One of the greatest challenges faced by any film that follows a character whose work is primarily intellectual is how to visually depict the elusive, internal process of developing ideas. This problem looms particularly large in The Theory of Everything (2014), which attempts to translate the externally invisible process by which Stephen Hawking developed his scientific theories into visual images.
One of the film’s most significant and successful attempts to translate abstract thinking into concrete visuals is the image of cream swirling in a coffee cup that inspires Hawking’s epiphany about the expansion of the universe. The image makes for an effective cinematic moment, but did Hawking truly find inspiration for one of the most important theories of the twentieth century in a coffee cup?
In short: no, he did not. Hawking’s novel, complicated theories did not appear fully formed in a burst of inspiration, but were the products of the long, tough, non-dramatic work of thinking and mathematics. In fact, the coffee cup scene appears to quote an image in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film, Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), which prominently features a heralded close-up of a coffee cup that consciously draws a correlation to the universe.
The Theory of Everything later uses the trope of Hawking looking at a specific image again as shorthand for the process of inspiration, this time with him coming to conclusions about the nature of black holes and radiation while looking at the glowing embers in a fire. It’s worth noting that this image recalls another – this time of a burning cigarette in extreme close-up – from the same Godard film.
While the visual of the coffee cup and the film’s general style of depicting intellectual inspiration deviates from the reality of Hawking’s life and the actual process of developing ideas, the filmmakers’ borrowing from cinematic history allows them to illustrate the mechanics of thinking in an effectively cinematic way.