In one of my first ever Book 2 Screen reviews, I looked at the adaptation of a 70’s young adult novel called Z for Zacharia. Though this movie was inspired by the novel that came before it, the direction of it’s story was completely different. Since then, I’ve compared many novels and film adaptations that took artistic liberties or focused on different themes, but none that felt so completely removed from the source material. This opinion still stands – but if I had to say, Ready Player One would be number two on that list.
Published in 2011, Ready Player One is a science fiction novel, by author Ernest Cline. Set in a dystopian 2040s where lack of resources and environmental issues have contributed to much of the world retreating into a simulated virtual reality called the Oasis, the book follows a teenage boy named Wade Watts on his quest to find Oasis creator, James Halliday’s, “Easter Egg” – the discovery of which will lead it’s finder to inherit Halliday’s massive fortune.
With it’s action/adventure story and copious references to 80’s nostalgia, Cline’s novel gained a lot of attention very quickly. A year before it was even published, Cline sold the publishing rights to Random House, and auctioned off the film rights to Warner Bros. and De Line Pictures. But his involvement didn’t end there. Cline also wrote the original screenplay, which was then re-written by Eric Eason, then re-written again by Zak Penn.
Seven years later, the film adaptation of Ready Player One was released in theaters. Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One was met with marginal box office success and generally favorable reviews. A visual spectacle that harkens back to many of Spielberg’s early fantasy work, many reviewers praised the movie. Some even claimed it was an improvement over the source material. However, many fans of the novel criticized the the movie for changing too much.
Of course, this is nothing new. When adapting a book to a visual medium, things must be changed to conform to time and ability, scenes must be cut or rearranged. Fans will always bemoan the choices directors and studios make when adapting a property they love. However, what struck me most about this adaptation was not those alterations. Rather, it was as though the “soul” of the story was dramatically different. While the Ready Player One novel is a love letter to the most obscure of gamer culture and the 80’s kids that played them, the feature film is a wink and nod to mainstream pop culture through the decades with a style reminiscent of an 80’s adventure flick.
To put it another way, if the novel is a story that references an 80’s movie, the feature film is a story that tries to be an 80’s movie.
Ready Player One (Novel)
As a child of the 90’s who didn’t grow up playing 80’s video games, reading Tolkein, spending all my quarters at the arcade, or watching John Hughes movies – I came in to this story a bit blind. For sure, with the surge of 80’s nostalgia, I am familiar with some of the more popular aspects of 80’s pop culture, but that is about it. So when reading this novel, I typically had only a vague understanding of what they were referring to .
For this reason, after I read the novel (and watched the film), I looked online to see what people thought about the book. For the most part, people enjoyed the book for it’s nostalgic value, and it’s willingness to have true geeks be it’s main focus, rather than pretty people with headsets on. The story follows a standard adventurer’s quest format, that one would see in any action/adventure story – just with 80’s references.
However, those that did have criticism of the novel tended to have the same two general gripes. One was that the characters were flat and/or insufferable. The other, was that it was exhausting to read. Specifically, that the narrator spends too much time explaining the history of and describing all of the 80’s stuff. Every. Last. Detail. I would have to agree with those points to a degree. While reading the novel, I found the characters a little generic and more than a touch grating to my nerves – full of the conceit that you run across when dealing with fanboys of anything these days. Don’t understand the reference? You’re an unworthy loser. Never played a video game on a console older than the PS2? You’re not a real gamer. Don’t know how to troubleshoot your computer? Are you even intelligent enough to breath, you newb!
I can understand how anyone reading this might get rubbed the wrong way. But, I also understand how many people can read this story and see themselves. The characters in this story are not just casual Oasis users. They are, all of them, obsessed fanboys. And the Ready Player One novel reads in a way that holds true to it’s main character. By that, I mean that it sounds like a teenage boy with an obsession is speaking directly to you.
Take this bit of text from the novel:
For the most part, the novel reads much like this, whether Wade is describing the origins of his Avatar name, his logic behind finding the copper key, or when describing the final battle between the “Gunters” and IOI.
There are also moments in the novel, where Wade pines over his fellow Gunter, Art3mis. Realizing that she is spending too much time hanging out with Wade, Art3mis decides to cut him off so she can focus on the hunt. Wade, having fallen hopelessly “in love” with her, tries desperately to get in contact with her, even resorting to standing outside her fortress with a boombox a la Say Anything. He pines like this for some time until he is blind-sighted by Art3mis finding the Jade key first. It’s only then that he realizes that she may have been right to cut him off, and gets his head back in the game.
To critics of the novel, Cline’s verbose and self congratulating tone when flexing his 80’s knowledge, his not so healthy means of attempting “romance”, his propensity to describe each reference to the last detail, and yet his generally vague and somewhat stereotypical way of developing with his secondary characters (the soulless corporate conglomerate, the “not your average” gamer girl love interest, the tagalong best friend, the noble samurais, etc) is indicative of a failure on the author’s part. A shameless pandering to 80’s kids like himself. I would say, that is exactly the point.
This novels commercial and critical success is due to the the honesty in the protagonist’s voice. Although, rolled my eyes a lot while reading this story – I never once thought, “this seems dishonest”. The narrative voice of Wade Watts rings true from beginning to end. And you either like people like Wade Watts and see a lot of yourself in him, or you don’t.
Ready Player One (Film)
The film, however, is another beast entirely.
While the novel appeals to a certain niche, the film caters to a larger, more diverse audience – and while it frees itself from the burden of weighty explanations of what each reference is (since it’s a visual medium and can simply show them in quick succession) it’s burdened by something the novel is not. Copyright. Many major plot points needed to be scrapped due to the filmmakers not being able to get the rights to use them. Others were too obscure for most audience members to get. Yet it is the choices they made, not the decision to change things, that makes this film feel so different.
For starters, although Ready Player One, the novel, deals with a contest that hinges on the players understanding of 80’s gaming and pop culture – the story itself is very modern and goes to some pretty dark places. Indentured servitude, societal apathy, even one of the “High Five” being murdered. Yet, in Ready Player One, the film, the sense of gloom is tempered with a lot of humor. The “High Five” are all friends even before Wade figures out how to get the copper key and are open to working together. None of them are killed. The idea of indentured servitude is downplayed dramatically. The corporate villains are pretty much cartoon characters. And Art3mis is part of a rebel group, determined to make the world a better place. The sense of dystopia and escapism is muted for a more family friendly story that feels like The Goonies with VR Sets.
The film also dramatically differs in it’s core message. In the film, the key to getting through Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt required an almost fanatic level of understanding of the 80’s movies and games Halliday loved as a kid. However, the film’s clues all dealt with moments from Halliday’s personal life. His love, his regrets, etc. In this way, the movie humanizes Halliday in a way the book doesn’t, and tells a story about the importance of human connection and real life experiences – far more so than the book does.
The end result is a film that seems to want to accomplish something very different than it’s source material. The Ready Player One film is a feel good story, despite it’s dystopian backdrop. The characters are attractive, likable, (if not still a little shallow) and the visuals are seriously impressive. The action is physical and fast paced. The villains are fun almost to the point of being buffoonish. This is a story meant for families. The novel is not.
I am not in the business of saying which story – the book or the movie – is the better story. However, I would say that although I enjoyed the movie more, the novel left more of an impression. Each medium had it’s own purpose and were more or less successful. But who they were tipping their hat to, couldn’t have been more different.