Easter weekend is here, and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the movie adaptation of a book about a multi-billion dollar Easter Egg hunt has just hit the big screen. That’s where I saw Steven Spielberg’s take on Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One last night, on a full-sized museum IMAX theater in 3D—and saw it again tonight, on a smaller, 2D screen, thanks to MoviePass. Suffice it to say, I liked the movie.
I’ve been interested to note, in the last few weeks, that Amazon has been applying the traditional marketing treatment of movie tie-in/adapted novels to ebooks. It’s common for those books to make prominent appearances in bookstores, for the sake of turning faced-out book displays into tableaus of mini-movie posters. Now, in similar vein, I’ve seen the book cover for the tie-in ebook edition of Ready Player One pop up on the lockscreens of both of my Kindles-with-Special-Offers, even though Amazon should know full well I already own the ebook—I bought it from them.
But in this case, they were not really selling the book—they were reminding me that the movie existed. (As, presumably, the movie studio and/or publisher paid them to do.) And I’m not going to say those reminders didn’t work.
So how does the movie adaptation stack up to the book, which I also liked? Let’s compare them. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers for the movie, and for the book as much as I can. There may still be a few, though.
Harsher in Hindsight
There are a series of “Now It Sucks” TVTropes: “It’s Popular, Now It Sucks,” “They Changed It, Now It Sucks,” and “It’s The Same, Now It Sucks.” But none of them quite reflects the sudden and surprising hatedom that grew up around the book Ready Player One after it was exceedingly popular and much-loved in 2011, its year of release. Even “It’s The Same” is talking about a remake being too close to the original—not the original itself going from much-loved to much-reviled over the course of just a few years.
I wrote a blog post wondering at this change, and I came soooo close to figuring out why, but I didn’t quite get it, until this recent Vox article linked my post as part of its own discussion of the matter. That was when the light bulb went on over my head. The answer is, of course, GamerGate.
A couple of years after Ready Player One came out, GamerGate abruptly came out of nowhere when a jilted boyfriend took to the Internet to try to hurt his ex-girlfriend—and somehow crystallized a lot of free-floating men’s-rights/alt-right butthurt into a movement that caused a lot of trouble and got a lot of press during the first year or so. You could hardly turn around without seeing self-identified gamer geeks doxxing, SWATting, abusing, and generally acting like assholes toward the objects of their disaffection—especially women who had the temerity to try to get involved in gaming. (I know of a female lead developer of a fairly well-known computer game project who to this day uses a unisex shortening of her first name and passes as male in media coverage of her game because she just doesn’t want to attract any extra drama of that sort.)
With that sort of poison in the air, it’s not hard to see how a largely innocent if shallow book glorifying a male gamer geek suddenly took on aspects of something sinister. People who might previously have shrugged and said, “It’s not for me, but where’s the harm?” instead started seeing harm in anything that might glorify the sort of toxic geekdom that had gloried in making life hard for its adversaries—especially women.
Happily, all that hate doesn’t seem to have affected the reviews for the movie adaptation, which was at one time in the mid 80s but still holds a quite respectable 76% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. And there are a number of good reasons for that.
Some people who enjoyed the book may have trouble adapting to this adaptation. Much like The Martian, A Wrinkle in Time, or Annihilation, the movie captures the spirit of the book by discarding much of its content. (And, ironically, there’s a plot point in this movie that hinges upon how much a certain other movie changed the story of a popular book it adapted.) If you get too hung up on wanting everything (or even just your favorite things) from the book to appear in the movie, this may not work for you. But it worked for me.
I suppose it helps that I’m a fan of Star Trek, Robotech, and comic books, all of which have histories of multiple incompatible continuities, featuring different versions of the same characters and events. If I look at the Ready Player One book and movie as another example of that, and don’t get hung up on expecting the exact version of events from the book to appear on the screen, I don’t have such a hard time enjoying both versions.
The biggest changes have to do with replacing stuff that read well in the book with stuff that plays out well on screen. Watching two characters play an arcade game against each other would be a lot less exciting than watching vehicles of all descriptions race through an obstacle-and-monster-laden version of New York City. So those and other incidents are changed to things that work better visually. Halliday’s journals are no longer text files; they’re panopticon-recorded lifeblogs. And so on.
Also, some characters are significantly altered from their descriptions in the book—Aech’s and Art3mis’s OASIS avatars (among others) are both different from the way the book described them; Ogden Morrow no longer has whiskers, and so forth. A couple of characters are so different from the book versions that the only similarities are their names.
Another noteworthy change is that more of the movie takes place outside of the OASIS, and we get a lot more time with the bad guys than in the first-person novel where we only see them when Parzival encounters them directly. The characters get together in real life a lot earlier than in the book, which gives them more time together in the real world.
