Adapting a novel to fit the needs of a feature length film takes a special skill set. If you’ve ever anxiously awaited the movie based on a book you loved and then been disappointed with how little of the source material made it onto the screen, you may even be in the ‘I never watch movies based on books I like’ crowd. It’s hard to wonder why characters you felt were key got cut, plots slimmed down, and sometimes even the emotional core of the story sidelined.
When I watched Otherlife. (On Netflix), prior to reading Kelley Eskridge’s novel Solitaire, I was pumped. It’s the sort of really clever sci-fi that keeps you guessing about what is and is not real, right up until the end. And then wanting to watch it again to catch all the hints.
In Otherlife, the science of virtual reality takes enough of a leap forward to feel futuristic, but riffs off contemporary experience of drugs, gaming, and VR enough to make the what-if element not too large a suspension of disbelief. Strong female lead Ren Amari is a brilliant scientist driven by the desire to heal her family after a tragic accident. The compromises she makes, the conflict between her more altruistic drive and her business partner’s greed, and the consequences when interests clash over how science will be employed (to entertain, to heal, to incarcerate…) give the movie its visceral pull.
Then I read Solitaire, and for a few chapters I was confused. Here Ren Segura is strong, brave, brilliant, and a bit naive. But in different ways than the movie Ren. But then, her world and life and work and relationships are entirely different. The plot is different. The key point in common is the concept of VR as a tool for incarceration (Doing the time for a crime is way quicker if it happens inside your head; and sedated prisoners on a brief mind trip are way cheaper to punish than those pesky conscious ones in brick-and-mortar prisons.). And in both, Ren is coerced into experiencing VR incarceration, with unexpected results.
Once I figured that out, I set aside what I recalled of the movie and just enjoyed the ride Solitaire offers. It’s a much bigger story–as novels often are. There’s a big world, rich in haptic detail, politics and interpersonal dynamics so that it feels very future/other but also very recognizable. There is an abundant cast of well-drawn characters and nuanced relationships between them, as well as multiple agendas neither we nor the main characters are sure about until quite near the end. And of course a great deal of what happens we experience through the thoughts and senses of the main characters, especially Ren. Although the movie borrows touches of novel Ren’s experience in VR prison and beyond, nothing compares to the power of vicariously experiencing her emotions.
The movie asks us to consider how we know what is real, which is an intellectually fascinating question and well suited to a psychological thriller. The book asks us to consider how we know who we really are and leads us on an emotional journey that only a well-wrought novel can.
As much as I’d love to see the movie that Solitaire created in my brain projected on a screen, with actors voicing the roles and a dramatic soundtrack underpinning the action, I’m not disappointed that the writers and producers of Otherlife didn’t attempt that. Instead, they extracted particular elements that sang to them and created a new story inspired by Solitaire. With those few links to connect them, both the novel and the movie stand on their own.