– By J.W. Fox –
It is an old but true cliché: the book is always better than the movie. When I read Ready Play One, I knew it could make a great movie but Hollywood would never be able to make it. The licenses alone would keep it tied up, or force them to strip down the story. When it was announced that Steven Spielberg would direct the movie adaptation, there was hope that maybe a worthy film could be done. That hope was dashed. While Spielberg and others made a noble attempt, there is simply too much of the book that failed to make it to the big screen adaptation.
The book wasn’t a sci-fi phenomena because it had a healthy dose of 80s and 90s pop culture references. Those were wonderful but that alone did not make it great. It was Wade Watt (Parzival), Helen Harris (Aech), Samantha Cook (Art3mis), and the other gunters that made it great. Each character felt authentic and familiar. Anyone from that generation could relate to them and recognize the incredible appeal of the OASIS. It was based on a number of existing MMORPG games but had additional dimensions that may come to pass in the near future.
The great egg hunt made the novel great as well. The puzzles and challenges were so tantalizing, impossible for any obsessed fan or gamer to ignore. Throw in the massive monetary reward at the end and you’ve created the first true virtual drug addiction. People throwing their lives away in pursuit of the fortune. Even if there wasn’t a fortune, only the challenge to prove who was the best puzzle solver. What nerd could resist?
Some might mention the dystopian world as well but really it wasn’t all that unique. Also, Nolan Sorrento was a good antagonist but really there wasn’t anything particularly fantastic about him or his company. The typical evil mega-corporation trope, faithfully executed, but not really a standout.
So how did the movie fail?
Spielberg created a visually stunning OASIS, as expected, and great 80/90s pop culture references all the way through. Sadly, they were unable to build great characters or puzzles. Wade is a cardboard hero with little to no personality. Both his avatar and IRL form, played by Tye Sheridan, have very little of that obsessive gunter feel. When called upon to emote, neither is able to convincingly. Olivia Cooke did not perform much better as Art3mis. The best parts of the movie were when the characters met IRL, especially the meeting of Wade and Helen, played by Lena Waithe. Too bad those scenes were frustratingly short. Ben Mendelsohn played Nolan Sorrento and did a decent job as the stereotypical corporate executive villain, which sounded similar to his Crennic in Rogue One.
None of the performances were terrible, but none were all that compelling either.
Due to IP issues and obvious problems with the change in medium, the puzzles had to change. Some of the changes were clever, others not so much. A fair amount of the book references and game challenges are removed due to IP and time constraints. You can’t have your characters play Joust in a movie. That isn’t exactly going to make for great cinema. Spielberg and company tried their best but the new egg hunt is still inferior to the one in the novel.
At the same time, a scene-by-scene remake of the novel would have failed as well. As mentioned above, imagine watching avatars play Joust or Pac-Man, or reciting Monty Python’s the Holy Grail verbatim. You’d need cutaways or montages. It might have worked as a mini-series. HBO has experience in that format with John Adams and Band of Brothers. A science fiction mini-series would be a little different but still doable in my opinion. They would still need to overcome the same issues but would have more time and flexibility to do so. Two hours is simply not enough time for all the awesomeness of Ready Player One.
Is it a terrible movie? No, but will it disappoint fans of the book? Yeah, probably. For those who have not read the book, you will enjoy the movie plenty and it is definitely worth the money to see it in theaters. It just is not the same experience for those of us who read Ernest Cline’s amazing novel.
J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.