Naomi Alderman is a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her books include The Power and Disobedience, which was adapted into a feature film starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. She's also a game writer whose work includes the alternate reality game, “Perplex City,” and the fitness game, “Zombies, Run!”
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with writer Naomi Alderman about the movie that changed her life, Groundhog Day. It’s okay if you forgot what the movie’s about — Naomi and I are gonna give you all the details to follow along.
[music: “A New Day” by George Fenton]
Chances are that if you’re a Bill Murray fan you’ve seen Groundhog Day. Or quite frankly, if you grew up in the ’90s you’ve probably seen Groundhog Day. But I guarantee you that you’ve never looked at this movie the way that writer Naomi Alderman has looked at this movie. Even though it’s funny and warm and romantic at times, there are also real, practical life lessons you can get from watching the movie. I won’t say too much about the plot of Groundhog Day, because we’re gonna hear all of that in my conversation with Naomi, but what I will say is that Groundhog Day centers around Phil Connors — this weatherman played by Bill Murray who finds himself living the same day over and over and over again.
[music “Quartet No. 1 in D — The Groundhog” by Bruce Duvok]
For Naomi, the movie’s a reminder of the fact that we need to take every single day, no matter how mundane, and stop and look around and observe and appreciate everything around us and the people that come in and out of our lives.
Ms. Percy: So let’s talk about the world of Groundhog Day, which is so exciting to talk about.
Naomi Alderman: Talk about a narrow world, right? OK, I want to tell you my thesis about Groundhog Day. I have a thesis about Groundhog Day.
Ms. Percy: OK, I want to hear this. Go for it.
Ms. Alderman: So we all know the plot. And it’s become — it’s brilliant. It’s proverbial: “I was having a Groundhog Day experience.” “Oh, that day was a real Groundhog Day moment.” We all know what that means now, which is so wonderful, because they sum something up in that story that we have all understood, and somehow expresses something very important. So what is that movie about?
OK, here, to me, is the critical line in the movie. Early on, when Phil Connors, the weatherman, Bill Murray, is working out what has happened to him, he is sitting in a bar with two town drunks, essentially. And he says to them, “Well, what would you do if every day was the same, and you were stuck in one place, and nothing that you did mattered?” And one of them says, “Well, that about sums it up for me.” And this is the point. This is the point, is that this, in essence, is all of our lives.
Ms. Percy: We did, probably, the same thing we did yesterday.
Ms. Alderman: Exactly. And the whole — the human experience is an experience of repetition. We wake up in the morning. Our bodies need food. Our bodies need washing. Our bodies need exercise. We have to clean our teeth. We need to do something to make money. We have people that we have to connect to. The same thing, again and again and again and again. And — ugh, does what we do matter? Well, this is the question of the movie.
So Phil Connors is a man who goes through the experience of human life in a condensed and accelerated form, where he has to confront — he can’t be distracted by the sort of petty novelties that a lot of us distract ourselves with in our lives. He has to face the essential, repetitive trapped-ness of human existence.
This movie was released in 1993, when I was 18. And I went to see it in the movie theater.
Ms. Percy: Wow, what a time to see that, at 18.
Ms. Alderman: Yeah, it was perfect, for me. It was perfect. So when I was 14, my father’s brother had committed suicide, which was a huge rupture in my family, in all sorts of ways, and I’m sure it’s pretty easy to imagine how that affects you as an adolescent. I had a lot of thoughts at that time, in my teenage years, about, well, what is the fucking point? And actually, it seemed — it was an incredibly live issue for me at that point in my life, of saying, what makes this life shit that we are doing right now, worth doing? And in the movie, Phil Connors encounters this question in this incredibly boiled-down, concentrated form. There he is. He’s stuck in the town. He can’t change anything. Every day, he wakes up, and the same thing, the same song is playing, “I Got You Babe” —
Ms. Percy: By Sonny and Cher, exactly, every morning.
Ms. Alderman: Who has he got? Who has he got, every morning?
