Adapting Ready Player One is an effort that few expected when the novel first gained attention as a brilliant adventure that managed to put the technology-obsessed under the microscope and wonderfully reminisce about the early days of world-building escapism. That’s partially true because much of it seemed impossible to film, but mostly true because so much of the novel is utterly impossible to film.
Despite the hurdles involved, having Steven Spielberg attached to any movie has to build confidence and knowing that the novel’s author (Ernest Cline) is involved in producing the screenplay doesn’t hurt either.
In this case, and it becomes both a positive and a negative, the adaptation addresses the problem of the unfilmable by eliminating it and changing much of the story to accomodate movie-standard norms.
While there is much to love about the novel, the driving forces behind its power are the examination of Wade Watts, the coming-of-age journey that he must largely push himself through, and the thoughtful reflection on why all those kids spent so much time with various roleplaying games.
For the uninitiated, Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives in a world that has been almost completely taken over by a virtual world known as The Oasis. The real world is drowning in poverty and overpopulation, but virtually everyone spends as much time as they can in The Oasis. As the film’s magically Spielbergian opening shows us, this isn’t the sort of virtual reality that’s just for gaming and nerds.
The impetus for drama and adventure comes by way of Oasis co-creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance), and his contest to find an Easter Egg that he has hidden in the game which will grant its finder control over The Oasis. It’s been a long time since the first clue was revealed, but no one has managed to get past the first trial, and while everyone would like a shot at it, people have mostly given up bothering to try. Well, apart from a few die-hards, known as Gunters, and the minions of the IOI corporation, who are desperate to take over The Oasis in order to have a stranglehold on the world’s economy.
The novel was considered so difficult to film, beyond the complexities of much of it taking place in a virtual world, because Wade spends so much time alone and/or doing things that would clearly be maddeningly boring to watch. The film counters by having Wade meet up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) long before he does in the book, and by changing things like a game of Dungeons & Dragons (film that) with a car race filled with crashes and all the adrenaline you could hope for.
A fair amount of the meat is still in there, though our villain, Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), twirls his mustache far more than is necessary, but the personality is largely gone. The societal themes are as intact as you could hope for, and we’re still left with a fun ride that is well worth the price of admission, but it’s an adaptation far removed from its source. Wade’s struggle was as internal as anything in the novel, and that’s what led to his becoming a champion to his fans both within the novel and without. It may be hard to deny the “movie serviceable” decisions that led to changes – in some of the challenges, Wade’s time spent alone, the loss of sponsorships, and Wade not being the one going inside IOI – but it takes a lot of the original point out of the mix.
Ready Player One remains a wild and interesting ride, but the adaptation has trouble slowing down and isn’t sure what to do when it is forced to. It becomes an cruel twist that the film finds itself so tied to the needs of industry norms that it can’t manage to deliver the heart of its own story. The last line of the novel finds Wade relishing in the shock at discovering that once he “won,” he found that for the first time in as long as he could remember, he had no interest in going to The Oasis. After following him on his complex, mammoth road to self-discovery, it’s a line that can crush you. The film doesn’t actually bother to give Wade a chance to develop, and the novel’s ending is translated into one line of narration among many in which Wade relates that The Oasis will be closed one day a week.