The reasoning behind some of these changes is fairly obvious. For example, the book describes the OASIS as seeming just like real life, but the movie glories in the uncanny valley and uses that to emphasize the magical nature of the OASIS. (Except for one scene in which it subverts that emphasis to great effect.) Other changes may be less obvious reasons having to do with pacing and story structure, or not being able to license particular properties that were mentioned in the book.
The remarkable thing is just how true the movie is to the spirit of the book overall while still making these changes. The broad strokes of events still happen. Wade still gets a special quarter that provides a specific advantage at the story’s end. There’s still a giant robot battle, and the Orb of Osuvox and the Cataclyst are still there in somewhat altered form. That’s thanks in part to Ernest Cline and his script co-writer, Zack Penn—but credit should also go to Steven Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg is the closest thing to a latter-day alchemist, or perhaps Rumplestiltskin. Time and again, he’s shown the ability to spin straw (or other substances that start with “s”) into cinematic gold. And that’s just what’s happened here.
Much as I liked the book, the movie harbors the distinction of being one few cinematic adaptations that may actually be better than the source material. A number of the elements that the novel’s critics explicitly decried as problematic were transmuted or eliminated in the movie. The plot was rewritten in ways that managed to capture the essence of the story while considerably improving it. It’s like the difference between a first draft and a final novel after it’s been edited and workshopped to a fare-thee-well.
Because, I have to be honest—there are some problematic elements in the book. As much as I still like the book, I do have to admit its detractors have some valid points—especially after seeing how Spielberg’s version of the story differs from the book’s.
Some of the book’s problems may be exaggerated by critics reading in the worst possible interpretations, and others might be due to Cline failing to see unfortunate implications in something he thought was innocent—I do still like the book, so I’ll give Cline the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, now that I’ve seen how the movie changes things, some parts of the book make me cringe a little.
To start with, Ernest Cline’s literary Wade “Parzival” Watts is very much a “Marty Stu“—that is, he’s written as a wish-fulfillment avatar for his author. That’s not just to say that he’s overwhelmingly competent, but also that he racks up pretty much every major accomplishment in the book. He is first to complete every challenge that really matters (Artemis and Aech do get the second key before he does), he comes up with the solutions to nearly every major problem, and he goes toe-to-toe with the bad guys in giant robot combat.
To a certain extent, this is an artifact of the way the book is written in first person—Cline can’t depict anything Wade doesn’t experience directly. Nonetheless, it does leave the other four members of the “High Five” without a whole lot to do except to hang around Wade and make him look good.
We’re told that the book’s version of Art3mis is awesome enough that Parzival had a cyber-crush on her before he ever actually met her—but in the book she’s very much second fiddle to Parzival. She did find the first puzzle weeks before Wade did—but was never able to beat it until Wade came along and beat it on his first try. This reads like an attempt to make Art3mis look like a powerful and competent character, without actually having her accomplish anything meaningful. (She does get the second key before everyone else, but this doesn’t really affect the other characters, and we don’t get to see her do it. She also solves an important problem or two later in the book, but by then it seems like too little, too late.)
(And combined with the way the ending plays out, this leads critics to charge the book treats her like “a prize to be won” or a “trophy love interest” rather than a well-rounded character. I’m not sure Cline meant to make it look that way, but unfortunately he did.)
None of the other characters have a lot to do either. A couple of them do step in when one of the challenges requires the presence of three separate warm bodies to pass. Another book character’s most important accomplishment is dying, just to show how evil IOI is.
The movie manages to avoid these issues by splitting up some of Wade’s accomplishments from the book among the other characters. It has more freedom to do this because it’s not a first-person narrative; it can cut from place to place to follow characters who are nowhere near Wade at the time. And nearly every character has the chance to do something significant and meaningful to the plot.
This makes the characters come off as much better rounded. You can actually believe they are a team, with their own individual talents to contribute, rather than one uber-competent hero and four other people who’re just there to make the hero look good.
One of the “Marty Stu” criticisms of the book that I consider less fair is the contention that Wade Watts couldn’t possibly have had time to study the vast amount of ’80s pop culture that he had. If someone is that deeply focused on studying something, they’ll make the time to absorb it—especially if there’s not much else in their life that’s worth doing.
I have a friend who has Aspergers and is monofocused on motor vehicles; show him a photo of any car and he can tell you make, model, year, and trivia about it. I couldn’t imagine taking the time to learn all that, but he has. It seems likely that it’s the same with Wade Watts and 20th century pop culture. A few hundred billion dollars is a lot of incentive.
