Movie: Ready Player One

"Ready Player One"

In the year 2045, people can escape their harsh reality in the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. OASIS creator James Halliday left his immense fortune and control of the Oasis to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. When unlikely hero Wade Watts conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends–known as the High Five–are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks now–not because I didn’t have anything to write about, but because I wanted to read the book first before I wrote down my thoughts about the movie. And I’m glad I did. Because now I can safely say that I prefer the film version to the source material.

Don’t get me wrong: Ready Player One is a good novel. It’s engaging, for the most part, and it has a great story structure. But the Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is easier to like. And here are my reasons why:

The film is more pop-culture savvy. A lot of movie reviews have cited that the movie adaptation favored films in its quests and easter eggs. And it is true. But what a lot of them fail to mention is that the film is more aware of what’s popular to the mainstream audience. Not everyone is familiar with the old generation gaming platforms, much less their games. There were a lot of references in the book that flew over my head. So I believe that the film strikes a good balance of including what’s popular, while sticking in obscure references that feels like they were taken from the novel.

The characters are given more to do. The biggest difference between books and TV/film adaptations is the fact that the latter needs to cutaway to what’s happening elsewhere. Books have the luxury of pages, where they can focus on their main protagonist while slowly unraveling the development and objectives of other characters. With those pages, books can foreshadow and plant plot devices that they can harvest later on. TV and movies don’t have the same luxury–and are often restricted by budget and time.

With Ready Player One‘s source material, almost all decisive action comes from our protagonist Wade Watts. And, as such, most of the other characters feel half-baked. Love interest Art3mis doesn’t feel real–even during the final pages, when she and Wade finally meet in person. And there’s even less for players Aech, Daito, and Shoto to do. And here’s where the time constraints of a film worked in favor of the other characters. Because we can’t have hours upon hours of Wade just agonizing over clues, the movie utilized the other characters to figure things out faster than Wade does–or have them become a sounding board for Wade to talk things out with. And, in doing so, the characters feel more developed. Although, to be honest, they’re still not developed enough.

Pacing-wise, the film automatically wins because it’s only a couple of hours long. But more than that, it doesn’t fall into long periods of non-activity like the book. In the novel, when Wade is stuck on something, it feels like author Ernest Cline want us to feel just as stuck as he is. There were a handful of instances when I actually told the book to “get a move on” aloud.

Another thing I thought the film did better is the insertion of Ogden Morrow’s character. The reveal of his character felt like a brilliant move in the film–but in the novel, he quickly read as deus-ex-machina. That said, the book does get to expound more on who Ogden Morrow is, and who he became–but that’s the luxury of pages.

When it comes to the actual challenges though, I’m more split. I love that the movie made the challenges more visual and more personal… But I really liked the novel’s way of complicating the third quest. Both the film and the novel underlines the importance of relationships, but it’s the book that highlights its need better.

And speaking of what the book does better– I also think the novel was better at upping the stakes. The movie puts all the characters in one city, while the book has three of them living outside the US. And then there’s the tension. While the film shows early on how formidable the villains are, they become pretty tame as the rest of the movie unfolds. The book actually allows the villains to kill off one of the heroes.

Now with all this said… I feel like there’s enough of a distinction between the novel and the movie version of Ready Player One that they should be treated as separate entities. They have the same characters and premise, yes, and they do have a similar plot structure. But the things that happen in between? The hows and whys that push the story forward? They’re all pretty much different.

But I still like the movie better.

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Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s–Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent loe that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

I sought this book out because of the title. I didn’t really know anything about it, except that it was about Asian Americans during the second world war–and that it’s a love story of sorts. But there was something about the title that told me I need to find a copy of the book… and I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. So I had it special-ordered through Fully Booked.

Honestly, the book starts very slowly. The only thing that pushed me to keep reading was the fact that I already invested so much time in getting a copy, that it would be a great waste if I stop reading. And I’m very grateful that it took me time to find the book, and that it took me time to get into the groove of the story.

Time made Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet all the more satisfying in the end.

Author Jamie Ford doesn’t rush anything: from the introduction of the characters, the way they develop, to the relationships they form. And while this pace was frustrating at first, it ultimately works best for the story he’s telling. Because Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet is a love story that spans years. Heck, even the love story takes time to develop.