Ms. Percy: No one but himself.
Ms. Alderman: Only himself. That’s what he’s got.
That’s the person that you have in your life. And so, he does what we all do in life — he goes through a process of — so first of all, he’s confused and disoriented and weirded out. And then, he decides to try out pleasure. So he tries out — he’s gonna eat a lot of food. He’s gonna have sex with a girl that he can pick up pretty easily by just claiming to have been in the same high school as her.
Ms. Percy: He kind of goes through all the seven deadly sins [laughs] a little bit.
Ms. Alderman: He does. He does. He steals things. He has fun — he sits and watches Jeopardy and gets all the answers. He exhausts the pleasure possibilities of this small town. That’s the first stage of spiritual evolution, when he realizes this is not really doing it.
So then, there’s the girl, Rita. There’s his producer, Rita. He likes her. He wants to have sex with her. He tries all the tricks that he can think of. In fact, it’s super interesting. In the days of internet dating, what he’s trying is to be her ideal Tinder match. He’s trying to go, “Hey, you like waterskiing? I like waterskiing. You like rocky road ice cream? I like rocky road ice cream. We’re the same. We’re the same.”
Ms. Percy: Literally, we see all these scenes where he keeps going and repeating days, just so he can learn more about her so that he can basically be that ideal man.
And then, he can’t get her that way. She is a little bit smarter, maybe a little bit more spiritually evolved than some other people that he’s been around, and he finds that there’s someone there that he would like to have, and he can’t get. And then, he becomes extremely depressed. And then he tries to kill himself repeatedly, and he realizes that he can’t kill himself.
So why does he become depressed? On one level, maybe, I would argue that what depresses him and, I think, what attracts him to Rita is that he realizes that there is something that she possesses that is, as yet, unattainable by him. And it’s not so much about “I can’t have sex with this person I want to have sex with,” because he, apparently, could have sex at any point that he wants, in this town, but that there’s something he’s seen in her, and he knows how far away he is from it, that she has a certain way of being in life and experiencing her life that he has yet to understand, but he knows, instinctively, is important. So he has a period of depression, and he tries to kill himself, and then, he gets to a point where he just has a day where he wants her to just understand who he is and just tells her, “This is what I’m going through. I’m going to prove to you, this is what’s happening.” And he experiences her, I think, for the first time, as a real human being, not someone who he wants to shag or wants to own, but: Here’s a real human that I can connect with briefly.
[music: “You Like Boats But Not the Ocean” by George Fenton]
And then, everything is quite different for him. And I think that it’s beautiful that the movie will never tell you this. The movie invites you, first of all, to go on the journey with him and see if that journey feels convincing, and then to ask yourself what it is that has changed for him at the end.
I would argue, what has changed for him is, he has been worn away by being in the presence of other humans so intensely that he is no longer able to just perceive them as mindless plebs around him. And he starts, almost without meaning to, to experience the people around him as genuine and real.
[music: “Pennsylvania Polka” by Frank Yankovic & His Yanks]
Ms. Percy: He’s now part of the community, right? That’s the difference.
Ms. Alderman: Yeah, yeah, and he begins to perceive suffering around him. So it’s extremely Buddhist. I think Harold Ramis was a Buddhist, and one of the interpretations of this movie is that it is about the cycle of lives, many lives, and that eventually you can reach enlightenment through this cycle of many lives, and one is, to start to experience compassion for the other human beings around you.
So there’s a part that really makes me cry, every time, where he’s trying to save the life of the old man, who he starts out by just acknowledging him, in the first few days, by just patting his pockets as if he’s looking for a pound, for some money to give him, and then doesn’t give him any money. But then, he really tries to save him, and he can’t save him. And the guy — that is his day to die. And I feel like it breaks something in him. It broke something in me, watching these scenes again. Every time, I cry at this point.
