Understanding Hyperreal Postmodernism through Tim Burton’s Big Fish

Big Fish

     The term ‘postmodernism’ is a broad and multi-faceted notion that deals with the nature of contemporary Western society and culture. All types of Western art, including film, might be seen to have adapted to the postmodern, which in turn is considered to be a reaction to ideas inherent in Modernism. For example, postmodernism is defined by Charles Jencks as ‘both the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence’ (Jencks, 1995: 27), suggesting that postmodernism is not an original movement; rather it is the reworking of Modernist features by postmodern artists in the attempt to create something new. To explore the concept of postmodernism, I use Tim Burton’s film Big Fish (2003), examining it with reference to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, a common theme found in many postmodernist films.

Baudrillard is a key theorist in exploring the idea of hyperreality in postmodern society. Baudrillard claims that an image transcends from a reflection of basic reality until finally, ‘it bears no relation to reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum’ (Baudrillard, 1998: 173). Baudrillard’s successive phases of the image reflect the transition from what we considered ‘real’ to the simulated reality inevitable in the postmodern world. Baudrillard illustrates this with a person feigning an illness that begins to experience its symptoms, is the person really ill? (Baudrillard, 1998: 171). The simulacrum, (the symptoms), mimics reality but are in fact absent of any truth. This simulation indicates an inability to distinguish between the real illness and the symptoms that have replaced it, and have concluded in the false representation appearing more real than the real illness, that is, hyperreal.

Baudrillard summarises his argument on reality claiming it is ‘not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already Big-Fish-2reproduced’ (Baudrillard, 1983: 46, italics in original). Norman Denzin expands on this, adding that Baudrillard ‘assumes that in the postmodern moment the simulacrum is true; images and signs have come to stand for the objects… that make up everyday life’ (Denzin, 1994: 30). ‘Reality’, therefore, is no longer what it used to be. Media plays a large part in the postmodern world as we consume media images (advertisements, magazines, films). These images portray a nonexistent idea of ‘reality’ that is undoubtedly artificial, for example images of the perfect suburban house. This is an example of hyperreal simulacra connoting the perfect family home that we yearn for but can never have as it does not exist; the house has been edited to look more colourful, with superimposed sunshine above to suggest a more utopian image than what it is in ‘reality’. For Baudrillard, this fiction has become truth (Baudrillard, 1983: 148), a definition of hyperreality that is explored and suggested in many postmodern films, one illustration being Big Fish.

Big Fish’s narrative focuses on storytelling which, according to Steinar Kvale, is one of the key themes explored in postmodern theory (Kvale, 1996: 18). The film alternates between the film’s ‘reality’ and the (perhaps artificial), past of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney). Will (Billy Crudup), states at the beginning of the film that “in telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth”. This statement illustrates an inability to distinguish between fiction and truth which is central to Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality where ‘reality’ has been replaced by a simulation which ‘bears no relationship to any reality’ (Baudrillard, 1983: 83). What could be seen as a manifestation of Ed’s inner nature through his fantasies is seen by Will as artificial and a barrier stopping Will from knowing who his father really is. This problem is further explored throughout the film in its stylistic elements.

