''Of Mice and Men,'' ''Romeo and Juliet,'' and other classics are now available on laserdisc

By Bob Strauss
Updated February 09, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

At the risk of being branded a Luddite, I have to admit that books are more enjoyable to read in bound form than on a computer. If the author is doing his or her job — creating believable characters, spinning an engrossing tale, evoking a sense of time and place — there’s no need for multimedia frills like hypertext or narration or full-motion video. And, of course, books are more portable and easier on the eyes than the most expensive laptop — try toting that IBM ThinkPad along on your next beach vacation and ”The horror! The horror!” will be more than just a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

That said, judging by some recent releases, the best way to create a truly successful literary CD-ROM is to veer off in one of two directions: Either make the disc so specific and faithful that it anticipates the objections of even the starchiest book lover, or so abstract and fanciful that it avoids unworthy comparisons with the original. The first approach is exemplified by The World’s Greatest Classic Books. The multimedia equivalent of a thousand clowns pouring out of a Volkswagen, this jaw-dropping disc includes the full text of more than 3,500 important works, including — deep breath, now — every single Shakespeare play and sonnet, the King James Bible, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and five Dickens novels. What’s more, Classic Books includes a blazingly fast search function that can scan the entire disc and call up every mention of a specific word or phrase. As impressive as it is technically, though, the disc works best as a reference tool — unless you plan to read every line of Crime and Punishment sitting bolt upright.

As for the second approach, well — you can’t get much more abstract and fanciful than The Dark Eye, an eerie, 7th Guest-style adventure game based loosely on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and featuring the chilling voice of octogenarian proto-punk author William S. Burroughs. Eye‘s creepy characters, hallucinatory scenery (the walls of the house you explore are papered with Poe’s manuscripts), and intimations of madness, murder, and premature burial are reminiscent of the animated version of ”The Tell-Tale Heart”, which scared the mucilage out of me when I saw it 25 years ago. If I were still a kid in grade school, I bet I’d learn almost as much about the demons that tormented Poe from this disc as I would from his short stories.

Disc-bound literature that subscribes to neither approach is not always so rewarding. As long as technology allows, well-meaning educators and programmers will attempt to usher masterpieces willy-nilly into the interactive age, which explains the existence of the overstuffed Of Mice and Men. Apparently designed for wealthy school districts in which every ninth grader has access to a Pentium-powered PC, this disc overwhelms John Steinbeck’s tense, finely honed wisp of a novel with mediocre storybook illustrations, a fictional ”Bindlestiff’s Diary” (which purports to portray the life of a migrant worker in the 1930s), and, most distractingly, video clips and stills from the 1992 movie starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. In trying so desperately to court the interest of young readers, this disc smothers their imaginations. If Steinbeck were still alive, he’d probably rather they played Myst.

As gratuitous as the Of Mice and Men CD-ROM is, it’s Pulitzer Prize material compared with American Poetry: The Nineteenth-Century, which is as slow, clunky, and impenetrable as some of the lesser-known poets it dredges up (anyone care for a vocal rendition of Manoah Bodman’s ”An Oration on Death”?). Worse, because it’s poorly indexed, this disc actually represents a devolution from printed matter.

At least Romeo and Juliet has a good excuse for surrounding Shakespeare’s masterpiece with annotations, plot synopses, and interviews with teenage actors (from a British troupe called, amusingly, the Young Vic) — since many folks (even some theater directors) are deathly afraid of the Bard’s poesy, it only makes sense to try to increase their comfort level with some technological pizzazz. Still, I’d rather see the play live than have to point and click my way through it.
The World’s Greatest Classic Books: A
The Dark Eye: A
Of Mice and Men: C-
American Poetry: D
Romeo and Juliet: B+