Ms. Percy: Roger Ebert, when he reviewed this movie for the second time, so 2005, years later. I don’t know if you’ve read that review, but he says this beautiful, beautiful — just beautiful words around Phil. He says, “Phil undergoes his transformation but never loses his edge. He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil. The movie doesn’t get all soppy at the end. There is the dark period when he tries to kill himself, the reckless period when he crashes his car because he knows it doesn’t matter, the times of despair. We see that life is like that. Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people. There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, ‘When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.’ The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”
Ms. Alderman: Yes, oh, that is gorgeous.
Ms. Percy: Roger Ebert, prophet.
Ms. Alderman: Prophet, prophet. Testify. And he continues to be a little bit selfish, which I love.
Ms. Percy: Exactly — this is a realistic portrayal of a man, of a human being.
Ms. Alderman: At the point that he goes to get his piano lessons, how he gets the piano lesson is by offering the teacher $1,000 to throw out her previous people.
Ms. Percy: This little girl who — now, we see, the scene where she’s just standing outside, going, “Uh…OK…” [laughs]
Ms. Alderman: It’s hilarious. It’s hilarious.
Ms. Percy: It’s important to remember that it’s a comedy, too, and that Bill Murray is such a genius at carrying it authentically and simply in the way that he does.
Ms. Alderman: Yeah, watching it again, I was particularly struck by the way that he isn’t a monster at the start, and he’s not an angel at the end. It’s a realistic softening of someone who kind of always knew.
It’s about a midlife crisis. It’s about the moment when you realize that you’ve somehow come away from the things that you knew instinctively when you were a child, about appreciation of the tiniest moments in life and the fact that all other human beings around you are real and that you can have compassion for their suffering; about what it means to be a good person; about what it means to try to help; about what it means to always be growing. It’s about a man who reaches a point — let’s say, in that moment where he sees Rita at the start, playing around with the blue screen that he has been using in this very artful way —
Ms. Percy: Because he’s a weatherman, and that’s how he indicates the clouds’ formation and the weather swooping by …
Ms. Alderman: Yeah, so he has been using it very professionally, very slick, and then he sees her playing with it. And in some way, this sums up what he’s lost, is a sense of the wonder of the tiniest things around him. The movie never answers how this happened to him, which is wonderful. One thing you could suggest is that in that moment, he realizes that he’s gonna have to fix something and that this thing that happens to him is something that he needed. He wanted it; he called to it; he asked for it, maybe. That’s a thought that I had about it, whilst watching it.
[music: “Phil Steals the Money” by George Fenton]
Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying my conversation with Naomi Alderman. If you’re looking for more This Movie Changed Me in your life, subscribe to our newsletter. Every Wednesday, you’ll receive a note from yours truly, behind-the-scenes extras, and so much more. Subscribe today, and we’ll also enter you in a drawing to get your very own copy of Groundhog Day. Visit onbeing.org/tmcmletter to subscribe.
[music: “Weatherman” by Delbert McClinton]
Ms. Alderman: I saw this when I was 18. I must’ve watched it at least once a year since then, so that’s at least 25 times — and perhaps more.
Ms. Percy: Whoa.
Ms. Alderman: I feel like there were times when I was watching it more than once a year because I felt like it had some answers, for me, about what constituted a good life.
Ms. Percy: So how was watching it those 25 times, then? Every time, do you find new answers for yourself? How does it come into your life?
Ms. Alderman: It’s interesting — I feel like, maybe, now I have started to find the edges of it, in terms of, well, if I believe this, then what is really worth doing with my life? What is worth doing is stuff that somehow works on myself, my inner self, whether that’s by psychotherapy or learning new skills or reading great books or improving my sensitivity towards the world; or, that it’s trying to help.
And even though I’m a fiction writer, I think a lot of my work has been oriented towards some way of trying to help. So I understand that many people, I think, would think that fiction that’s got “a message” is not as good as fiction that is very intensely truthful about the human experience. But, man, do you know, what helped me was Groundhog Day.