Henry, our main character, doesn’t see his love interest as one for most of the book. He sees her as a friend. And as his feelings for her develop, so does ours. Personally, my appreciation for the narrative grew just as Henry’s world expanded within the book. Author Ford begins the story with a very narrow window into Henry Lee’s life–and it’s probably the reason why the first part of the novel is so exhausting to read. Because our point-of-view is limited; we’re boxed in with Henry, and we’re yearning to get out. But we can’t go out until we get to know who Henry is, who the people in his life are. Because we need to understand him, and the people who are important to him, to understand the things he will do.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful story that’s not just about the love between races in the time of war; but also a powerful love story of a boy to the parents who he no longer understands, and to the son he doesn’t know as much as he would like.

And to end, I say: find a copy of the book. Take the time to read it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is worth the effort.

Book: Don’t Tell My Mother

"Don't Tell My Mother"

With an overly zealous mother as her guide, 19-year-old Sam has never had problems navigating through Christian suburbia before. But all that changes when she befriends and becomes intrigued with Clara, her widowed neighbor and the village’s social outcast. When their friendship grows into the “unnatural,” Sam is forced to examine her upbringing and come to terms with who she really is.

Don’t tell the author, but I’m not completely in love with this book. I mean, it starts out well enough. Brigitte Bautista’s words have a nice melody that makes reading Don’t Tell My Mother a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even notice that I was almost finished with the book until I got to the last few chapters.

So why don’t I love it? Because of the ending. Or the possibility that the ending promises. It’s pretty open-ended, yes, but it’s leaning heavily into the happily-ever-after that I feel doesn’t fit well with the narrative we were given.

Don’t get me wrong: I do want the characters of Sam and Clara to have happy endings. It’s just… Nothing in the book made me feel like they belonged together in the end. I felt like they were each other’s stepping stones to somewhere greater. Somewhere braver. But not somewhere together. It felt off.

Now, if you tell me that author Bautista has a sequel in the works where we see that the characters are still working their issues out, or where we see their relationship further develop, then I might change my mind about this book and just say that I love it and would recommend it to anyone–

But right now I’m treating Don’t Tell My Mother as a stand-alone romance novel. And that’s why, right now, I’m saying it’s a story that could have used a little bit more development. Or maybe a dozen more chapters to work on the relationships of the main character, and the plot, and the conflict… and the resolution.

All that said, I reiterate the fact that Bautista does have a gift with words. Having read a few LGBTQ novels now, I feel like she’s the first to have been able to convey the confusion of her main character well enough to make it palpable. And although Sam’s background isn’t very rare, Bautista does a great job at making it unique and interesting.

Unique and interesting doesn’t mask the fact that a relationship isn’t completely developed though. It’s not enough that the characters are. For readers to root for a couple, you need to make sure the readers understand what they are to each other, what they bring in each other’s life. And the promise of what could be is never enough.

Unless I completely missed the mark with this novel. I read it as a romance novel, as advertised; so if it’s about Sam’s journey of self-discovery and self-love, then… Nah. The ending we got would read even worse for me.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see myself recommending Don’t Tell My Mother to anyone.

Book: They Both Die at the End

"They Both Die at the End"

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure–to live a lifetime in a single day.

What do you do when you’re told you’re going to die within the day? It’s a great question, and I love that They Both Die at the End tries to answer it in multiple ways. We have two main characters that are very different from each other, who then fate brings together to help them grow. I love that author Adam Silvera doesn’t go for the saccharine and goes deep into thoughts that most people probably have had, about what to do when confronted with the idea that they are about to die.

I love the book… but I’m not in love with it. Probably because it veered into romance territory near the end.

Spoiler alert?

I’m not going to say much. It’s just– I thought the book was amazing, and the way Silvera handled the multiple points-of-view was particularly outstanding. I love the way he threaded the stories together, and how passing characters in the beginning make quite an impact in the latter chapters.

But the love story felt out of place for me.

I understand that the characters would grow to care for each other. That they would grow to love each other. And there were hints throughout the book about the eventual… relationship development. It was not sprung on us. I just felt like, if the book really wanted to go there, they could have prepared the readers better. Or have been more upfront about it. As it was… the romance in the latter part of the book made me like it less.

Still– I do still love the book enough to recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a great story. Maybe other readers don’t (or won’t) feel the same way I do about the love story in the end.

Book: Revelations (Book Two of the Naermyth Series)

"Revelations"

It’s been six months after the events in Capiz. Athena fears her developing powers, knowing it’s only a matter of time before she loses control.

