Video Killed the Biblio Star
m.snowe talks about (mis)appropriation.
The NYTimes ran this piece the other day, which is basically an interview with the marketers behind the new EA video game, “Dante’s Inferno.” That’s right, a video game based on the chthonian cantica of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This game has a lot of marketing juice behind it–a quick Google search for “Dante’s Inferno” and the top results will be for the video game, not the epic poem. A couple weeks ago, m.snowe made fun of another epic poem, or at least the ever-increasing modern-day attempts to translate very old literature into something that resonates with/mashes up pop culture. Of course, that was still a reading experience. This is a video game.
At first, m.snowe was angry. She wanted to send the EA game programmers to the ninth circle. But then, after descending to the deepest depths of holier-than-thou-literary-snob-hell, she’s come to think that well, basically, there really isn’t much of a reason to be pissed off about the video game. The initial irk of realizing a classic text has been filched for a marketing scheme is grating, but after that? A story itself may be static on the page, but the people reading it don’t have the luxury/curse of living in a vacuum. This is the inability of art to be complete, or our inability to fully grasp an artist’s impression. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if we open the gates to allow some leeway for interpretation, then naturally some people with less respect for literature will swoop in and exploit it. We cannot claim to read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and fully understand everything he intended people to think when he wrote it. We aren’t Medieval folks. So we approximate. Our experience of reading a text will always differ, both on the personal (what am I thinking about when I read this?) and on the collective (where, when, how do we as a culture live?) levels.
As much as people might enjoy killing demons or whatever the hay they do in this game, most players will never actually sit down and read the poem, or they will be “tricked” into buying the book, thinking it’s about an action hero, and be quite surprised by what they find (gasp–they might even like it!). In any case, some publisher is getting some revenue. Also, even though the video game bastardizes the original story, it in some sense keeps it alive. If you asked m.snowe to recite what she remembered from reading Dante’s Inferno, she would have little to say about Dante–she would regale you with descriptions of Paolo and Francesca, or Count Ugolino. The fact that people are angry about this game proves that the text still has relevance, and the people that will love the game now have been exposed, if even in a shallow way, to classic literature. This is why the initial bristle of a video game based on the epic poem wore away–it’s not like a mashup of Dante’s classic in epic-poem form. It’s a new way of looking at the epic poem, but it’s also completely separate. To be angry at this would be to also get angry every time a movie based on a book is made. Who has that kind of energy? Plus, borrowing/stealing is a part of most if not all art–and a very important part.
So given the choice between complete abjection and pop culture displacement, m.snowe chooses displacement. (She cowers in the virtual corner as some of you shake your heads). This doesn’t make m.snowe wants to create an action video game with Madame Bovary as a Lara Croft-type character (Help Emma defeat Rodolphe while avoiding arsenic! Collect the right teacups and ascend the social ladder to the highest echelons!), but if nothing else, it means people are still reading, and books aren’t being thrown completely by the wayside with each newer, more impressive technology. It’s comforting to know that despite the format, we tell ourselves the same (though shifting) stories.