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Sophie's (Multimedia) World
by Chris Lakeman Fraser

Being an author used to be simple. You sweated blood for months (years!). Then with luck you were published. To a large degree you could keep a handle on the material. End of story. Then along came a whole batch of other media which meant that success in one area led inexorably to a succession of re-versions of your original concept. The chances are that, as with Chinese Whispers, the resulting ideas mutate into strange forms. Unless that is you managed to retain control throughout (unlikely!) or were lucky with the new collaborators (uh huh!).

Take 'Sophie's World' which had an unlikely beginning in Norway in the mind of a philosophy tutor who couldn't find an appropriate book to involve his students. Jostein Gaarder decided to make good the deficiency by writing one himself in the form of a straight text book on Western Philosophy over the last 3000 years. Not a fast seller, you might think. But then he had one of those mind altering flashes, which we are all praying for, of interweaving the text with a fictional thriller involving a young 15 year old girl meeting an enigmatic philosophy guru who helps her puzzle her way through a series of philosophical mind mazes. If you want to bone up on the subject, this is a relatively pain-free introduction, not just for teenagers. One key ingredient is that the reader, of whatever age, is treated as being capable of absorbing complex philosophical concepts and of developing their own philosophical insights. The fictional story line is gripping in places but a bit thin to carry such a sustained intellectual tour de force. However the public has not been deterred. Sales of the book rocketed worldwide. Upwards of 15 million copies were bought.

Enter the second media, with pyrotechnical interactivity. Infotainment CD ROMs had a brief flowering. There was an awful lot of crap interspersed with some brilliant work. It was also very, very expensive. The MULTIMEDIA Corporation in the UK was part of the new wave with a raft of artistic and business talent. Head of Titles, at the time, Robert Hyde recognised the qualities of the book, "For the first time somebody succeeded in 'disguising' the difficulty of the subject and made philosophy interesting for a young (and old) audience." Somehow he managed to put together a consortium of companies to raise the funds to turn it into a CD ROM and pre-sell it around the world. A young multimedia producer, Ailsa Barry grabbed the opportunity to experiment with the medium. She had $1 million to play with, an 18 month schedule and an author who was confident enough to let her get on with it. She brought in a bunch of intellectual heavyweights to sub-edit and update the philosophy. A timeline/relational chart showing the ebb and flow of ideas and a BIG QUESTIONS board showed the comparison between different philosophers on common topics. A series of eight historical epochs were also created with stills and video footage where available.

This was the easy part - relatively! The storyline was more difficult. Barry disentangled the story from the philosophy, clearly identifying the associated philosophical content and turned the result into a series of 20 games. Unless you have a Ph.D. in philosophy, you are going to have to consult the philosophical database at some stage in the process. Learning by stealth. Cunning! Graphics, animation and live action video meshed together beautifully. The producers managed to capture the spirit of the original book with an additional interactive dimension. Sales soared worldwide to over 100,000 copies - big numbers for this format.

Re-enter Robert Hyde wearing different media hats. He has put together a 'Sophie' board game. Sales have hit 40,000. In the pipeline is a Journal and Book of Days. He also runs the site http://www.sophiesworld.com with details about how to get hold of the book and CD ROM. The revised US version of the disk has recently come out and more developments are in the pipeline for the website.

And now the Movie, the TV series and the backing website. We have come full circle with the Norwegian broadcaster, NRK reclaiming 'Sophie' for a joint film/TV project to be made largely in Norwegian with a comparatively high local budget of $10 million. The project will follow in the tradition of the Norwegian film industry since literary subjects are very popular and around half the local output is about young people and is rooted in the country's myths and historical events.

Sophie's World broadens out the scope of the book, putting it into a European context under the guidance of the director Erik Gustavson: "I have a Southern European temperament which looks to Italian and American films which is not very typical of Norwegian directors," he says, "Sophie's World is a very European film dealing with what man has been thinking about his existence over the last 2000 plus years. It is also the ultimate coming of age movie - in which the central character questions who she is and where she is going."

Petter Skavlan, the scriptwriter commented on the challenges of adapting the book, "It was impossible to make a full adaptation. I looked for the core story and found it in Sophie being trapped in a book. Once she has realised that, she wants to escape before the writer stops writing, because once that happens she ceases to exist. That gives the film its forward momentum. Plus the fact that the philosophy gave her the key to her own existence."

Will 'Sophie's World' be significant for the Norwegian Film Industry? "I think it will," says Gustavson, "the book has been tremendously important for Norway." The film is not due to be shown in Norway until August, so it is early to judge its success, but the signs are good. Gustavson again: "A lot of talent, money and ambition has gone into making the film. I think it will be a very popular. Norway has the chance to prove itself." And beyond ? The world market? The Swedes did it. Why not the Norwegians?

Sophie's World made the transposition from one medium to another relatively slowly. Elsewhere, the process is speeding up. Miramax has a new venture, Talk Media chaired by Tina Brown, which will unite the worlds of magazine and book publishing with the core film making activities of the parent company. Martin Amis recently signed up to the publishing arm of this venture. The possibility of magazine and film rights coming in the same package is thought to have swayed the deal. So, successful authors are increasingly likely to be faced with a vista of different media versions of their work stretching before them. A pleasing prospect? Maybe? But a lot will depend on the talent and commitment of the those entrusted with maintaining and enhancing the spirit of the original.

And for the distant future, here's a thought from Adam L. Gruen's Virtual Reality glimpse into the future in 'vCity', featured here in Mindjack. "In the vCity …. there was no reason why, if one were reading about something and wanted to see it, one could not simply go see it. If someone was describing what they liked (or disliked) about a particular zoning volume or vSite -- for example, vGolf Course #6 -- they would provide the city coordinate for vGC6, and one could beam there in a few seconds. In other words, a "newspaper" for the vCity could be not only a higher-order reference manual, but a transportation medium. Which is why we decided on the term nowlink." Here we have nothing so mundane as a static magazine, news paper, CD ROM or film. What you will get will be a direct virtual reality experience with the amplification of as many sensors as your vCash can buy. Woody Allen's Orgasmatron is not that far down the line.


Sophie's World

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Chris Lakeman Fraser has an extensive background in the post production of natural history and arts documentaries. He also writes and lectures about the creative aspects of digital technology in media and museums.

The writer of this article welcomes your comments: chrisfraser@fdn.co.uk