Sunday, April 29, 2018

Book/Movie Reviews: A Wrinkle in Time and Ready Player One

Movie and book: A Wrinkle in Time

There's an old chestnut that the book is always better than the movie, but I'm not sure that's true.  Usually I think of a book and a movie as such different media that it's hard to say which is better than the other.  A book focuses on the creative use of language and has space for character development and background that rarely work in a movie, while movies work directly in images and sound in ways that the printed word can only evoke indirectly.  Nonetheless, I sometimes find it interesting to compare the two to see how a story works differently in a different media.

This spring two movies based on much-beloved books were released: A Wrinkle in Time and Ready Player One.  How did they fare as adaptations?  What did they give us to think about?

A Wrinkle in Time

Unlike Ready Player One, which has a relatively recent cult following, A Wrinkle in Time is a legit classic, much beloved since its publication in the early 1960's.  Any film adaption would face the double challenge of adapting something both so beloved and so strange.  But when I found out that director Ava Duvernay (who directed Selma and 13th) was on board, I thought it just might work.

Somehow I don't think I ever read the book as a kid, but I read it as a youngish adult sometime in my 20's.  With the new movie coming out, I thought I'd read it again.  It's very much a children's novel, but it's also pretty weird and science fictional in a fun way.  It's also a bit funny, especially Charles Wallace and of course the Missuses (Mrs. Who is my favorite).

For such a short book, it seems to drag in a few places (like the meandering conversations right before they go to Aunt Beast's planet).  Some reviewers complain about the religious references, but they didn't bother me.  With so much other weirdness going on, I hardly noticed them.  (Honestly, they're the kind of thing you're more likely to notice if you have an axe to grind as either a devout Christian or resolute non-Christian who looks for ways to grind whatever axe you have; the axe-less can blithely pass over such references).

While Meg is a delightfully flawed yet capable female protagonist, this was still written in the early 60's and some of the family dynamics might seem a bit old fashioned (although Mrs. Murray is a scientist herself, too).  Overall this is a nice story about accepting others and yourself despite your differences and perceived inadequacies, not to mention the power of love to get us through the darkness that we all face at some point or other in our lives.  All with large helpings of science fictional/fantastic weirdness.  Fun times.

I liked the new movie, which followed the plot of the first part of the book surprisingly closely.  They diverge a lot more toward the end.  I really enjoyed the Aunt Beast part of the book, and it's too bad that didn't make it into the movie.  I suppose they had to cut something.  The movie was still pretty weird.  I thought the way they visualized IT worked really well as a way to make visual sense of what's extremely abstract in the book.

I liked the casting of the movie.  Storm Reid (pictured above) is a capable Meg.  Although Oprah as Mrs. Which worked well, Oprah, being Oprah, tends to overshadow everybody else.  Much the same could be said for Deric McCabe, who played Charles Wallace, but Charles Wallace sort of takes over the book, too, so that makes sense.

I really liked the movie overall.  It kept enough of the book's weirdness and deeper messages about loving yourself and others to be a pretty good adaptation.  Hopefully it will inspire kids to try to be good people in a harsh world and just maybe to pick up a book sometime.

See also my Goodreads review of the book.

Ready Player One

As a member of the nerd/geek community and lover of 80's pop culture, people have been telling me about Ready Player One for the last few years.  I'm not a big fan of cyberpunk and I've never been hugely into video games (I blame my terrible hand-eye coordination), so it never really sounded exactly like my thing.

Still, I read this to see what the hype is about in preparation for the movie.  I'm a nerd old enough to remember the 80's, so I seem to be the target demographic ... but I just don't find the book that interesting and some of it's not that good.  Sure, some of it's fun in a fluffy, fast food sort of way, but you'd have to squint pretty hard to find any actual ideas in this book ... I'm tempted to say I don't understand the hype, but it makes sense if you consider the following list of annoying things about the present that are exacerbated in the future of Ready Player One: income inequality, bizarre fixation on dystopia, unwarranted hero-worship of tech billionaires, mindless rose-tinted nostalgia, etc.

The main character, Wade, is the type of insufferable, know-it-all, pretentious geek that makes science fiction/fantasy/gamer fandom obnoxious sometimes.  Granted, this book came out in 2011, a bit before the fiascos of Gamergate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies, but Wade seems like the kind of guy who would've sympathized with them.  Wade's fixation on minutia seems charming at first, but it wears thin: for example, he can't say the title of a movie without telling us the studio and year of release.  I don't think he's supposed to be on the autism spectrum or anything, which would make him sympathetic; rather, he apparently just wants us all to know how smart he is and that he's watched more 80's movies and played more Atari games than us. I wanted to tell him to chill out and actually enjoy some of this stuff rather than using trivia as a display of nerdy dominance.