Meanwhile, the tension between Naermyth and humanity is growing. Macky believes Mamon is again engaged in shady operations. When Athena is sent to Intramuros to investigate, she triggers a chain of events that pit her against an entity far more malevolent than anything she’s ever encountered.

Full disclosure: I didn’t reread the first Naermyth book before cracking this book open. I wanted to see how this book holds up, considering it’s been a decade since Naermyth, the book it’s following, came out. That, and because I didn’t really have the time.

Good news: it’s easy to jump into the action. Although Revelations references a lot of events from the first book, it also provides enough context to make sure the readers understand what’s going on. I do have to admit that I got confused about how characters were related to everyone–but that was only in the beginning. Author Karen Francisco gave each character, especially the supporting ones, a broad enough stroke that you can pinpoint who they are in relation to our heroine.

And now comes the bad part–

Although my memory of Athena Dizon as she was in the first book is hazy, I still prefer her there than who she has become in Revelations. There’s a good chance this is nostalgia talking, but I thought Francisco handled Athena’s stoic nature better in Naermyth. In this book, I felt like the author relied a little too much on the reader being privy to Athena’s thoughts to justify her actions.

And speaking of being privy to Athena’s thoughts– I have a bone to pick with Revelations being in first-person. I admire how Francisco handled foreshadowing, and planting things to make certain twists not come left-of-field… But it made Athena’s character weak. We establish that she’s smart and savvy, that she notices a lot of things–and because the book is in first person, she takes note of Francisco’s planted plot devices too. So when the twists finally come, and Athena is taken aback, it makes her look stupid. She already noticed the discrepancies. Why wasn’t she able to put two and two together? (This was also my concern with Pierce Brown’s Morning Star.)

Athena’s character and the first-person perspective aside though, Revelations does show Karen Francisco’s growth as a writer. This book had better plotting and pacing, there’s a better sense of urgency and gravity, and most importantly, although this book is double the size of the first book–it’s an even faster read.

Francisco has improved exponentially as a story-teller. Her editors, on the other hand, might want to take another pass at the book, because some of the typos were jarring.

So was Revelations a good sequel to Naermyth? Yes. Was its release worth the wait? Yes. Does it end on another cliffhanger? Well… the fact that they’re calling it the second book off a series should answer your question.

All I’m hoping for now is that Francisco and Visprint don’t let another decade pass before the next book comes out.

(Disclaimer: A decade didn’t pass between the two books. I was exaggerating. But it has been almost eight years since Naermyth came out.)

Book: Through the Window

"Dear Evan Hansen: Through the Window"

This beautifully produced book recounts the journey of the show from its inception nearly a decade ago to winning six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical. Filled with interviews with the extraordinary cast and creative team, original photography by acclaimed theater photographer Matt Murphy, and the libretto, annotated by book writer Steven Levenson and songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen: Through the Window gives readers an intimate look at this deeply personal, yet profoundly universal, musical.

This book does more than tell the story behind Dear Evan Hansen. It also explores the many provocative ideas and themes at the heart of this contemporary story, and examines the powerful emotional connection forged by thousands of audience members, listeners, and fans to this groundbreaking original musical.

I didn’t know I was going to love Dear Evan Hansen. Prior to seeing the show, I was ready to be disappointed with it. When things are hyped, there’s a tendency for me to set up too high an expectations. So I went in to see the show with the lowest possible expectation. And I was just whelmed.

A little disclaimer: the matinee I caught didn’t have Ben Platt. And although my eyes did water during two of the latter numbers, my overall takeaway from the musical was that Evan Hansen wasn’t a likeable character. So I don’t understand all the love for him. And then I started watching the YouTube videos.

Here’s the thing: to set up the low expectations, I purposely didn’t watch any video or listen to any of the songs from the production. My only exposure to Dear Evan Hansen were the good word-of-mouth, and the Tony Awards performance featuring Ben Platt. It wasn’t after I saw the show that I started scouring the internet for other performances. Because I really wanted to see why people loved the titular character.

Ben Platt was very good. But saying that would mean the actor I saw, Michael Lee Brown, was bad… Or, just good. Brown was just as good as Platt. He had great control over his voice, and his acting was exactly the same as Platt’s. But something about his performance rubbed me the wrong way. And I thought it was just the character of Evan Hansen that I couldn’t connect to.

