2. Film Questions

Edward and William conflict

Big Fish takes us into the vivid imagination of Edward Bloom, who shares his life through captivating and far-fetched stories. This movie reminds us of the power of stories—to hide and to reveal, to distance ourselves from others, and to inspire people to greatness.

This discussion guide will help you to look more deeply at the themes of this movie. What does the film say about the tension between reality and imagination? Can we go too far with our storytelling and lose touch with the truth? How can we say things through stories that we couldn’t otherwise communicate? And what happens when we remove fear from our lives?

Movie Summary

Adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish explores father-son relationships and the tension between the literal truth and the fantastical flourishes of myth and legend.

Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) hurries to his father’s bedside when he hears the doctor’s dire news. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has only a short time to live. Will’s mother (Jessica Lange) attends to her husband with deep affection, showing patience and even delight as the old man continues to spin unbelievable tales about his past adventures. Old Edward insists that his life journey involved a lonely giant, a dark and dangerous forest, a mystical small town called Spectre, a circus, a flood, a wicked witch, and a love story that pushes the limits of plausibility. As we see in colorful flashbacks, the charming and youthful Edward (Ewan McGregor) would let nothing stand in the way of his ambition and his dreams.

As Will tries to pull apart these fanciful tales to find the truth about his father, he learns something about the nature of truth and how it can sometimes be better expressed through metaphor and imagination than through cold hard facts.

Discussing the Themes

  1. The Power of Story
  2. Embellishing the Truth
  3. The Power of Symbolism
  4. Fearlessness

Theme #1: The Power of Story

Movie reviewer David DiCerto wrote that director Tim Burton “strikes the perfect balance between the magical and the mundane, blending fantasy and reality to craft a timeless fairy tale that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Its offbeat message serves as an antidote to the cataracts of cynicism afflicting society by inviting us to see life through more wonderful eyes. Burton has fulfilled the duty of the artist—which, according to G. K. Chesterton, is to ‘awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man.’”

Scene to Watch: Edward Bloom is dying in the hospital and asks Will to tell him the story of his impending death.  (Elapsed time: 01:48:53–01:56:36).

  • Tell about a time when wonder or imagination affected your life.
  • Is it important to nurture these qualities, or should we accept that they fade away as we get older?
  • Is our society afflicted by “cataracts of cynicism”? In what ways do the media, popular culture, and the pace of life keep you from using your imagination? In what ways do these things encourage you to use your imagination?

Steve Beard, another film critic, stated, “Big Fish is an elegant and moving film about the power of story to transform the black and white of life into a colorful journey… In an era when so many films are driven more by special effects than emotion, Big Fish is a movie that is driven by and relies upon the brilliance of storytelling.”

  • Why do we feel the need to tell stories?
  • How can our lives become black and white? Give an example. Why is it important to add color?
  • How can storytelling hide something? How can it reveal something?

Theme #2: Embellishing the Truth

One writer noted of Edward Bloom: “Edward Bloom is a natural storyteller, no doubt about it. But his stories revolve around himself, and he tells them to dazzle and impress others. His life seems to be in service of himself… I sympathize with the character of Will, who wants to be noticed by his father. He wants to have a conversation about something other than the past, something other than his father’s spectacular and somewhat fictional adventures, however profound they might be.”

Scene to Watch: Will talks to his wife about his father’s stories and then decides to talk to Edward about his embellishment of the truth. (Elapsed time: 01:14:50–01:20:52).

  • Does Edward tell stories mainly because he wants to make his life sound more interesting than it is? What other purposes might his stories serve?
  • Will never felt like he knew who his father really was. Was Edward a neglectful and unloving father? Or did he communicate his love in ways Will failed to realize?
  • What are the dangers of storytelling?
  • Why might we be tempted to create a false story?
  • Is it sometimes acceptable to embellish or exaggerate the truth to make a story more fun or interesting?
  • Are there other texts that allow for deception in certain circumstances? If so, which ones?  Why is it acceptable?

Theme #3: The Power of Symbolism

Edward Bloom loved to tell the story of the day his son was born. He said he’d been trying to catch a certain big fish his whole life. On the day his son was born he was out fishing, and he caught sight of the big fish again. He used his wedding ring as bait, and the fish chomped down. He was then in a predicament—his wedding ring was in the jaws of this great fish. What would he do? Finally, the fish tossed back the ring and swam away.

Scene to Watch: Edward Bloom tells his “big fish” story once again. (Elapsed time: 00:00:23–00:04:59).

  • Why does Edward enjoy telling this story? What does it mean to him?
  • Will is angry when his father tells this story at Will’s wedding. He tells his father he’s just a footnote in the story, and anyway, Edward was on a business trip to Wichita, not on a fishing trip, the day Will was born.
  • Why does Edward tell this story at Will’s wedding? What does the story reveal about Edward’s feelings for Will?
  • What does the big fish represent? What meaning(s) does it hold for Edward?

Theme #4: Fearlessness

When Edward Bloom was a boy, he looked in the magic eye of a witch. In the eye he saw how he would die. After that, he was unafraid of taking risks and living life to the full, because he knew he wouldn’t die before his appointed time.

Scene to Watch: A younger Edward Bloom tells a bedtime story about a witch with a mystical glass eye. (Elapsed time: 08:49–00:13:26).

  • How does Edward’s attitude toward life affect his actions?
  • Where else in the film do we see evidence of Edward’s fearlessness?
  • Does Edward’s intrepid nature ultimately lead to positive or negative rewards?

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