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TIFF: ‘The Theory of Everything’—The Real Love Story of Stephen & Jane Hawking

Making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, director James Marsh’s ‘The Theory of Everything’ explores Stephen and first wife Jane Hawking’s courage to love and live, despite the scientist’s terminal disease. We take a look at the Hawkings’ relationship through its triumphs and heartbreak.

The life story of scientist Stephen Hawking seems like a natural for a “based on a true story” movie: A brilliant man afflicted with a terrible disease rises above its debilitating effects to achieve greatness, all the while supported by a devoted woman who loves and cares for him. The story has struggle, it has heartbreak, it has success — and, most of all, it communicates the firm belief that love can overcome the worst of circumstances. It’s this last aspect of Hawking’s story that the new film The Theory of Everything emphasizes, focusing primarily on the early relationship of the great scientist with his first wife Jane.

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This focus isn’t really much of a surprise; a previous version of Hawking’s story, the BBC film Hawking from 2004, trod the same path. The movies have always loved lovers, even when in real life the romance is not a fairy tale that ends happily ever after. In the case of the Hawkings, it didn’t; the couple separated in 1990 and divorced in 1995. However, before that came to pass, both on film and in real life, the Hawkings’ union could be said to have had an overwhelmingly positive and even inspiring influence on the course of their lives.

First Meeting

Stephen Hawking met his future wife shortly after he began his degree program at Cambridge. Having been raised in a sphere of intellectual curiosity (his father was a medical researcher and his mother studied economics), Hawking showed an early aptitude for math and science, and he eventually entered Oxford, his parents’ alma mater, to study physics at the age of 17 in 1959. A quick study, Hawking did not find the coursework at the university very challenging, and he spent more time socializing than studying. Despite his lack of effort, he received first-class honors and began his doctorate at Cambridge three years later.

It was at a new year’s party, while attending Cambridge, that he met Jane Wilde, who was a friend of one of his sisters. A literature student, Jane was a good complement to the hyperrational yet humorous scientist-in-training, and the two were soon spending most of their non-study hours together. Unfortunately, at the same time that the two students were falling in love, Hawking was awaiting news about what appeared to be a fairly serious health issue.

Defying the Disease

In his last year at Oxford, Hawking had begun to exhibit signs of clumsiness, at one point taking a nasty tumble down a flight of stairs. Although he tried to hide his increasingly troublesome physical problems from his fellow students and family, by the end of 1962, it was obvious that he needed help. Subjected to rigorous testing for several weeks, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” after the famous baseball player (this is the same disease that has been in the news lately due to a fundraising scheme referred to as “the ice bucket challenge”). Most people who are diagnosed with ALS die from respiratory failure within three years, and Hawking’s doctors advised him that this would be his probable lifespan beyond diagnosis.

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It wouldn’t be much longer before the marriage crumbled. Hawking left Jane for his favorite nurse, a woman named Elaine Mason, in 1990; Jane married friend of the family (and her choirmaster) Jonathan Hellyer Jones in 1997. While Jane seemed to blossom in her new environment, Hawking’s marriage to Mason was fraught with allegations of abuse and eventually led to an acrimonious divorce.

The Healing Power of Time

Jane attempted to come to terms with her marriage’s history by writing two memoirs. The first, Music to Move the Stars (1999), painted a doomy picture of the disintegration of her relationship with Hawking; the second, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007), a substantial revision of the first, took a softer approach and highlighted the more positive aspects of the relationship. It is this memoir that forms the basis for The Theory of Everything.

Today, Stephen Hawking and Jane Hawking have reconciled somewhat. After many years of anger and resentment, Hawking recently made the concession that in regard to his illness, he “was never able to understand the strain it put on Jane” during their marriage. Although retired from his university chair, Hawking continues to publish (including his own short autobiography, My Brief History) and even makes the occasional foray into pop culture. He appeared on an episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory in 2012, and earlier this year, he wrote a newspaper piece calculating England’s odds of winning the World Cup.

The Theory of Everything looks set to renew interest in both Stephen and Jane Hawking, concentrating as it does on the hopeful aspects of their union as opposed to the eventual irreconcilable differences. Although their love story was not lasting, there is a great deal of inspiration to be derived from the Hawkings’ leap into the unknown. As Jane Hawking told The Guardian in 2004, “we were great ones for taking a chance on life.” Fortunately for us, the chance they took paid off in incalculable ways – for themselves and for the world of scientific understanding.