Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Peter Weir (director), Andrew Niccol (writer), The Truman Show (1998)

The film The Truman Show (1998), directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, uses its depiction of a hypothetical reality television show to present an attack on what the filmmakers believe is the totalitarian power of modern mass media corporations.  These corporations are able to manipulate the people’s understanding of their world and the public mood by feeding people illusions of reality while denying them the truth, all in the pursuit of ratings and profits.  The interests of these mass media corporations are interwoven with other commercial organisations that use the media to market their products to potential consumers.  The victims of these activities are the ordinary people who are fooled and exploited. 

To the filmmakers, the most tragic consequence for humanity is to be systematically denied the truth by being routinely fed an unreality disguised as reality, which people become so used to experiencing that they fail to perceive the difference. The filmmakers believe that the desire for truth is fundamental to human nature, and when faced with the choice between a benign and certain future based on a lie and an uncertain future grounded in truth, people will choose truth and uncertainty.  The film urges the cinema audience to see through the false sense of reality created by the media to become truth seekers who see the media more critically, recognising it for what it is to therefore become less likely to number among its victims. 

At one level, The Truman Show presents the central character Truman, who is the star of a reality television program constructed around him, as representing humanity.  He is a person who is made to feel that he is the centre of his world, a world that is a media construct.  He knows no reality other than what has been created by the media. But what he perceives as reality is a fraud, a lie, a façade. He has been conned by the media corporations and unwittingly exploited by them, participating in advertising campaigns through surreptitious product placement and by providing human drama to keep the viewers (potential consumers) entertained.  The artificial world that he inhabits represents the world of perceptions created by the media through its news and entertainment programming, all of which is compromised by commercial interests, motivated by the pursuit of ratings and profits as well as by sheer megalomania. 

Rather than being a means of educating the public and keeping people informed about their world, the media is depicted as imposing an ideology on its audience, indoctrinating them to accept the status quo, to stay put and maintain their current lifestyle, a situation that serves the interests of the corporations that profit from the consumerist society. Furthermore, the supposedly utopian existence manufactured for Truman quickly becomes as oppressive as a prison when Truman challenges the system and seeks escape. 

At another level, the filmmakers invited the cinema audience to view the show depicted in the film, ‘The Truman Show’, as a futuristic reality television program that seems to have outgrown any credible ethical constraints.  Consequently, it ruthlessly exploits its human subject, Truman, to provide entertainment for the masses of viewers.  The central character, Truman, represents the most exploited member of the public, the person who has become the subject of a television program.  He is not unlike the scores of individuals whose lives are routinely exploited as program content by news and current affairs programs, as well as by game shows and reality television shows.  Their stories are often misrepresented and manipulated to maximise their emotional impact on an audience that craves emotional stimulation.  In their pursuit of ratings, the producers of television programs are shown to be willing inflict unethical degrees of psychological or physical injury on their subjects. 

In its pursuit of generating more media awareness, the film shows the cinema audience some of the tricks producers use to maximise the emotional impact of the programming content, such as the use of atmospheric lighting to heighten drama, or the use of earpiece transmitters to feed lines to strategically placed actors so their dialogue increases the entertainment value of a story. These revelations highlight the notion of television being an illusion that is made to resemble reality. 

The film uses numerous religious metaphors and allusions to add to its anti-media messages.  The producer of ‘The Truman Show’, Christof, has a name intended to evoke his god-like status.  Like the Christian God, Christof controls the elements and he acts like a father to Truman who has been controlled by the media corporation since before he was born.  When Truman tries to escape he faces the wrath of God, to be killed by a storm unleashed by the creator.  At one stage, Truman appears to walk on water and he ascends a staircase that seems to rise to Heaven.  Truman died like Christ, suffering to free the world of sin, sacrificed so others can be free. 

The hero of the film is the character Lauren/Sylvia, who represents left-wing political activists.  She takes risks to awaken ignorant people to recognise the truth about their situation and the exploitation they face.  She offers Truman the hope of escape.  She also has the courage to confront Christof about the morality of his enterprise.  She has faith that when Truman is given the opportunity he will pursue truth, and she is shown to be correct.  In this fashion, the film implies that radical left-wing activists who protest against powerful corporations are the harbingers of truth who can set people free. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Truman Show meaning, The Truman Show themes, The Truman Show analysis, The Truman Show notes