The 1998 Pleasantville movie is basically the antithesis of Ready Player One, the 2011 book. (For various reasons, the Ready Player One 2018 movie is not as direct a comparison.)
Pleasantville is about smashing nostalgia, while Ready Player One is about celebrating it.
If Wade Watts had been transported to Pleasantville, it seems fairly likely that he would have quite happily stayed in black and white, reciting memorized lines episode by episode until he reached the end of a rerun cycle and looped back to the beginning again, looping endlessly without change, much like Pleasantville’s Main Street goes nowhere, its end just taking you back to its beginning.
One has to wonder whether he would have lived out this existence happily, a kind of static safe immortality in an unchanging world, or if at some point he would have wanted to break out. Would pleasant safety have outweighed all other considerations?
It may be hard to imagine that someone could crave that endless sameness, but to some extent it depends on your learned experiences and mental processing about uncertainty. The past stays in place, it stays at a safe distance. The present can be overwhelming. Pleasantville celebrates the reality of our colourful, noisy, chaotic, uncertain world, but not all of us are equipped by nature or nurture to embrace that experience.
Margaret: “So what’s it like?”
Margaret: “Out there.”
David: “Well, it’s a … it’s louder, and… scarier, I guess, and it’s a… lot more dangerous.”
Margaret: “Sounds fantastic.”
And it is fantastic but also, it can be overwhelming, and painful. Beautiful
David and Margaret in Pleasantville.
but also painful.
David’s Mom: “I’m 40 years old, I mean it’s not supposed to be like this.”
David: “It’s not supposed to be anything.”
The past is predictable. The Romans will always invade Britain in 43 AD, Harry Potter will always be sorted into Gryffindor, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy will always save the world from nuclear war. Wade Watts will watch Family Ties over and over again and Michael J. Fox will always be Alex P. Keaton, no more and no less. You can loop around and around in reruns or rewatching or rereading and the characters never get to rebel, the events never change.
I’ve written about this kind of toxic nostalgia in the context of Ready Player One, but I didn’t talk a lot about why. James Halliday has toxic nostalgia because he’s damaged. He can have everything that money can buy, but he can’t have a different past, all his coding and control can’t change the fact that Kira Underwood married Og, not him.
There are only two ways through that.
In My-So Called Life, Brian will never ask out Angela, he will always be standing in episode 19, the last episode, watching her drive away with Jordan. Because it’s the safe choice, the controlled choice. In Star Trek: Generations, Tolian Soran will destroy an entire world just to escape back to the safe and controlled immortality of The Nexus. Both destroying the future to stay safe alone.
In BBC Radio 4 – Archive on 4 – Commuterville, Matthew Sweet reaches his conclusion about the endlessly repeated routine of our lives in very English school essay fashion, calling on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence. There is a definite comfort in routine, but also a kind of madness.
George Parker: “So what’s going to. happen now?”
Betty Parker: “I don’t know. Do you know what’s going to happen now?
George Parker: “No, I don’t.”
It’s easy to say we should embrace this uncertainty, that we should learn the lesson of 1993’s Groundhog Day and work on making ourselves better as we go through our routine days. But have empathy for those who are struggling to escape their life experiences and expectations.
It’s not supposed to be anything
There is supposed to be a kind of arc, a youthful embrace of change followed by an adult settling into a safe routine. But Pleasantville challenges this arc. While it certainly does celebrate youthful change, it makes it clear there is no winning, there is no right ending. There’s just uncertainty. Ready Player One is about what happens if you reject that uncertainty. This is playing out at a large scale across our society. People miss the factories… but you know, the factories were kind of terrible too. We can’t go back. It’s not coming back. All you really get to choose is whether you’re going to be James Halliday and Wade Watts, endlessly jumping through a portal into an unchanging past, or if you’re going to be David, finding that there is beauty in change after all.