Feature Medicine and media

Helping Eddie Redmayne to portray motor neurone disease

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h483 (Published 30 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h483
  1. Krishna Chinthapalli, associate editor, The BMJ and neurology specialty registrar, St George’s Hospital, London, UK
  1. kchinthapalli{at}bmj.com

Krishna Chinthapalli talks to the consultant neurologist and film producer behind Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar tipped portrayal of Stephen Hawking and his life with motor neurone disease

Stephen Hawking is on stage answering questions about the universe and notices an audience member drop her pen in front of him. He slowly steps out of his wheelchair and walks down the steps to pick it up and hand it back to the girl.

In this scene from the new film The Theory of Everything, Hawking is played by Eddie Redmayne. He is shown helpless as he looks at the pen and imagines himself being able to walk over to it. It had been 25 years since Hawking, former professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and by then he could only just move his fingers and facial muscles. The irony is that he was at an event to publicise his bestselling science book, A Brief History of Time, but he could not pick up a pen.

Lisa Bruce, the film’s producer, explains, “That [scene is] more for able bodied people thinking what it would be like if you were trapped inside your body. Wouldn’t you dream of yourself moving and wouldn’t you just want to do the simplest act—not go run a marathon—but simply walk across and hand somebody a cup of tea.”

The Theory of Everything is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir of her marriage to Stephen Hawking and begins when he is a 20 year old student in Cambridge. Bruce says “One of the biggest challenges was how to show that physical decline and leap years but also have it seem realistic in terms of its arc . . . because in a two hour film we’re covering about 28 years.” …

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