Of course, the movie doesn’t have the long, easily-mocked textual passages wherein Watts lists in exorbitant detail exactly how much stuff he had studied, but he does seem to know his stuff whenever a question comes up.
Here’s another place where the movie surpasses the book. Some of the ways Wade acts toward his friends can come off as a little patronizing or even creepy. But I don’t think Cline meant them to seem that way. Sensitive subjects like race and gender can be really hard to write about without leaving yourself open to misinterpretation—especially if you may have a few unconscious prejudices yourself.
For example, there’s the way Wade reacts when finding one of his friends is a completely different race and the opposite sex in real life than the character that friend plays in the OASIS. He’s shocked at first, then decides it doesn’t matter and continues to treat his friend the same way he always had, including continuing to gender his friend’s character the same way in the game. I think Cline wants to show that Wade is trying to overcome some prejudices he hadn’t even realized that he had. But the book’s critics might say he’s trivializing his friend’s identity, or that even having those prejudices to begin with makes Wade a bad person.
It also doesn’t help that, as a character, Wade is a little shallow, boorish, and even sexist sometimes, and his narration can occasionally overshare aspects of these flaws that make him look even worse. At one point, after Art3mis breaks up with him for coming on too strong, he goes a little crazy trying to get her to see him again. I think that the things he does are meant to be endearing, but in another light they come off as kind of creepy stalkerish—which is another hot button in light of the atrocious way GamerGaters acted toward women. (And, to be honest, some of Cline’s earlier poetry suggests he may have a few creepy sexist tendencies himself. These could have colored his writing without his conscious intent.)
But in the book’s defense, growing out of these behaviors—and putting himself at great physical risk for the sake of helping his friends—is an important part of Wade’s character development. And in order to grow and develop by overcoming negative traits, characters have to have those negative traits to begin with.
This is another area where Spielberg’s movie adaptation improves on the book. Getting rid of that part of Wade’s narration means he doesn’t end up oversharing, and the way some of these things are staged changes the emphasis. Dialogue and actions that seem trite on the printed page work better on the screen, because the actors’ and director’s talent make them feel more real. (Also, the movie heavily revises or entirely drops some of the book’s more problematic elements and subplots.)
Another problem with the book is the way that the characters Daito and Shoto are largely treated as stock Japanese samurai stereotypes. I don’t think Cline meant this in any negative way—he just thought samurai are cool, and certainly there are enough great works of pop culture glorifying samurai that it’s hard to blame him for that. The problem is that the characters simply don’t get sufficient time in the spotlight to become anything more than cardboard cut-outs—and depicting people of other ethnicities as cardboard cut-outs is not the best idea in the current climate.
Unfortunately, Spielberg’s movie doesn’t have enough time to make those two much better-rounded characters, though it does give them some extra accomplishments and puts an interesting twist on Shoto’s character that wasn’t there in the book. But the movie definitely gets credit for casting them with Asian actors (even if it changed Shoto’s nationality from Japanese to Chinese) instead of whitewashing them the way Ghost in the Shell did.
All this isn’t to say that the movie’s perfect. It does have a few flaws, such as the treatment of Daito and Shoto that I just mentioned.
The biggest issue I had was that there are some times when the screen is simply so busy that it’s hard to process everything due to information overload. And there are so many references and Easter Eggs that if you spend all your time looking for them you’ll miss what’s going on in the film itself. (Though it’ll make a great freeze-frame activity when it’s out on video.)
But all that said, this movie is a great experience, and it’s full of eye candy. See it in 3D, and on the biggest screen you possibly can. A full-sized museum IMAX is just about right. And I suspect this movie will make a great demonstrator for 4K home theater equipment once it hits disc.
I would recommend, though, that if you haven’t read the book yet and think you might want to, you might want to go ahead and do that before you see the movie. In most cases, reading the book first will kill a little of the joy of the movie. But in this case, since the movie changed so much from the book, and I think the movie tells a better story anyway, it’s possible that watching the movie first might make the book that much harder to stomach. On the other hand, if you find you can’t stomach the book regardless, you might find the movie more enjoyable.
Hard to stomach or not, though, there are passages in the book that I still enjoy. There’s a lot of great world-building that had to be simplified or dropped for everything to fit into the movie. And, of course, there are plenty of cool pop-culture references that couldn’t make it into the movie because thy didn’t have time or couldn’t get the rights.
In any case, the book is never going to be War and Peace. But then, it puts me in mind of a Lex Luthor quote that shows up in the movie: “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”
The book Ready Player One might just be a chewing gum wrapper—but if you can get past its flaws, at least it’s a fun chewing gum wrapper.