Much scholarly commentary has been expended on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, maybe more than on any other play in the English language, but I don’t think it’s ever been said of Hamlet that it would make a good Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Nevertheless: that was the pitch that a 32-year-old Canadian writer named Ryan North made last November on Kickstarter. North figured it would take about $20,000 to produce To Be or Not to Be: That Is the Adventure. The Internet disagreed. It gave him $580,905.
The Internet chose wisely. North–who trained as a computer scientist but is best known for the online comic strip Dinosaur Comics, as well as the comic-book version of the cartoon Adventure Time–has taken an idea that is, by most conventional literary standards, terrible and pushed it so far past terrible that it wraps around like a comet slingshotting around the sun and comes back as utterly brilliant.
Choose Your Own Adventure books have been around since the 1970s–the first one was published by a small press in 1976–and have sold about 255 million copies, according to Chooseco LLC, the company that currently publishes them. North was, unsurprisingly, a fan of the series when he was little. “You go to the library, and you’re a kid,” he says, “and you can read a book that has one story, and you don’t get to choose–or you can read a book with multiple stories, and you do get to choose. I loved them.”
Unlike the original Hamlet, which has only one ending, To Be or Not to Be has 110 of them distributed over 727 pages. (Also unlike Hamlet, it’s profusely illustrated by artists like–among many others–Kate Beaton.) It’s theoretically possible to read through the book and make the same choices that Hamlet does in the original, with the same outcome, but there’s also a lot of room for improvisation. You can choose to bail on the ghost of your father and go back to university at Wittenberg, where you study philosophy and become best bros with Macbeth. You can choose not to be, in the famous soliloquy, and promptly commit suicide. You can dispense with all the Hamletish dithering, cut to the chase and kill Claudius right away. You have, at one point, the option of transforming into the Hulk.
North writes in a style that’s pointedly less formal than Shakespeare’s. Here’s his rendering of Hamlet’s famous first encounter with the ghost:
“Are you my dad? I mean, my Ghost Dad?” you ask the ghost, but it says nothing. Instead the ghost beckons to you. He clearly wants you to follow him and leave Horatio behind. I dunno, is this safe? Can ghosts kill people?
“Can ghosts kill people?” you ask Horatio.
“I DON’T KNOW MAN, BUT I REALLY DON’T THINK YOU SHOULD BE ALONE WITH THAT THING,” he says, clearly leaving no ball untripped in his own freak-out.
“HAMLET, MAN, SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK, I GOTTA SAY,” he yells, his quivering finger pointing at the ghost. Well, duh.
North has also, it’s fair to say, gone further in his thinking about the practical realities of ghostliness than Shakespeare did. If ghosts can kill people, he points out, why couldn’t Hamlet’s father just kill Claudius? It’s possible to play through the book in the role of Hamlet Sr. instead of Jr. “There’s one ending,” North says, “where you decide that maybe being immortal and flying and not dying and all this cool stuff isn’t that bad a deal, and you start this ghost afterlife where you’re not obsessed with revenge, and you become a marine biologist, and since you don’t have to breathe, you can be a very efficient marine biologist. It’s a satisfying ending.”
Whereas Shakespeare skips over Hamlet’s long sea voyage and his encounter with pirates, North stages it as a massive action sequence, while at the same time pointing out that it doesn’t make much sense, plotwise. He also scolds Hamlet when he makes sexist remarks and mistreats Ophelia, whom North makes over into a strong-willed, self-respecting scientific genius. “When people treat Ophelia awfully, and you as Ophelia allow them to treat you awfully, the narrator can say, ‘You’re terrible at being Ophelia!’” North says. “So the format allows for some distance.”
What makes the book work–apart from the awesome absurdity of retelling Shakespeare as a parody of a dated format for children–is that the form and content are actually a pretty good match. Hamlet is all about the difficulty of choosing your own adventure: it’s a story about a man caught between the urgent necessity of action and the existential impossibility of making decisions. As Hamlet says:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn
And lose the name of action.
But now you can be decisive where Hamlet isn’t. Or not. Your call.
Early copies have gone out to the book’s Kickstarter backers, and it will be available at retail later this month in both print and digital formats. Apart from everything else, To Be or Not to Be is an interesting example of a book so risky that it could have been published only on Kickstarter. North’s agent told him that New York publishers wouldn’t have given him anything like the advance Kickstarter did. But Kickstarter established that there was a demand for the book before it was even produced. Risk never came into it.
Now North has a decision of his own to make: he’s committed to writing a sequel, and he has to figure out what Shakespeare to take on next. For a while he was looking at Macbeth, but he had to abandon it. “It’s a tragedy without the absurdity that Hamlet has to it,” he says. “So much of the play is feeling bad about the choices that you’ve made, and that’s not super fun in a game format.” Romeo and Juliet is looking more promising. “It was never my favorite play, because I hate the ending. But then I realized I could fix the ending!” He already has the title: Romeo and/or Juliet.