A distinction between reality and artificiality is expressed through the misé-en-scene of Big Fish. An example of this is the town of Spectre where life nostalgically mirrors the 50’s ideal American family, the suburban houses with a white picket fence and a place where “even the water tastes better”. This image is a simulacrum in itself as it never existed. Big Fish’s depiction of Spectre includes bright, pastel shades which contrast with the bleak, neutral tones of Ed’s present ‘reality’ suggesting that the artificiabig fish spectrel world of Ed’s stories is more fantastic, desirable and hyperreal than Ed’s ‘reality’. Denzin claims that in the postmodern age, ‘we are all trapped. There is no longer any room for change’ (Denzin, 1994: 31). Big Fish explores this idea through the customs of Spectre. Here, everyone walks around bare-footed suggesting their freedom; however Jenny (Hailey Anne Nelson) steals Ed’s shoes, hinting that the inhabitants of Spectre attempt to trap people in their utopian environment. Furthermore, when Ed states that he wants to leave Spectre, everyone is shocked and asks “why”; they are so absorbed in their artificial reality that they cannot comprehend the reason someone would want to leave. This idea of utopia is suggested by Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin explored the idea of the ‘carnival time’ in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in which ‘life is subject only to its own laws… [of] freedom’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 7). During this time, the Saturnalias would be liberated from the cultural rules of their societies and they were granted complete free will. This time ‘was vividly felt as an escape from the usual way of life’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 7-8), which held therapeutic value as it allowed for citizens to act out fantasies they could not otherwise perform, providing them with a freedom of expression, returning after this period as docile citizens ready to obey those in charge. This idea of Bakhtin can be used to understand the sense of freedom, as expressed in Big Fish, in the stories that Ed tells that are not only artificial, but liberate him from the reality of his illness. Will, who rejects his father’s artificial reality, engages in his storytelling at Big Fish’s climax. He creates his own version of how his father dies through a scenario that is more colourful, faster and thus more desirable than ‘reality’, appearing more real to Will than the death that follows shortly after. This suggests Will’s acceptance and involvement of his father’s inability to distinguish between reality and artificiality, indicating that he has converted to what appears to be a more appealing way of life. This reflects postmodern consumers who can no longer distinguish between the images they are fed and the ‘reality’ the image masks.

Big Fish displays hyperrealist elements that illustrate Baudrillard’s theory on the representation of reality, from its use of stylistics to explore a differentiation between ‘reality’ and artificiality, to a breakdown of the boundaries between the two. Burton’s film however is more than just an example of postmodern cinema; it is an exploration of the impact artificiality and fantasy can have on people, either by offering a more utopian existence that we all yearn for, or by illustrating the loss of identity and sense of reality when that artificial world is rejected, as demonstrated by Will. Thus Big Fish is a thought-provoking example of a film that explores hyperrealism in the postmodern world.


  • BAKHTIN, M., 1984. Rabelais and His World. USA: Indiana University Press.

  • BAUDRILLARD, J., 1983. Simulations. USA: Semiotext[e].

  • BAUDRILLARD, J., 1998. Simulacra And Simulations. In: M. Poster, ed. 2001. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Second Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.169-187.

  • DENZIN, N.K., 1994. Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema. London: SAGE publications.

  • FERENCZI, A., 2010. Masters of Cinema: Tim Burton. France: Cahiers du Cinema

  • JENCKS, C., 1995. What Is Postmodernism?. In W.T. Anderson, ed. 1996. The Fontana Post-modernism Reader. USA: Fontana Press.

  • KING, G., ed., 2005. The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to Reality TV and Beyond. UK: Intellect Books.

  • KVALE, S., Themes of Postmodernity. In W.T. Anderson, ed. 1996. The Fontana Post-modernism Reader. USA: Fontana Press.

  • SALISBURY, M., ed., 2006. Burton on Burton. UK: Faber and Faber Limited.

  • THIRY-CHERQUES, H.R., 2010. Baudrillard: Work and Hyperreality. RAE Electronica, [e-journal] 9 (2). Available through: Academic OneFile Infotrac website <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?action=interpret&id=GALE|A245115004&v=2.1&u=southampton&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&authCount=2> [Accessed 29th October 2012].

  • WOODS, P.A., ed., 2007. Tim Burton: A Child’s Garden of Nightmares. London: Plexus Publishing.


  • Big Fish. 2004 [DVD] USA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.


About Enchanted By Film

1st class Film uni graduate who has a love for films old and new. I write for Diegesis and Film Matters film journals. Currently saving to do a Masters and PhD in Film. My ambition is to be a University lecturer on film and write about film academically. I also wouldn't mind working for the BFI or writing for Sight and Sound :-)
This entry was posted in Learn About Film, Personal Film Research and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s