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?

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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