Do we have a new sci-fi classic movie from Spielberg?
That’s probably going to be hotly debated for quite a while, but Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, feels like a blend of the more classic tone and adventure vibe of E.T. and the look of Minority Report. Cline’s novel seems to have divided people, with passionate responses on either end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s too nerdy and filled with too many geeky references, and ultimately follows what strikes many people as an unlikeable character. On the flip side, it’s a love letter to video game nerds of my generation, guys like me who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and goofy computer games like Zork.
Well, one thing’s for sure. Whatever you may have thought of Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s movie is quite different. Whether that’s a good thing or not may depend on you opinion of the book. I found the movie to be a highly watchable adventure tale though it was populated with some rather pedestrian characters. The forward movement of the plot dominates the story, which is often the case with novels of this type adapted to the screen. After all, feature films (as I discuss more in my book) are structurally closer to short stories than novels. It’s really hard to adapt even a relatively short novel down into a 2-hour movie. Add into that the world-building aspect of a futuristic society addicted to VR and it gets even harder. There’s a lot of information dumbing required and it tends to come out in bursts of explanatory dialogue between characters about things that honestly they should all already know but that they need to tell each other so that we, the audience, can hear it for the first time.
While the movie is quite fun and visually engaging, it lacks some of the darker undertones of the novel (no mention of sex with robotic surrogates while plugged into the Oasis). In part, this is due to the fact that plot takes most of the focus of the storytelling while character development is reduced to more basic and familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies before. And in this sense, I’m less of a fan of the movie’s handling of the characters than the novel. This may come as a shock to people who find the movie’s version of the main character more likable than the novel’s. Let me explain.
I find it fascinating when people confuse the likability of a character with our ability to empathize with them. I found Michael B. Jordan’s “bad guy” character in Black Panther to be someone I ultimately didn’t like (he was a bay guy, after all) but for whom I felt profound empathy. I understood why he felt the way he did even if I completely disagreed with his violent and vengeful methods. There are plenty of stories in which we might find ourselves empathizing with an unlikable character (Breaking Bad, anyone?).
So, while I am aware that the main character in the Ready Player One novel is not always the most the likable guy around, I still empathized with his situation and his journey. For one thing, the theme of empathy is actually rather crucial to Wade’s development in the book. He begins the story as a rather self-absorbed teen who just wants a way out of his rather shitty existence. Honestly, I get it. I was quite self-absorbed as a teen too, and I wasn’t living in a dystopian world with little prospects for my future. Add to this the fact that Wade is growing up in a world dominated by technology and virtual reality where actual human contact is minimal and it should become rather obvious that Wade is going to struggle with empathy in general.
Neuroscience supports this notion. Children need to have interactions with real, live people in order to learn languages. That’s why those DVDs that claim they’ll teach your baby a foreign language are a load of crap. Don’t believe me? I recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Along with language development, children also learn to read and understand emotional cues through interacting with real people. As we continue to grow, our patterns of behavior shape our ability to empathize and be present and connected to other people. Technology can have negative effects on our abilities to empathize, as indicated by this 2014 study that suggests that the presence of a smartphone lowers our ability to empathize with conversation partners.
So here’s Wade, growing up on virtual reality. Does he struggle with empathy and thus being a typically likable character? You bet your ass he does! But in this way, the Wade of the novel strikes me as far more believable than the one in the film. Spielberg’s Wade is a wide-eyed kid who just hasn’t grown up enough to realize there are deeper concerns than his future alone. He’s handsome in a nerdy way and easy enough to like.
The novel’s Wade, on the other hand, starts as an overweight hardcore nerd who has numbed his pain at the loss of his parents by escaping to a virtual world. His natural state of existence is isolation. His goals are to ensuring his own comforts and survival. He has no real empathetic adult figures in his life that have been consistent and ever-present. As a result, he has limited empathy for the people around him even as they wind up being killed by IOI. While some people might be turned off by this, I found myself thinking, nah, I get it. What else does this kid know at this point?
What ultimately has me reflecting on the novel (but that feels lacking in the movie) is that its main character really grows by the end. To keep things shorter (and possibly give it more of a boy-saves-girl vibe) in the movie, it is Samantha who gets captured by IOI and enslaved. But in the book, Wade is the one who has developed a rather elaborate and highly risky plan to be captured by IOI and entered into their indentured servant program in order to gain the required access to the IOI systems so he can hack them. I get why the movie skipped all of this as this section of the novel could be a feature film of its own.
