Lincoln In the Bardo is a companion piece to the acclaimed debut novel of the same name by author George Saunders. The book is a work of historical fiction, that tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and of his reaction to the tragic death of his 11-year-old son Willie, from what was likely typhoid fever, on February 20, 1862.
Jefferson Davis had just been inaugurated as the provisional president of the Confederacy and the Civil War was in full flow. Lincoln’s burdens were already considerable. Both Willie and his brother Tad had been critically ill for weeks. Tad later recovered, but Willie did not. His death was described by Lincoln’s wife Mary, as “our crushing bereavement” and had a profound effect on Lincoln, haunting him, throughout his remaining years.
The boy was laid to rest in a secluded marble vault in the rural gardens of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Author and Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson wrote, that throughout the war “his ever-mourning father returned to visit him, to remember, and to weep.” It is one of these visits, that is the focus of this adaptation.
It begins with Willie, running ghostly from his tomb, crying out for his missing father. The viewer stands witness, as a chorus of the spectral dead appears declaring details from their lives and untimely deaths.
A Civil War soldier clutches his dismembered hand. An older man laments his unconsummated marriage to his much-loved younger bride. A regretful gay suicide speaks of his abandonment by his lover and longs for a reunion. A mother describes her inability to let go of her fears for the future of her three daughters.
Together, their voices paint a picture of the greater community and of the lives and losses of the Civil War era. Their ghostly figures contrasting against muted colors of the cemetery night. These sights and sounds combine with Saunder’s compelling prose to create a deeply affecting experience.
It is the arrival of Lincoln that galvanizes the piece. He strides purposefully into the tomb and emerges, cradling his son’s lifeless form. He sits communing with the body of his beloved boy in the unseen company of the dead and speaks tenderly of his loss. It is a powerful scene that provides an emotional heart to this brilliantly written piece of VR cinema.
Lincoln is a symbol, both personal and political. A grieving father and the Commander-in-Chief of a nation beset by burdens. It is a kind of super-enhanced theatrical experience and is incredibly compelling viewing. It makes you want to reach out and touch the source material more deeply.
Lincoln in the Bardo VR, shows how quickly VR cinema is growing. It hints at the potential the medium has and points to a future where its constraints and limitations may fade away. It is too short to be considered a standalone work and functions better when viewed as an appetiser for its much richer sibling. But it is an enticing taste and a pointer to what this fledgling medium is capable of. It should be seen by anyone interested in the potential of immersive cinematic art.
Lincoln in the Bardo VR is available for free through the New York Times VR app, on the IOS App Store and on Google Play for Cardboard, and Daydream. The original novel can be found on Amazon. You can also watch a 360 video version here.