I now know that there is, in fact, a way to successfully translate a novel into a play, thanks to Custom Made Theatre Co.’s charming production of Little Brother—and the key, it appears, is narration. I have seen a number of page-to-stage adaptations, and they’ve always fallen into the same trap of trying to capitalize on the elements that made the novels strong, namely 1) the internal (thus unspoken) growth, discoveries, and musings of central characters and 2) a fully-realized (thus detailed) fictional world. These do not play onstage. If it isn’t said, well, then the audience doesn’t hear it. And details equal set changes equal pacing woes (not to mention budget woes).
I don’t know what Cory Doctorow’s award-winning young adult novel is like. After seeing the play, I cannot wait to find out (and after zipping through the Hunger Games trilogy last fall, I have zero reservations about being found in the YA section of the library). The story follows a teenage hacker wrongly detained after a terrorist attack blows up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. He is tortured—by our government—and released. His city, already a place of extreme surveillance, was now a police state, suspending personal freedom and privacy in order to protect the citizenry. He decides to fight back, assembling an army of teens to commit city-wide acts of civil disobedience.
I imagine the book promises to be an action-packed thriller, one that would likely make a fun movie (and imdb tells me it is in development; Doctorow’s blog tells me it was optioned back in 2009). As such, it is an odd choice for a play. And yet, Josh Costello’s adaptation smartly focuses on what will work onstage: the character development and struggle, the relationships (familial and romantic), the storytelling, and the Big Idea: freedom versus security.
As the name suggests, Little Brother is a tribute, an update, to 1984, and after the show my thoughts went to all the ways we self-report (Facebook. Twitter. Blogs); all the easily-accessible records we create (Emails. Texts. Voicemails); all the electronic trails that authorities could examine (Transit Cards. Credit Cards. Bank Accounts. Cell Phones. IPads. Every time my laptop logs onto WiFi. Every time we drive over a bridge or the airport parking lot and our FasTrak beeps.) Is there an off-the-grid to flee to?
Why do you want to flee? What do you have to hide? What are you guilty of? These are questions the authorities ask in Little Brother. It is easy to hate them. It feels good to hate them. They are the 19th-century villain in an American melodrama, clearly defined as that which is out to harm the innocent protagonist. In the end, we even learn they are on the take from corporations that are growing rich off the unrest.
But the protagonist’s father complicates that narrative by voicing what many of us feel: If it will make us safer, then what’s a little invasion of privacy? We, the audience, are, of course, to respond, “Because it’s wrong!” (and the father eventually comes around), but I don’t know . . . Walking through airport security, I side with the TSA, not Ron Paul. I imagine someone listening to my phone calls or reading my gchat conversations and think not, “How dare they!” but “What poor sap has to sift through this drivel.” But perhaps this complacency is naive—perhaps dangerous. Maybe it’s time I finally deleted that Facebook account . . . but then, how would I be able to keep tabs on all those people?