But then I read the published Dear Evan Hansen book. Not the one I’m going to be writing about. The other one; the smaller one. With just a foreword and the libretto. And I fell in love with Evan Hansen’s character and the mistakes he makes throughout the musical. So I became even more confused about why the musical didn’t resonate with me when I saw it.

It wasn’t until this book, Through the Window, that I realized the reason why. Evan Hansen was tailored for Ben Platt. His movements, his mannerisms, even the way he dresses–it’s all Ben Platt. And anyone else who would do the role, who would inherit the tics and tirades? They’re never going to be fully Evan Hansen unless they’re allowed to make the role different.

That’s not meant to be a dig. But it is an illuminating fact that I gleaned from Through the Window. This book opens up the world of Dear Evan Hansen from the moment it was conceptualized to the time it won awards on the Tonys. It shows us the decisions and the missteps that shaped the show into what it became, and it’s educational.

Through the Window is a must read, not just for fans of Dear Evan Hansen, but for anyone who wants to make a career in theater–whether on stage or behind the scenes. The book allows its readers to get insight on the script, the songs, the direction, the costume, all the way to the decisions the actors make from the workshop to the opening performance.

Most importantly, this book bares the creative team’s thought-process on the show. And that allows for us to appreciate the material and its actors more. Or, in my case, it makes it clear why a certain actor–no matter how good he is–can make a character so very different just because he is required to be the same exact character the main actor is portraying. Do you get what I mean?

Now, if the behind-the-scenes and the road-map-to-Broadway isn’t your cup of tea; the annotations from writer Steven Levenson and the team of Pasek and Paul are a joy to read. And Matt Murphy’s photos are absolutely gorgeous. The photos alone are worth the price of the book, to be honest.

I fell in love with Dear Evan Hansen because of the libretto. Through the Window helped me appreciate the production and the creative process behind the show even more. If you’re a fan and you have the extra money, this book is a definite must-buy–because it truly is a beautifully-produced masterpiece.

Book: Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat

"Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat"

A world that’s full of mystery and wonder. This is the world of Andong Agimat.

Yeah, the book synopsis doesn’t really give much away–but then again, Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a graphic novel. If it had a normal synopsis, it might have given the whole story away.

Yes, that’s a dig on how very short Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is (and most other local graphic novels).

The thing about Arnold Arre is that he is a master at creating these fascinating worlds based on what we know and on what is real, mixing the two to produce something that’s familiar yet new, shockingly present yet timeless. It was apparent in Mythology Class and in Trip to Tagaytay, but it’s on a completely different level here in Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat.

For something that was produced in 2006, this book still holds up really well. I credit this to the fact that Arnold Arre’s works are always grounded on human emotions. The new edition’s foreword has a lot to say about the author being unsatisfied, and how that underlines the story that the book is telling. But I would beg to differ. I think Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is all about fear: The fear of power. The fear of loss. The fear of excelling. The fear of being ordinary.

The fear of the inability to change.

Our main character, Ando, has a very checkered past; one that he’s trying to atone for, and feels that he will never leave behind. His past is what pushes him to be a hero–but it’s also what haunts his every moment, waking or otherwise.

Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a study on that fear–of never being more than what one has already become. Even after all the heroics, Ando never feels he is worthy to be a hero. So he doesn’t try to be one. That is, until he’s forced to.

This is where my complaint comes in. Arnold Arre creates this world with a very rich mythology: you have people yearning to be special, and being given the opportunity to do so at the risk of losing their innocence; you have an epic romance that spans lifetimes–and one that is more recent and more hurting; you have villains that have layers upon layers… And we get one rescue story out of this very rich world that the author created.

I don’t know if it’s the soap opera writer in me talking, but I felt cheated off the possible growth and development the characters could’ve had. I felt like the layers he gave the villains could have been explored more, while going into the backgrounds and drive of the protagonists at the same time.

I felt unsatisfied, to borrow a word from the book’s foreword. And it’s not something I want to feel after reading an exceptionally good book. Because Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a very good book–

It’s just also frustratingly short. It ends as quickly as it begins, leaving you wanting for more. And you will want more. So I guess that means I will only recommend this book to people who like getting hurt by their favorite books. Because this book will hurt you. And it will also quickly become a favorite. So if you’re a fan of being left wanting, then pick this book up. If you’re not… you might still want to pick the book up, and then join me in trying to find a way to get Arnold Arre to revisit this world again.