Wade’s whole plan is incredibly risky as it could well result in his enslavement for life. It also represents a big shift in Wade’s worldview. It would have been much easier for him to stick to a safer plan in which he could continue trying to be the first to the egg and become the sole victor. Instead, he puts himself in harm’s way to do what he can to ensure that IOI will not become the lords of the Oasis, ruining it for everyone and continuing its enslavement program. This side journey sets Wade up to make more self-sacrificial choices by the end of the book. But this is not something the Wade at the beginning of the novel would have done. His contact with Samantha slowly affects him and he has time to go through a very familiar maturation process for someone in their late teens: the realization that the world is bigger than one’s own preoccupations. As a result, the ending of the novel felt more satisfying for me as Wade traveled a longer distance in his personal growth.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. But even though I know the detractors of the book might disagree with me, I think the novel’s worth more some very thoughtful reading and reflection.
[Originally published on MikelWisler.com. Republished with permission.]
As a filmmaker who has become a published author, I continue to seek out information that will help me grow as a writer. One of the main things I continue to dive into is anything that will help me reach out and connect with my target audience. Marketing is a pretty major thing whether you’re starting out or you’ve been at things for years.
I recently read Bryan Cohen’s Kindle book How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good. The ebook is short but chalked full really insightful steps writers can take in developing and polishing a really compelling and effective blurb that can attract readers. As I read through the book I sought to apply what Cohen advises writers to do by revising the blurb for my first novel, Unidentified, which is currently out on Kindle and paperback. I kept a file with each new draft so I could see how my blur evolved with each exercise at the end of each chapter. Toward the end of the book, Cohen also invites readers to join the Facebook group he started as a collaborative forum for authors to be able to help each other with marketing and selling their books. I hopped on there and shared my developing blurb and got some great feedback that helped me continue the polishing process.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “but I’m a filmmaker, not a novelist,” please don’t be too quick to dismiss this post as not relevant to you. I can say with confidence that what I’ve learned through the process of reading this book and revising my novel’s blurb several times will be quite applicable to any short synopsis I need to write for my short films and any pitch material I develop for feature film projects. Cohen’s book really helped me see the craft and purposeful art that goes into writing a compelling blurb that engages the reader quickly and on an emotional level that peaks one’s curiosity to find out what happens to these compelling characters they’ve just been introduced to. So, even if you’re not a novelist, I still think there’s a lot you can gain by reading How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis.
Now, I’ll leave you with a tangible example what I learned in reading this book by sharing with you two versions of the blurb for my novel (which is also a feature film currently in development), Unidentified. First, I give you the version I had on Amazon before reading Cohen’s book. Finally, I’ll share the latest version so you can see how it changed.
One year ago, a boy mysteriously vanished after claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings multiple times. No trace of him has ever been found.
Now, Boston-based Special Agent for the FBI, Nicole Mitchell, is brought back from administrative leave when a girl in the same New Hampshire town also claims to have been abducted. Disturbing similarities connect the girl’s case to the missing boy Mitchell failed to find a year ago.
Certain that someone is manipulating victims by using the powerful suggestion of UFOs and the alien abduction scenario in order to kidnap these kids, Mitchell enlists the help of paranormal debunking psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Evans. But who among the locals knows the truth? Is it the girl’s parents, the peculiar new pastor in town, the local police? As the case unfolds, Mitchell and Evans are confronted with a much darker and far more sinister reality than they ever expected. But can Mitchell shake off her own dark past in time to help this girl? Nothing could have prepared any them for what they are about to encounter.
Troubled FBI Agent Nicole Mitchell is brought back from administrative leave and offered a second chance to solve her most haunting case. A disturbing series of kidnappings has a small town terrified. Mitchell is certain that a serial kidnapper is exploiting local fears of UFOs and stories of alien abductions to hide in plain sight. Desperate to uncover the truth, Mitchell enlists the help of a skeptic who questions even her theory.
In three days, a local girl will vanish for good. As Mitchell rushes to solve the case in time, she uncovers a far more sinister reality than she ever imagined. Mitchell must shake off her own dark past if she’s going to save the girl. But could this case be her undoing?
Mikel J. Wisler’s debut novel blends sci-fi and horror in ways fans of the darkest episodes of The X-Files are sure to enjoy while looking at UFOs in a new way. As an indie filmmaker turned novelist, Wisler is prepping to make Unidentified into a feature film. Buy the Unidentified novel today and help the movie get made.
As some of you might already know, we are hard at work developing our first feature film, Unidentified. In an effort to lay the groundwork for this process, I wrote and novel adaptation of the same story and we have been hard at work getting the word out about the novel now that it is available on Kindle. This past Thursday evening, I had the great privilege of being part of the Citywide Blackout show on WEMF Radio, in Cambridge, Mass. I got to talk at length about the novel and the development work we’re doing on the film. You can now listen to the recording of the whole show. The half-hour segment where I’m interviewed about Unidentified happens about sixty minutes into the show.
