Sci-Fi Love Stories, part four: Ruby Sparks

by Jen Scouler

In talking about her screenwriting debut, Zoe Kazan described Ruby Sparks as confronting the idea of ‘being gazed at, but never seen’. This film is undoubtedly the toughest watch of this series, wrapped up in the disguise of a kooky romantic comedy, with a fantastical element there to throw a spanner in the works. It looks at the idea of idolising the object of your affections as the perfect person. This attitude is not one that can be sustained – after a while, the cracks always begin to show, and if you weren’t prepared to see them, they only become destructive.

Ruby Sparks – The Reality of Dreams

In the movie, novelist Calvin is struggling to write anything that matches his critically acclaimed debut. Lonely and attached to his neuroses, he begins to dream of a perfect girl. After transcribing that character onto paper, he’s shocked to come home one day and discover that ‘Ruby Sparks’ has leapt from the words into his apartment – as a talking, breathing girlfriend.

The fantastical element of the film is a small detail, presented with little question and ultimately laid to rest without reflection on the mechanics. In fact, it’s so understated that this article is slightly cheating by including it in a ‘sci-fi’ series – the invention of Ruby falls more under speculative fiction than pure scientific invention. However, the concept is the same – it’s still the use of the uncanny to explore the intricacies of romantic relationships.

Ruby Sparks knows what it wants to say about toxic relationships, honed as Kazan states by nine months of rewrites with support from the directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Much of that springs from the central intervention of Ruby. When she springs onto our screen, she’s the ultimate ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope we recognise from many films – dainty, dorky and undemanding. This film takes that trope and points out its status as complete fantasy; as Calvin’s brother Harry says: “Quirky, messy women – whose problems only make them endearing – are not real.”

Although Ruby can still potentially be controlled by the words Calvin commits to paper, she gradually grows past her naivety to act as a real human would. Trapped in the apartment, Ruby becomes stressed by the intense pressure of having to be Calvin’s constant companion. Even the adorable habits that Calvin thought up in the first place start to become irritating to him. When he worries that she might be getting bored of him, he commits the ultimate breach of trust and secretly rewrites her personality.

Whatever experiences can drive someone to place exceptional faith in one person, the honeymoon period that Ruby and Calvin share is recognisable as that first flush of a relationship. The problem is that viewing a person as the only answer to everything builds unrealistic expectations. Expectations that hit the idolised partner hardest, because they’ve now got to let you down by being themselves. It’s not usually pretty.

The way in which Calvin exerts complete control over Ruby in response is akin to an abusive relationship and escalates to become almost unwatchable, demonstrating the rot that can grow from a harmful beginning. It’s something that most of us have been guilty of at some point or another – we just might have gotten out before it got that bad.

In being in a relationship, we sign up to all the aspects of a person, and that requires recognising that person as a human just like us. Calvin has the luxury of creating his perfect girl, but he forgets that perfection isn’t how life works. In the end, and in a very Frankenstein-esque fashion, his creation leaves without him.

In one quick scene, Calvin’s brother shares a moment in his own relationship where his partner left after a fight. He thought he’d lost her, but when she returns to forgive and try again, it means everything. Ruby doesn’t have that choice and in the end, Calvin recognises that it isn’t a relationship when one person is emotionally (and in this case, physically) trapped by the other. Like unrealistic expectations, we shouldn’t feel obligated to stay with someone to fit their unfair ideals.

Ruby Sparks isn’t the light-hearted rom-com suggested in the trailer; in unexpectedly painful fashion, it riffs on one of the most common crimes that people make in chasing a partner. In fusing a central romantic relationship with the age-old fantastical concept patented by Mary Shelley, it takes the idea of creating a living person to show us the destructive nature of interpersonal glorification; the pitfalls of only seeing someone for who we want them to be, instead of seeing them for who they really are, with all their flaws, complexity, and humanity.

Jen Scouler is the founder of Lost In Drama, a film site devoted to classic novel adaptations and period dramas.

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