this issue, perhaps because to hammer home this tendency the way Jane does in Travelling to Infinity would make Stephen look like a narcissistic jerk.

In The Theory of Everything, Jane meets Jonathan Hellyer Jones, her church choir director, after her mother suggests joining the church choir. In real life, it was Stephen’s former physiotherapist who convinced Jane to join the choir for a Christmas carol service, and Jane met Jonathan not at an audition but at that carol-singing expedition. “I talked as I had not in years and had the uncanny sensation that I had met a familiar friend of long acquaintance,” she writes. In the film, as in life, Jonathan was a widower whose wife had died recently of leukemia.

Jones’ relationship with the Hawkings developed as he taught the children piano and helped take care of Hawking’s physical needs, and what we see in the film reflects real life (although the scene where Jonathan tries to feed Stephen at the dinner table is invented). Jones and Jane really did fall in love, and they went on camping trips and other vacations together while Jane was still married to Hawking. But the movie’s suggestion that the two began a sexual relationship right as Stephen slipped into a coma is not in Jane’s memoir. (Jane says she remained faithful to Stephen and doesn’t specify when she and Jones, whom she later married,  began sleeping together.) In the film, Jonathan promises to “step back” from the family after Stephen’s medical emergency, but in real life the coma didn’t affect Jonathan’s dynamic with the Hawkings; he remained close to and supportive of the family throughout that crisis.

The Tracheotomy
In The Theory of Everything, Stephen begins choking and coughing up blood during a concert in Geneva, enters a coma, and quickly receives a risky tracheotomy to save his life. In real life, this turn of events was less dramatic and more protracted: Stephen was en route to Bayreuth to see The Ring Cycle with friends; during a stop in Geneva, his friends were so concerned about his cough that they called a doctor, who diagnosed pneumonia and sent him to the hospital, where he was drugged to the point of unconsciousness and put on a ventilator. A Swiss doctor did suggest taking Hawking off the ventilator and letting him die, as in the movie, and Jane did respond, “Stephen must live.” But Hawking was brought round from the induced unconsciousness and lived on a ventilator for a few months afterwards before getting the tracheotomy. It was not, as the movie suggests, entirely in Jane’s hands to decide whether Hawking should get the tracheotomy.

After the tracheotomy, Hawking learned to communicate with a rapid-eye scanner, which at first only typed out his communications, but which was later upgraded with a voice synthesizer. In the movie, Jane expresses surprise that the synthesized voice has an American accent; in her memoir, she describes it as “unnervingly like a dalek,” the cyborg race from Dr. Who.

In the movie, Stephen meets Elaine Mason, who appears to be some sort of specialist, after the tracheotomy. Jane has had trouble communicating with Stephen via an alphabet frame, so she calls in Elaine to help, and Elaine has a miraculously easy time communicating with Stephen—which leads to a close, and ultimately intimate, relationship between the two.

In real life, Mason was one of several nurses hired by Jane to help Hawking after his tracheotomy, and she did not have any particular background or facility in communicating via alphabet frame. (Jane writes that she was herself quite good at communicating via alphabet frame, “developing a shorthand code so that Stephen only had to focus on one letter for his meaning to become apparent.”) In Jane’s view, Mason manipulated Hawking and undermined Jane’s role in the family. The other nurses told her, she says, that Elaine “was exerting undue influence over Stephen, deliberately provoking and exploiting every disagreement between us.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jane had less-than-fond feelings toward the woman who became her husband’s second wife; nonetheless, rumors that Mason abused Hawking made it into the press, and Hawking admits in his memoir that he and Mason “had our ups and downs.”

The Separation
The Theory of Everything depicts Jane and Stephen’s separation as peaceful and mutual. This is not at all how Jane describes it in her memoir. Mason and her husband accompanied the Hawkings and Jonathan on a vacation to France, where an argument erupted—after years of mounting tension. “Flames of vituperation, hatred, desire for revenge leapt at me from all sides, scorching me to the quick with accusations,” Jane writes. Afterwards, Hawking announced that he was going to live with Mason; during this period Jane says, Hawking “sought to control me, as if I was simply a piece of property.” She reports feeling worthless and unmoored after the separation, although eventually she and Hawking revived a friendship for the sake of their children.

Hawking relays the tale of his separation from Jane in two sentences in his memoir: “I became more and more unhappy about the increasingly close relationship between Jane and Jonathan. In the end I could stand the situation no longer, and in 1990 I moved out to a flat with one of my nurses, Elaine Mason.”

Stephen and Jane’s Children
The Hawkings had three children, as depicted in the movie: Robert was born in 1967, Lucy in 1970, and Timothy in 1979. In her memoir, Jane writes that Tim “was larger than either Robert or Lucy at birth” and describes “panting for breath under the weight of the hefty infant.” This fact is captured on film: In The Theory of Everything, Timothy is played by an exceptionally large baby.

Update, Nov. 10, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that both Stephen and Jane Hawking are still alive. (Return to the updated sentence.)