Again, I do think most of the novel was fun, although it dragged in the middle.  About the time I started losing interest, I realized I still had 180 pages left.  But I finished it, mostly just to get ready for the movie, to be honest.

The intended philosophical lesson (if I can be permitted to speak of such a thing in this book) is that we should value reality more than virtual life.  Of course, this big lesson is delivered in one or two lines toward the end.  It's hard to see how the rest of the novel doesn't completely obscure this point, especially seeing as how much the reality of 2045 really, really sucks.  I mean, they have debtors' prisons and indentured servitude, soulless corporations rule with impunity ...  (okay, I guess maybe this dystopia isn't so far from our reality).  It makes sense that everyone spends time in the OASIS and worships its creator, so the "deep lesson" seems pretty shallow, almost like an afterthought Cline put in there to make people think the book had some deeper message all along.  But, to engage in some nostalgia myself, this would be like Arnold Schwarzenegger coming on screen at the end of Conan or Total Recall to tell us that violence is actually bad.  Sure, it's a good lesson, but it would be a bit out of place coming from Arnie given everything that came before.

If I can be permitted a philosophy digression, it would be like reading 500 pages of Vasubandhu and Berkeley on the inaccessibility or inconceivability of the external world followed by one page on Nozick's experience machine thought experiment.

My other major critique has to do with the abuse of nostalgia.  I appreciate nostalgia.  I was a kid in the 80's.  I love that stuff (although I don't have the obsessive memory of the Wades of the world).  If you stripped away the nostalgia factor, there wouldn't be anything left of Ready Player One: the nostalgia is doing all the heavy lifting for what is, in effect, a rip off of 80's cyberpunk and Willie Wonka - it's nostalgia all the way down.  I've written before about the dangers of nostalgia with regard to Stranger Things (although I think Stranger Things is a more benign use of nostalgia).

Another problem with nostalgia is that it always distorts.  The past is never quite as fun or as good as we remember it being.  Growing up in the 80's was a lot of fun looking back on it now, but it was also on the whole a more racist, misogynist, homophobic time with all the devastating social and economic effects of the Thatcher/Reagan era and the Cold War, not to mention all that hair spray.  The danger is that wanting to go back to a past that never really was leads to either apathy or toxicity: we get caught up in a blissful ignorance and turning away from the present or, even worse, it becomes toxic - we might, say, want to make America great again while forgetting to ask, "For whom?"

I'm all for the thoughtful, responsible use of nostalgia, but I'm not sure that Ready Player One strikes that balance or says much of anything new at all.  But I suppose the inability to say anything new is merely another side effect of the abuse of nostalgia.

So I didn't really care much for the book.  But I had higher hopes for the movie.  I was interested to see what Steven Speilberg did with it (not only because he's Spielberg, but because he's a named inspiration for the book).

I do think the movie worked better than the book, which serves as a counter-example to the old chestnut that the book is always better.  Was it a good movie?  Not exactly.  But I enjoyed it more than the book.

A big part of why I liked the movie better was that I didn't have to read Cline's clunky writing style and Wade's grating know-it-all-ism is toned down a lot.  Also, maybe in a visual medium it's easier to do the nostalgia hits without overburdening the audience (or maybe they just couldn't get the rights for all of the references).  In any case, the nostalgia seemed less gratuitous in the movie.  The super lame "love story" is still pretty lame, but I can't decide if it's more or less lame (doing so might require bigger spoilers than I want to give).

Spielberg and his team deserve a lot of credit for making the visuals of the movie exciting and fun to watch.  They found ways to make the duller parts of the book more interesting (for instance, they added an exciting car race).  The visuals and the action are the real stars.  The main actors are mostly forgettable, although I liked Lena Waithe and Philip Zhao as Aech and Sho respectively.

The part involving Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was weird; I'm honestly not sure what I thought about it.  But the part of the book where Wade plays a "game" in which he reenacts his favorite 80's movies would've been pretty boring on screen (it was boring in the book), so it seems like at least a more interesting choice as a replacement, even if it offends Kubrick fans.

If anything, the movie deepens the problem I had with the "philosophical message" of the book.  Maybe it's just more jarring in a film medium to be told that your escapist nerd fantasy popcorn movie was a parable for caring about reality all along.  Or maybe it's just because the message comes at the end of a Spielberg blockbuster.  Not that Spielberg can't make socially conscious art films (e.g., Schindler's List) or philosophically interesting science fiction (e.g., Minority Report), but Ready Player One is not in the same league.  Nor is it up there with Jurassic Park or ET as solidly fun movies with a few thoughts on the side.  Thankfully for us all, Ready Player One is nowhere near as bad as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Still, I'll take a middling Spielberg blockbuster over Cline's mess of a book.  So it turns out that the book is not always better than the movie even if in this case neither is actually all that great.

See a longer version of my book review on Goodreads.

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