well, it’s groundhog day. again. and that means we’re up here on our private gobbler knobs, rewatching harold ramis’ classic movie starring bill murray and andie macdowell about a selfish weatherman stuck in a time loop until he learns to be of service to their fellow humans.
Which, in turn, means it’s time to ask the question that’s been on viewers’ minds since 1993: how many times does meteorologist phil connors repeat the same day in his punxsutawney purgatory?
The question is asked repeatedly, but cannot be answered categorically. Screenwriter Danny Rubin has a vague answer. ramis had another, which changed. the studio had a third. and an army of online sleuths think they’ve cracked it too, often based on the most tenuous theories of how long it takes to master skills like ice sculpture. (after all, this is the internet).
Like any other movie buff, I have my own favorite answer. but in the spirit of service, I present it in the context of every major answer ever discussed, and what evidence that answer is based on. starting with the one that can no longer be true:
Columbia Pictures’ notes on the film included a request that the number of days in Phil’s time cycle be greatly reduced. “according to them, phil couldn’t stay stuck in the time loop for more than two weeks because it was too much for the audience to handle,” says danny rubin in how to write groundhog day (a highly entertaining book about how the film was born and guided by many parents).
This was, after all, a much less nerdy era. most of us audiences had never encountered doctor who or time travel tropes in general. I can’t have been the only viewer to see him with an American family who were initially taken aback by the bar scene, the first of many in the film that repeats the dialogue multiple times. keeping the total number of days to May 14, in the thinking of a 1990s studio executive, has been more palatable to the average sitcom audience.
luckily harold ramis stood his ground and produced a movie where the answer is more ambiguous, but definitely more than two weeks.
between 34 and 44 days
The first step in figuring out Phil’s time cycle is to answer a seemingly simple question: how many groundhog days are shown on the screen? but the answer is not as clear cut as you might think. you are forced to make many interpretations on the available evidence. for example:
Does Phil sabotage the TV van to keep Rita in town the same day he hits her while she’s sticking her face in the diner, or is it the next day? Does Rita slap Phil across the face, fending off her desperate advances, once a day or several times a day? (there are eight slaps in total). Does she break her bedside clock for the third and last time the day before she kidnaps the groundhog, or the same day? Is her corpse in the morgue the same phil that fell from the tower (is he unusually clean if so)? Is the day that Phil brings coffee and cakes to her team the same day that he is sitting in the restaurant reading and listening to Rachmaninoff, and is it also the same day that she starts piano lessons?
By my count, the most miserable interpretation of the visual evidence is 34 days. the most expansive is 44 days. but if we adjust the count a bit in our interpretation of the previous questions, we arrive at my favorite answer of all.
this is also the number you get if you take a popular online tally of the number of days on screen (36) and add the number of suicide attempts that phil mentions but are not seen (“stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung… burnt”).
To stop the count at 42, you would have to assume that Phil was a natural at the various skills he develops (perfect draw, card throwing, ice sculpture, piano). But there’s still a certain poetry to sticking with 42, and not just because it’s Douglas Adams’ answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
why? because 42 days is six weeks. And what did the groundhog predict? six more weeks of winter.
In a movie with more than its fair share of poetic quotes, a movie obsessed only with desserts, this is at least the most poetic and judicious answer.
8 years, 8 months, 16 days
This was the first major estimate online, coming from a highly cited blog post called Wolf Gnards in 2008. It’s also the first to include any creative accounting. Sure, Phil estimates that his card-throwing skills take at least six months to master, so that helps. but how long does it take to master the piano or ice sculpture? This being years before the popular “10,000 hours” theory of skill mastery took hold in the public mind, Wolf Gnards puts the figure at three years each.
ironically, the estimate of 10,000 hours of skill learning, which was supposed to be just an average, comes from an article published the same year as groundhog day, 1993, but didn’t catch on until it was published Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. at the end of 2008.
this was the figure of harold ramis that he had in mind during filming, said the director (who died in 2014) in his dvd commentary. however, ramis increased his number following the estimation of wolf gnards. “Assigning the downtime and the wrong years he spent, it had to be more like 30 or 40 years,” Ramis told Heeb magazine. which brings the total more in line with…
33 years, 350 days
In 2011, a whatculture editor made his own estimate that has been widely reported every year since. This time the 10,000 hour skill learning concept was applied, as well as an estimate of how long it would take for Phil to plan the robbery and literally take him to a scene where he says that he had seen the fake movie “Heidi 2”. a thousand times.
‘more than one life’
this is the closest thing to a definitive answer that danny rubin gives us. Her original intention, which Ramis vetoed, was to have scenes showing Phil reading one page a day from an entire wall of books in her bed & hers; breakfast, in order of placement, and then start over at the first book.
“We already have many stories generated by characters who have lived a life,” Rubin writes. “I wanted to see what would buy me more time…it wasn’t important to me exactly how long it was, just that it exceeded a single life.”
Ultimately, Rubin was charmed by the more ambiguous film version of Ramis. And it’s probably a good idea that the bookshelf scene is missing, or we’d have internet nerds spending ages identifying and counting the page length of every book Phil reads.
This wouldn’t be the internet either if fake news about a popular topic didn’t circulate. The most false, when it comes to Groundhog Day, is the widely held notion that an earlier version of Rubin’s script had Phil explicitly telling Rita that she had been “waiting for you every day for 10,000 years.”
rubin was delighted to have written this even when he destroyed it: “I find it so unbelievably cool that I don’t bother to dispute it,” rubin wrote on his blog in 2008. “But it’s not true.”
On the way to demolish it, Rubin stops to note that the 10,000 year figure has “Buddhist undertones”. which is true: it is the duration of the “third period in the lifespan of dharma” before the buddha supposedly returns to earth in a new form.
so it’s perhaps not surprising that this fake news revolves around a movie that has seen many religious interpretations. In 2003, Ramis told the New York Times that Christian ministers contacted him first (purgatory and redemption are an important part of many church doctrines) and then the rabbis, and then the Buddhists.
Whatever doctrine you apply to Groundhog Day, then, it seems possible that religious scholars will continue to argue over the film, and come up with new estimates of the amount of time shown, another hundred centuries from now.