“Big Fish”: Tall Tales Stretching from the Page to the Silver Screen (Part 2 of 2)


Many of the scenes in the Big Fish script seems long and a bit dry. Luckily, in the world of cinema, editing can make even the simplest scenes exciting, dramatic, and short. While the editing in Big Fish conforms to many of the traditional modern editing techniques, when several scenes from the script are compared with their filmed versions, one can clearly see the importance and impact of these techniques. Take, for example, the scene in which Josephine and Edward are talking to each other alone for the first time. In the script, the story of Edward’s prophetic dream is fairly straightforward. By using shot/reverse shot editing in the film however, the dramatic tension of the story is upped considerably because you get to see all the miniscule reactions of the two characters at each step of the story. This also makes the comedic ending of the story that much more humorous.

Josephine listening to Edward's stories, much to her husband's chagrin.
Josephine listening to Edward’s stories, much to her husband’s chagrin.

There are, of course, several instances in which the editing of Big Fish strays from the norm due mostly to the distinct directorial style of Tim Burton. As a director, Tim Burton often echoes classical and silent era film techniques. One of these techniques is montage editing. Burton puts his own twist on this technique of course, but he does use it frequently. In Big Fish you see this several times, first when Will is growing up hearing his father tell the same story over and over again, then again when we are being told of all of Edward’s exploits as a young man, and yet again when we are watching him court his future wife, Sandra. Rather than using montage as a way of showing time, Burton uses it within this film to show the tenacity of Edward and also to play on the theme of repetition, which comes to have significant meaning by the end of the film.

Narrator and point of view are the two things that remain relatively constant between the screenplay and the film. When we are in Edward’s stories, we see things from his perspective. More than just being the main character of these stories, Old Edward provides voice over narration for all of these stories, so that while we are watching them we are also hearing them. That is what makes the ending of this film so significant. It is the only time we hear Will do his own voice over, signaling his acceptance and understanding of his father’s way of living. Now he has become the story-teller, keeping his father alive by telling the stories he has learned to love once again.

Passing on stories from father to son.
Passing on stories from father to son.

There is one thing that a screenplay can never truly communicate, and only suggest: the true nature of the characters within its pages. This is the realm of film and the job of the actors. A screenplay puts dialogue into the mouths of these chosen professionals, but it cannot tell them what it means to their characters or how they should say it, or how those around them should react to what is said. Nowhere is this more important than in Big Fish, a drama which is motivated by its characters and their relationships to each other. In the screenplay, the character of young Edward Bloom comes across as your typical tall tale hero – he is brave, successful, and performs amazing feats. Yet his charm and his humanity, the things that make him sympathetic to the audience, are all provided by the singularly talented actor Ewan McGregor. This becomes apparent when one examines the speech Edward makes to the circus mogul, Amos, when he is trying to convince him to help find Sandra. On the page, it comes off rather flat. But when Ewan McGregor delivers the lines, “Wait. You said I don’t have a plan. I do. I’m going to find that girl and marry her and spend the rest of my life with her. I don’t have a job, but I would have a job if you gave me one. And I may not have much, but I have more determination than any man you’re ever going to meet”, you actually begin rooting for him – you suddenly want him to succeed. This occurs time and time again, with every character. The actors make them human and that allows the audience to really invest in them as people, not just characters on a page.

As far as the other elements of cinematic expression, Burton unleashes all of his skill in this film. If there’s one element of cinematography that really stands out in Tim Burton’s film Big Fish, it is framing. Take, for example, the shot of Edward Bloom standing in the midst of his manmade field of daffodils outside Sandra’s sorority house window. First the frame is very angled, taken from the perspective of Sandra from her high window, looking down on the scene below her. This gives us a great, wide view of the daffodils, which fill every corner of the frame. This framing also gives us a sense of off-screen space, as we are led to believe that the daffodils do not simply end where the frame does, but go on and on and on. Furthermore, the frame is extremely well-balanced, with Edward standing in the middle of the field of view, his blue suit making him stand out against the yellow and green, but also complimenting the colors around him.

Many of these flashback scenes conflict with the mise-en-scene of the “real world” shots. Here the colors are more muted, consisting of, at its brightest, pastels, and at its darkest, colors practically covered by grey or brown. The cinematography begs the question; which world would you rather live in? Perhaps the truth is not always the brightest or even best choice. Burton makes a subtle choice in his lighting and costuming throughout this film with this implicit question in mind. After every flashback, the “real” world becomes a little brighter, with slightly more basic colors, the dinginess and shadows peeling back little by little. By the end, even though the last scene is a funeral, the colors come out clear and pure, the blacks incredibly black, the greens deep greens, etc.  In this way, Burton shows us how the world of stories can improve our own worlds, if only we’d let them.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies”. This, I believe, lies at the heart of both the screenplay and the film; that the truth may be valued by our society, but lies, the stretching of the truth, can give our lives meaning that truth never can. Both the screenplay and the movie made decisions that showed the audience the purpose of stories: why we listen to them, why we love them. We love stories, whether they be written down or on the screen, whether they are based on fact or are works of pure fiction, simply because stories keep the human essence alive. Ideas like bravery, miracles, true love, and the goodness of the human soul exist within stories. Stories seek to remind us of who we are deep down and what we are capable of, not just what we managed to accomplish in our short span here in “real” life.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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