Will "Tolstoy Hero" ever sound like a good idea?

<em>The Great Gatsby</em> game has gone viral -- but we should be grateful that game developers aren

Forget about being a "boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past". How about experiencing The Great Gatsby as a digital Nick Carraway, fighting off hordes of Charleston enthusiasts with a weaponised trilby? Well, now you can. A retro shoot 'em-up version of this American literary classic, which you can play at Greatgatsbygame.com, has just gone viral. You can move your pixellated Nick around using the arrow keys and space bar, and press Z to deploy your hat against the massed ranks of the 1920s bourgeoisie.

The reason for the game's success is simple: there's something inherently amusing about the idea of a work as starchy and revered as Gatsby being given the pop-culture treatment. But is the idea of a crossover between literature and video games really such a silly one? After all, films -- which were once regarded with the same bemusement and suspicion as games are now -- regularly plunder the literary canon.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were plenty such adaptations, from a Commodore 64 sequel to Fahrenheit 451 (approved by Ray Bradbury) to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the Super Nintendo.

As the cutting edge became more technically sophisticated -- and big publishers became more reliant on the action and fantasy genres to shift millions of units -- the idea got left behind. Who'd want to play a text adventure based on The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy when you could shoot aliens, drive racing cars or go on raiding parties with your fellow orcs?

A scan of the Guardian's Top 50 games of the 2000s reveals that none is explicitly based on a book -- although one of my favourites, Bio­shock, skilfully took elements from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Admittedly, outside the winners' paddock chosen by the critics, there looms EA's Dante's Inferno. Their Alighieri had swapped rhyming tercets for rippling triceps and, like some medieval Bruce Willis, was on a mission to hell to save the woman he loved.

Most reviewers agreed that it was fun to play but it had about as much relation to the 14th­century source material as the Pirates of the Caribbean films do to the theme park ride that "inspired" them. It could just as easily have been called HellpocalypseScytheKiller if EA hadn't wanted to exploit the brand recognition of an out-of-copyright cultural artefact. (Its research had found that 83 per cent of people had heard of The Divine Comedy, but only 20 per cent had any idea what it was about.)

Then again, perhaps we should be glad that most game developers aren't following the Hollywood model of adapting anything that doesn't run away fast enough. Very few books respond positively to the necessary compression and simplification of their storylines necessitated by the jump to film. So who would argue that games, whose narrative capacity is currently more limited still, would prove a better medium for literary adaptations?

The Great Gatsby Game might be a tongue-in-cheek tribute that raises a quick smile; but we're a long way from the day when Tolstoy Hero sounds like a good idea.

 

This piece appears in this week's New Statesman.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories