Last week I sat down in my living room to watch Ready Player One. Twenty minutes in I was ready to throw in the towel, but decided to stick out the entire two hour running time in the hopes that things might improve. Things did not improve.
As soon as the credits rolled, I picked up my copy of Ernest Cline’s novel and began to read it for the third time in the hopes of scrubbing the events of the evening out of my mind. I began taking notes as I read, trying to pinpoint the exact reasons why I found myself so enraged by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book. In no specific order, here are my thoughts on Ready Player One the film vs the novel. Spoilers abound.
- Prior to watching, I had been told by several people that the movie was relatively enjoyable as long as you didn’t expect it to follow the book too closely. I took that to mean that there would be minor plot points that varied from the books in order to make the film flow a bit smoother. For example, in the Harry Potter films, I understood why they chose to omit the character of Peeves and most of the Quidditch games; if they didn’t every movie would be a long rambling mess. However, Spielberg seems to have taken the original source material for Cline’s novel, ripped out approximately thirty pages of it and used that to build his narrative. The heart of Ready Player One was completely lost in translation.
- Instead of a series of puzzles that require the characters to rely on their intelligence and problem-solving skills, we are instead treated to a MarioKart style opening wherein the “gunters” have to dodge giant dinosaurs and King Kong in order to make it through the first gate. The search for the Copper Key is where things began to go horribly wrong. It leaves out the equal playing field that James Halliday set up for all the users of OASIS. He placed the Copper Key on a planet where a) everyone had free and unlimited access to travel and b) there was no violence allowed. This essentially meant that no matter how strong and high-ranking your avatar was, the only thing that would allow you to reach the first key was your wit and your obsessive knowledge of obscure pop culture. In the film, it’s just another mindless car chase.
- Speaking of obscure pop culture, let’s talk about that. Ernest Cline’s novel delved so deeply into the realm of 1980’s music, television, film, and video games that one would need a submersible to follow after him. While reading the book, I found myself having to Google Japanese anime from the 1970’s. I had to familiarize myself with the fundamentals of text-based video games. When Wade or one of his fellow gunters finally solved one of the riddles, it was genuinely impressive, because who the has the energy to devote their time and energy so completely to learning about this stuff? How many people can read a limerick and understand that it is referencing the limited edition cover of a thirty year old video game? In the novel, the difficulties that Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech face are actually difficult. When watching the film, all I saw was the growing trend of referencing things in a nostalgic way so that viewers will feel smart when they understand the references. Literally everyone watching this films knows the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park. Or the Iron Giant. Or a DeLorean. There’s no challenge there. Spielberg dumbed down the pop culture references to the point where my six year old nephew could have found Halliday’s egg. It seems like he was so afraid of alienating any part of his audience, perhaps specifically the overseas audience, that he was unwilling to take even the smallest risk. Instead he chose to pander to the lowest common denominator.
- Let’s keep talking about pop culture. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a certain kind of individual to commit themselves so entirely towards one goal. In the novel, Parzival notes that he has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail something like 178 times. He’s beaten every classic video game. He’s watched every episode of every season of every series that was even remotely popular in the 1980’s. Multiple times. Who does that? Answer – a person who has become mentally unhinged. What Ready Player One fails to truly depict is that the people searching for Halliday’s Egg are deeply unhealthy individuals. Outside of the OASIS, where your avatar can be as handsome, fit, and powerful as the you wish, the actual people are described as overweight, sallow, and anti-social. Ernest Cline’s novel can be seen as a cautionary tale against people living their entire lives in a virtual reality. The film does attempt to address this by having the main characters interact in the real world far sooner than in the book, but at the end of the day this is still Hollywood. Wade isn’t exactly a fashion model, but he’s reasonably healthy and good-looking, and does not seem to be crippled by the type of shyness that exists when you never interact with a person in a real environment. Same goes for the other characters. For a group of people who live their entire lives in isolation, they’re remarkably well-rounded.
- My biggest problem with Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One is that the stakes just don’t seem that high. Parzival and his fellow gunters are searching for the egg so they can get rich. There’s also the situation with the “Sixers” who are trying to find the egg so that they can use the OASIS to make a lot of money by selling advertising space and charging fees for users. This is all very sad and capitalistic and greedy. But also, so what? It would be like if everyone who was currently online went to digital war over net neutrality. If we won, awesome. But if we lost, it’s shitty but it’s not the end of the world. The film fails to convey the novel’s premise that the global society we now know and enjoy has fallen apart. Global warming is causing widespread famine. The rural parts of America are lawless Mad Max style wastelands. People are being sold into indentured servitude for failing to pay their bills. And in the midst of all this poverty, hunger, and destitution is an escape from reality in the land of the OASIS. Not only that, but it offers free school for the entire nation. Let me repeat that. It offers free school for the entire nation. So in Cline’s novel when Parzival and the others explain that if the Sixers get the egg it will have a drastic and negative impact on society as a whole, we as readers understand the stakes. In the film it comes across more like a millennial wet dream of sticking it to the man. To be fair, Spielberg includes the scene where Sorrento and his cronies blow up Wade’s housing unit and kill hundreds of people. But the scene has absolutely zero emotional weight because not five minutes later we are introduced to Samantha and the resistance and no one stops for even a moment to grieve for the lives lost. The romantic subplot of the novel becomes the driving force of the film. Other significant deaths from the book are omitted entirely, which only underlines the fact that Spielberg was willing to take absolutely no risks with his nice, safe, family-friendly motion picture. The final battle has all the urgency and intensity of a boss-fight in a video game. It’s frustrating if you lose, but it’s not the end of the world.
- I’ve ragged a lot on the film, so I need to take just a second to talk about the few aspects that didn’t piss me off. The scene that took place in The Shining was visually amazing. Implausible, since Aech would most definitely have been aware of the the film’s plot-line, but it looked really cool. Crap, turns out I can’t even give a compliment without unintentionally back-handing it. The movie looked very…pretty? Okay I give up.
A friend recommended Ready Player One to me a few years ago, and I became an overnight fan. The book is fun, inventive, smart, and exciting. When I heard that the film was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, I immediately felt uneasy. To be honest, I haven’t trusted Spielberg or his artistic vision since he Crystal Skull-fucked the Indiana Jones series. So there was definitely an element of bias when I sat down to watch Ready Player One last week. At the same time, I did try to give it a fair shot. In the end, I was remarkably disappointed. I do not think I will be re-watching that film any time soon. And to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I cannot recommend the novel highly enough.