Fact-Checking the Film: 'The Theory of Everything'
Oscar season is here, which means a flurry of fact-based movies are on their way to theaters. EW is fact-checking these films—everything from The Theory of Everything to Wild—to see just how true-to-life they turned out.
Stephen Hawking deemed The Theory of Everything, a movie about his life with his ex-wife, “broadly true.” He’s right: The film version of his and Jane Hawking’s story doesn’t stray too far from the source material, Jane’s Travelling to Infinity.
In Travelling to Infinity, Jane recounts the pair’s 30-year relationship from the very beginning all the way to their messy end. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as the couple in The Theory of Everything, a film that paints Stephen and Jane as a very loving pair doing their best in the face of unimaginable struggles. In the book, though, Stephen and Jane’s relationship isn’t so picturesque: It’s riddled with serious issues, ranging from infidelity to troublesome power dynamics, all of which Jane describes in detail.
The Theory of Everything is a sympathetic portrayal of a difficult relationship—so sympathetic that it’s suspicious. Did they really get along that well despite their differing beliefs? Did their marriage really end that peacefully? The answer: No. Here’s a breakdown of the truth behind the film’s most crucial moments:
Movie: After beginning to date Stephen, Jane finds out that he’s been diagnosed with motor neuron disease from his friend, Brian.
Reality: Jane finds out by accident from her friends, who mention the news in passing. At that point, Jane and Stephen had met but weren’t yet dating. “I was stunned,” Jane says. “I had only just met Stephen and for all his eccentricity I liked him.”
Movie: Stephen’s family is pretty typical; the strangest thing his dad does is offer Jane homemade wine of questionable quality the first time they meet.
Reality: Jane makes a lot of comments about how unusual Stephen’s family is. “That the Hawkings were eccentric, even odd, was well known,” Jane says. “That they were aloof, convinced of their own intellectual superiority over the rest of the human race, was also widely recognized in St. Albans, where they were regarded with a suspicion and awe.” And Stephen’s dad did make wine: At one point in the book, Jane mentions how much she likes it.
Movie: Jane has a fear of flying, but the reason is never discussed.
Reality: Jane’s fear of flying came from being on planes with both Stephen and her baby and having to be entirely responsible for two other peoples’ well-being. “That onerous and exhausting responsibility slowly crystallized into a fear of flying for want of any other outlet,” she says. She eventually sought treatment for her phobia and, with the help of a psychologist and airplane simulator, was able to fly fear-free again.
Movie: Jane and Stephen visit his family’s new cottage, and Jane is upset to find that they have to climb a steep set of stairs to get to the actual cottage—something impossible for Stephen, who’s in a wheelchair at that point.
Reality: Stephen’s parents did buy a country cottage and failed to warn Stephen and Jane about the hill and stairs before they arrived. “I was upset and baffled,” Jane wrote of their visit. “It seemed that the Hawkings considered themselves free of all basic responsibility for Stephen.”
Movie: Jane joins the church choir and befriends the choir director, Jonathan, who quickly becomes an important addition to her family. But at one point, Jonathan has to step away from the Hawking family because his feelings for Jane have grown too strong.
Reality: Jane and Jonathan did meet through singing—though it was on a caroling expedition, not at the church. She calls him a “heaven-sent gift” and struggles with how to deal with this new friendship, worried that making the wrong move could irreparably damage her family. Jonathan ends up becoming a major part of the Hawking family, accompanying them both on trips and on more ordinary activities. He and Jane acknowledge their feelings for each other, but he never takes an intentional break from spending time with them because of those feelings.
Movie: Jane and Jonathan are camping when Jane finds out Stephen was put on life support. They rush to a faraway hospital and, once there, Jane has to decide whether to take her husband off of life support. Without hesitation, she decides they must try to keep him alive even if that means he’ll lose his voice.
Reality: This is all true: Stephen’s coughing fits worsened when he was away from Jane once (they frequently went on separate trips), so he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Later, he was put on life support and Jane—who had been camping with Jonathan and the kids before rushing to Stephen’s side—was forced to make a decision about whether or not to remove the ventilator.
Movie: Jane and Stephen don’t share the same beliefs. She’s religious; he believes in science and rejects religion. At no point is it a real point of contention in their relationship.
Reality: At first, Jane and Stephen would talk about their differing views with humor. But their conversations grew more intense—as Jane describes, “more personal, divisive, and hurtful”—as the years went on.
Movie: Jane and Stephen are having a party to celebrate the birth of their third son, Timothy, when Stephen’s mother asks Jane who the baby belongs to: Stephen or Jonathan.
Reality: There was no party, but Isobel, Stephen’s mom, did flat-out ask Jane who the father was when the two were alone with the baby. Jane said there was no way it could be anyone’s baby but Stephen’s, but her answer didn’t satisfy Isobel. “We have never really liked you,” she told Jane. “You do not fit into our family.”
Movie: Stephen and his nurse, Elaine, get along well—so well that he eventually leaves Jane for her in a sad, but calm, scene.
Reality: While the movie glosses over Elaine and Stephen’s relationship—we assume they’re intimate, but there’s no explicit mention of cheating—Jane is much more clear about his wrongs in her book. Stephen “came and went, often without any notice” and announced his decision to leave the family with a letter. He and Jane divorced in 1995, and he married Elaine that same year. Stephen and Elaine divorced in 2006—a fact that’s also glossed over in The Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything opened in five theaters Nov. 7 and is expanding its run Nov. 14.
The Theory of Everything