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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war