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The True Story Behind The Theory of Everything

6 minute read

The new movie The Theory of Everything, out Nov. 7, traces the marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking, who quickly wed after then-21-year-old Stephen was diagnosed with ALS and given just two years to live in 1962. They fought the disease, and Hawking is still alive today — and a world-renowned scientist and author too. However, the couple struggled with their marriage as Stephen’s health slowly deteriorated and Jane was forced to care for both him and their three children.

How much of the movie is true is difficult to determine. The film is based on Jane’s 2007 memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, but that memoir is a revised version of her first book on their marriage—Music to Move the Stars, published in 1999—which tells a more negative version of their life together. For what it’s worth, Stephen Hawking saw the film and declared it “broadly true.”

Here’s what we know from what Jane and Stephen have written about their marriage.

Stephen Hawking was a coxswain on the rowing team

Ruling: Fact

Here’s a picture.

Jane and Stephen Hawking met at a New Year’s party at Cambridge

Ruling: Fact

Jane and Stephen do meet at a party, like in the movie. He was a doctoral student and she was a literature undergraduate. But Jane was a friend of Stephen’s sister, a fact omitted from the film.

Stephen was diagnosed with ALS after a fall

Ruling: Mostly fiction

In the movie, Stephen suffers from a dramatic fall that leads him to be admitted to the hospital, tested and diagnosed with ALS. In reality, Hawking actually suffered two bad falls before his diagnosis: the first in front of Trinity Hall at school, and the other on a train in Germany. The latter fall knocked out his front teeth, which had to be replaced. He did not visit a doctor after either of the falls. It was only when he was home over Christmas break that his father insisted he see a doctor because of his slurred speech and shakiness.

As the disease progressed, Jane had to translate Stephen’s words to strangers

Ruling: Fact

In one scene in the movie, Jane has to half-translate what Stephen is saying to another character because Stephen’s voice is so slurred. According to Eddie Redmayne, the producers actually decided to add that scene in the movie after Redmayne met with the famed physicist. “He told me, ‘My voice was very slurred.’ And that was important to him. I told him I didn’t know how far we would be able to go with it, and he suggested using translators. So I took that back to James, the director, and to the writers, and that’s where those scenes came from,” Redmayne tells TIME. “We never got quite the limit of where he was actually vocally. The producers were worried about having subtitles and all that. In the ’80s, his family and students could understand him, but others would have to go and spend two or three weeks with him learning to interpret him. ”

Jane and Stephen remained in Cambridge throughout their marriage

Ruling: Fiction

Though the film makes it seem as though Jane and Stephen stay in the same spot throughout their marriage, the two actually spent a year in California when Stephen took a one-year professorship position at Cal-Tech in 1975. There, students assisted Jane with the care of her husband and children in exchange for a free place to stay in their home. They continued to solicit student help when they returned to England. Like in the movie, Stephen long refused official outside assistance.

Jane was accused of having an affair with a man named Jonathan Hellyer Jones while she was married to Stephen

Ruling: Fact

In the movie, Stephen’s family accuses Jane of having had one of her children not with Stephen but with a family friend, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, who teaches the children piano and helps take care of Stephen. This happens in the book as well. Jane recalls being confronted: “I met her steely gaze, dismayed that she had so readily jumped to conclusions—and the most uncharitable conclusions at that. All the discipline with which Jonathan and I had forced ourselves to try to sublimate our own desires and maintain a discreet relationship was being trampled underfoot. The simple truth was that there was no way that Timothy could have had any other father than Stephen.”

Jane maintains throughout the book that her relationship with Jonathan remained platonic though they were attracted to one another, and says her and Jonathan’s religion prevented them from committing adultery.

Stephen, however, writes in his memoir, A Brief History, that he became frustrated with Jane’s closeness to Jonathan, who had taken over many of his husbandly duties. He says this is why he moved in with his nurse, Elaine. (More on her later.)

Stephen Hawking was unaffected by fame and fortune

Ruling: Fiction (according to Jane Hawking)

The couple’s struggles in the movie mainly revolve around Stephen’s deteriorating condition, their romantic interest in others and the struggle to raise the children together. In reality, Jane at least partly blames Stephen’s fame for their breakup. Jane has written in her memoir that the marriage began to truly fall apart after Hawking published A Brief History of Time in 1988 and became a celebrity. She says he behaved like “an all-powerful emperor.”

Stephen and Jane disagreed about God’s existence but respected one another’s beliefs

Ruling: Fiction (again, according to Jane)

In the movie, Jane and Stephen disagree about God’s existence, but seem to appreciate that they challenge one another intellectually in debating religion. They balance one another out, and in one touching scene, Stephen even admits there may be a creator, to Jane’s delight. However, Jane writes in her memoir that Stephen’s atheism intensified over the years. She felt as they grew older that he began to look down on her Catholic beliefs.

Stephen ended the marriage with Jane after falling in love with his then-nurse Elaine Mason

Ruling: Fact

Stephen left Jane for Elaine in 1990 and married her in 1995. (Jane did go on to marry Jonathan in 1997.) What the movie does not cover is that Hawking and Mason divorced in 2006 after allegations by Stephen’s children and staff and she violently abused him. Stephen dismisses these accusations against Eliane and described their marriage as “passionate and tempestuous” to the Daily Mail.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com