First published in 1979, the Choose Your Own Adventure books by Charles Packard were a niche but beloved part of many a childhood: with over 250 million copies sold worldwide and a staggering 184 titles published over a 20 year period, the popularity and influence of these fringe novels cannot be understated. But are there any fans still around today? Indeed, apart from Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch utilising the format, very little wider attention has been given to these perennial favourites…until now. Conflating fact with fiction, The Boy in the Book is a love letter to a forgotten genre that only stalwart fans could conjure up: life-affirming, celebratory, and devilishly constructed, the Choose Your Own Adventure-style production is like nothing else, even Bandersnatch.
Grounded in complete truth, Nathan Penlington is a long-time fan and collector of Charles Packard’s imaginative series, who feels he’s alone in the world: no one else seems to share his affinity for these novels, despite their original popularity. However, upon rereading his favourite edition, he notices something new – a make-shift diary in the margins of some pages; a fellow fan from decades ago. Spurred on by this discovery, Nathan and his three documentarian friends (Fernando Gutierrez De Jesus, Sam Smaïl, and Nick Watson) decide to track down this “boy in the book”, to see where this enthusiast is today. But as the search for this mysterious figure stretches on, an important question rises to the fore: who are they really searching for, and why?
This documentary (film? Play? Adventure? The whole thing is genre-bending in the best way) is like nothing seen before: how do you make a documentary where the viewer chooses what happens?? This paradox is the very reason for the production’s success, as the filmmakers straddle the line between everything being true and still relinquishing control in a way hitherto not achieved; its grounded in reality but still creates a world where anything can happen. Indeed, it’s hard to fully celebrate The Boy in the Book without spoiling it, as so many of the magical moments arrive suddenly out of nowhere, constituting another fresh twist in the tale. Nevertheless, the story told is one that is both deeply intimate and totally universal: of childhood obsession, loneliness, and what it means to make a decision.
It must be said, though, The Boy in the Book is not a short experience: told over the course of a year and utilising over 3 hours of documentary footage, the adventure does feel a tad drawn-out and bloated, despite all its fun. Luckily, the four have even thought of this: the production has an auto-save feature, allowing adventurers to pause and comeback as they wish, mitigating the story’s sheer length.
Boasting “thousands of possible paths”, it’s difficult to gauge just how good The Boy in the Book is: perhaps I just chose lucky and experienced the journey that was most enjoyable and other adventurers may not be so fortunate. Nevertheless, The Boy in the Book is an utterly unique and totally unpredictable joyride that cannot be recommended enough. In this regard maybe the words of a certain 13-year-old fan three decades ago sum it up best: “this is so much fun! I have no idea what is going to happen next!”
The Boy in the Book is available at the Electric Dreams Website.