On top of this, Unidentified was mentioned in the latest news from Rogue Cinema! You can read that whole article by clicking here. We are excited to see the project continue to gain more exposure. We definitely cannot do this on our own. So please do feel to share this with friends on social media and keep an eye out for more news and interviews. And don’t forget, the Kindle book is only $2.99! Be sure to check out the film’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm for this project.
I do a lot of strange things. I’m the first one the acknowledge that fact. Even though I’m a long-time filmmaker, I just did a bit of a jump into a whole different field and published my first novel last month. But maybe I’m too used to my own craziness, because this doesn’t seem so off to me. Or maybe it’s the fact that I started off years ago writing short stories an even a novel (whose decade-old draft still sits on my shelf in my office). But I certainly can understand why for many people who know me as a filmmaker, hearing about me publishing a novel might come as a surprise. I hope it’s a good surprise.
Here’s the low-down on what I’m up to with that, and how that relates to what Stories by the River is doing. We have long been exploring the possibilities of producing our first feature length movie as we have continued to make short films and workout and tone our filmmaking and storytelling muscles. We’ve also been exploring options in terms of genres that might allow us to tell a story we’re very excited about and that can captivate an enthusiastic audience interested in something independently produced. In part, that’s how I ended up pitching Dominic and Kristina Stone Kaiser, my partners here at SbtR, on the idea of making a sci-fi/horror project, Unidentified.
If you’re curious about why the horror genre specifically, here’s an article I wrote a while back for Horatio where I explain my love for the genre. Here is also a short video where I talk about why I wrote this novel.
As I worked on the first draft of the screenplay for Unidentified, it became clear to me that there were aspects of the story, particularly the inner lives of the characters, that I wanted to have more time to explore. A novel seemed like the perfect venue for such exploration while still maintaining the fast-paced thriller momentum the story requires. In addition to this, I recognize that as a filmmaker who has written and directed many short films and even sought funding for other feature film projects that I needed to present my prospective investors with something more than just a cool idea and a gripping script. I need to present them with hard numbers on the audience for this specific story. What better way to connect with my audience than to get a book out there? This is an especially exciting notion in this new digital age where self-publishing is no longer looked upon with the same condescension of even just a few years ago.
Actually, self-publishing is the way to break into the publishing world today. Authors like Lisa Genova (Still Alice) and Andy Weir (The Martian) both self-published their first novels. It was no easy road, but Genova’s first novel went on to be picked up by a traditional publisher, became a New York Times Best Seller, and was made into a movie for which Julianne Moore won the Oscar for best actress earlier this year. Weir’s first novel was also eventually picked up by a traditional publisher, became a NYT Best Seller as well, and the movie version directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon comes out in
November (correction, it’s actually October 2nd). Obviously, these are some remarkable stories and by no means do most self-published authors go on to enjoy quite this level of success. But Genova (whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago and shooting interviews with about her journey of self-publication) and Weir do demonstrate how publishing is changing today as self-publication has become the go-to option for new authors and is now a territory many publishers pay attention to in their quest to discover new authors.
Now I’m not at all imagining that I’ll enjoy quite the level of success that Genova and Weir enjoy (I think they’re far better writers than me, if I say so myself). But that doesn’t stop me form being inspired by them!
Back to my novel … So I used my feature length screenplay as a very detailed outline for the novel for Unidentified. And you know what? It was incredibly fun! I’m serious! Maybe it’s just nice to take a break from dealing with all the logistics of producing and directing films and constantly having to consider what can and cannot be done on a budget, but it was nice to just dive into a story and allow myself to be taken along for the ride even as the writer. Little pleasures as a storyteller can be quite fulfilling, such as how I realized that if I wanted it to be raining during a particularly dramatic scene in the novel, I could just go a head and do that without worry of how much it will cost me to make that rain or how to keep all the gear dry during shooting.
In the end, it is the ability to really dive into the inner journey the various characters are on that really made the experience so much fun. And so far, the readers who have been grabbing their Kindle copy of the book and sending me their comments or posting reviews on Amazon seem to be enjoying the journey as well. That’s exciting to me! And as a long-time lover of The X-Files, writing this script and novel feel kind of like coming home.
I invite you to check out Unidentified in novel form. Every sale is a hard number we can take to potential investors as we seek to tell this story in two mediums. You can be part of making this dream of ours a reality and help us tell a meaningful story that dares to explore some important, if scary, questions. Grab your copy here.