[music: “Phil Steals the Money” by George Fenton]
Ms. Alderman: So now I think I have some new stuff to say about this after 25 years of watching this movie.
Ms. Percy: Tell me your new wisdom.
Ms. Alderman: So one thing about this movie that I think I took from it that was unhelpful is that it’s a movie that posits that when you make yourself into the best version of yourself you can possibly be, then your perfect person will turn up and will notice you and will appreciate that in you. And I’m here to tell you that that does not happen.
Ms. Percy: That’s a blatant lie.
Ms. Alderman: Yes, blatant lie.
Ms. Percy: Know who you end up with? Just a better version of yourself. [laughs]
Ms. Alderman: And it’s great to be that better version of yourself —it is. It’s really great. But that process — and I suppose this is two ways of saying the same thing, which is that the process of being in relationship with another human is a different set of skills. And how about if Rita hadn’t then pursued Phil? How about if he had got to that point and been that person, and it had then ended, and then he had to convince her that he was the one for her; or, they just have to move on?
Ms. Percy: Or, he just had that personal growth, and they never got together.
Ms. Alderman: Yeah, but this is not a criticism of the movie. It’s just to say that not one single movie can really be a blueprint for your whole life, kids.
Ms. Percy: But this one comes close.
Ms. Alderman: This one is pretty close. I would say this would definitely get you through, at least till 35, if you watch it at 15.
Ms. Percy: Come on, you’re 43. It got you through 43. [laughs]
Ms. Alderman: It has gotten me a really long way; it really has. And so yeah, those questions about how you identify your perfect person; how you become a person who is good to be in a relationship with — those are not the questions it addresses. But on the subject of how to be a good human, yeah. There’s nothing more to be said, actually.
Ms. Percy: And how to see the beauty in the mundane, right?
Ms. Alderman: God, right? There’s a thing that I do sometimes. It sounds weird, but it’s sort of a spiritual practice. Every now and then, when I feel like I have either been through some hard times or that I’ve somehow become a little bit too blasé about my life, I spend a month, every single day, going to a place that I have not been before. You can do this while traveling, obviously. But it is much more effective if you do it very, very close to where you live; so, things that are within half an hour of where you live. In other words, you could always have gone there, but you just never bothered to get off your beaten track. You’ve never ever gone to have a look in that tiny little weird art gallery that you pass by every day on your walk to work. You’ve never gone to sit in that park. You’ve never gone to be in that church. You’ve never tried out the baguette from that café.
Sometimes I do this every day for a month. Literally, it can be five minutes, pop in. But suddenly, I have a sense of the incredible richness around me, of things that I have seen but not really noticed. And at some point in that month, what happens is, I receive “the benediction” — that’s what I call it — which is, at some moment, I will suddenly become aware of the incredible beauty and richness of everything around me. So, I would look at a brick wall and suddenly be completely struck by the difference and the there-ness, the this-ness, of every single brick in that wall and how much has gone into just even creating that single wall, and then, look — someone’s put windows in there. And look at the plants — there’s a little bee that just buzzed past me. And when you look at the world that way, when you look at the world with Phil Connors’s eyes, when you go right through the sense of ennui, through the despair, right through to the other side, and all you can see is how amazing it is to just be allowed to be alive right now …
[music: “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher]
Ms. Percy: Naomi Alderman’s books include The Power and The Liar’s Gospel. Her first novel, Disobedience, was adapted into a feature film starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. Naomi’s also a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University and an esteemed zombie video game maker.
Columbia Pictures, Trevor Albert, and Harold Ramis produced Groundhog Day, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited to them. The soundtrack is off Epic Soundtrax, and George Fenton composed original music for the movie.
Next week, I’ll be speaking with The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott. You might be surprised by the movie that changed him: Pixar’s Ratatouille. It’s no longer streaming on Hulu or Netflix, but you can still rent the movie online.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo.
This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy. Let’s all take Naomi’s advice and go explore somewhere we’ve never been before.