The Boy in the Book is a documentary that charts writer and performer Nathan Penlington’s journey after he discovers some diary pages inside a set of Choose Your Own Adventure books (the concept was originated by Edward Packard) that he bought on eBay, books that he was obsessed with as a boy. The pages contain a series of intriguing, heartbreaking and quite worrying diary entries that set Nathan off on a journey to find their author. The medium of The Boy in the Book is exactly like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where the viewer follows Nathan along on his journey and helps in the decision making process.
There are ten chapters in total, and the ending you get is basically a culmination of choices you make along the way. I have not been a fan of interactive films, since I feel the journey and outcome of a movie should be the filmmaker’s decisions. But it is a different story with this one, mainly because of the documentary nature of it, which allows for spontaneity and spur of the moment decision-making. Documentaries have more uncertain variables than a film, so it really works here for The Boy in the Book.
The presentation of it is kind of like a live-chat, with Nathan and the folks working on this (Fernando, Nick and Sam) chatting with you along the way. There is a backdrop to this chat set-up, and the visuals for this ties in really well with the storytelling aspect. It parallels the illustration aspect that these books would have – so it’s a contemporary technological set-up but presented in such a nostalgic way. The great thing about it is that much like a game, you can stop at any point and the site will save your progress. It draws you in with the mystery of Terence Prendergast, the author of the entries Nathan finds in the books. So the gang set out to find him, and your decisions play a big part in whether we get answers or not.
Nathan is great to watch – he’s funny and likeable, and the documentary is filled with his inner musings, kind of like a diary in a way. We have vlogs, interviews, road trips with the four of them – there was never a dull moment.
Mostly, it is about the love of books, and why some of us turn to books in our childhood. Nathan felt a sort of kinship with Terence, because he was isolated for a great part of his childhood as well (we find out the why in the film), and how the two of them turned to these Choose Your Own Adventure Books as a way to escape and experience adventure, since their lives were so bereft in that aspect. I could relate to both Nathan and Terence, for I too had a lonely childhood, and books became my companion since it distracted me from the sad reality of my own existence.
Having played through The Boy in the Book until the very end, I must say that I didn’t get the best of endings, much like how some of the endings in Choose Your Own Adventure books involve a grisly end. And like those books, there is the option of going back to play through the choices you didn’t make, so as to improve the ending you got. So, and I admit this rather sheepishly, I actually went back to replay some of the decisions I was on the fence for to see if I made things better for Nathan.
In a way, The Boy in the Book made me relook my opinion on interactive films. I always found the choices to be so constricting, because in a narrative world, these choices are mapped in a particular trajectory, which I felt didn’t really properly showcase the reality of choice, since I am limited to the choices the film wants me to make. Now, I realise that it’s not really about that limitation, but more about the possibility of being able to go back and confront a past decision. Sometimes the past should be left in the past, but this interactive style is a reminder of the importance of choice, and how sometimes you need to go back a little in order to push forward.
I am now on a different path for Nathan, and I am hopeful that it will lead to a better outcome. If not, I can safely say I have no regrets – perhaps one day I can look at life with the same lens as well.
The Boy in the Book is now available online, and you can play it for free at www.theboyinthebook.co.uk
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The Boy in the Book is a treat for fans of the interactive film genre, and for detractors, it offers much food for thought about the future possibilities of the medium.
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