There is no denying that book to screen adaptations can be difficult. As a book reader you have to constantly resign yourself to accept changes and new interpretations that would undoubtedly divide opinion. Because reading a good book can be an emotionally invested experience. It pulls you into that universe, painting your thoughts with a visual imagination that you suddenly become immersed in that reality.
That’s what Ernest Cline’s best-selling book did in 2011. Ready Player One was a cornucopian treasure trove of personalised geek knowledge and heavy nostalgia. It wasn’t Shakespeare, it wasn’t Socrates and it certainly wasn’t Dickens. But similar to Stranger Things, Cline’s book tapped into a youthful endeavour, pop culture and advanced technology that most people could identify with. Readers were invited on the ultimate adventure quest that would engagingly test your knowledge and evolving skills in an imaginary world befitting of Willy Wonka. It’s one of the many reasons why I fell in love with it.
Cline’s book which essentially was a sentimental love letter to geekdom has now come full circle. The preciseness of his story attracted the very director who was influentially responsible for so many of those nostalgic and youthful memories – Steven Spielberg. There are obvious limitations regarding licensing and content rights but as a cinematic experience, Ready Player One was a curiosity rather than a hyped-up anticipation. Could you adapt something that most people could easily coin as “unfilmable?”
The more I wrestle with Ready Player One as a film concept, the more it should have been a mini-series instead.
“People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.” – Parzival
Ready Player One became Spielberg’s vision of the book rather than a direct adaptation. While the source material was never perfect to begin with, the trade-off is that you are presented with quintessential Spielberg.
There were moments during the film where Spielberg elevates the concepts of the book to a higher, spiritual level. You don’t have to look too far in his filmography to see Spielberg’s conversation with technology. A.I. Artificial Intelligence was Pinocchio in technological form with a young android’s heartfelt desire to feel connected and real. Minority Report examined the intrusiveness of technology in our personal lives from the essence of pre-crime (committing a crime before it happens) to basic and personalised advertisement. Therefore, Ready Player One operates as an amalgamated thought piece on our transcendent abilities to disappear to another reality, also known as the OASIS.
E-Sports, PlayStation VR, console gaming, the internet, smartphones, social media, drones, augmented realities and even the defunct Google Glass are typical examples of how technology has come a long way in such a short space of time. It’s a seamless integration built and designed to enrich our lives for simplicity and efficiency. Because of its liberating empowerment, its an addictive consumption that the very persuasion of an OASIS is not a far-fetched idea. Ready Player One is very much a conversation of the here and now and Spielberg visually tracks that dialogue within the opening moments of the film. The cascading trip down the stacks following our protagonist Wade Watts / Parzival (Tye Sheridan) illustrates the distracting power of the OASIS and its evolved seduction. Similar to the concepts of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, the idea of the OASIS where you can live out an alternate, double life as an avatar has become a reality. It is a detaching escapism because the real world simply doesn’t exist.
That’s pretty much a seminal part of the book where Spielberg heavily elaborates on. Halliday (Mark Rylance) evolves beyond the Willy Wonka ideals, pass the Steve Jobs persona to Ogden Morrow’s (Simon Pegg) Steve Wozniak to almost a God-like suggestion. The film becomes less about the other aspects of the OASIS such as schooling and more of the gaming conventions, the quest and the ultimate preservation of the OASIS out of the corporate hands of IOI.
This is as straight-forward and concise of a story you could get out of a narrative that doesn’t have a natural ebb and flow but arguably mimics actual gaming life…it stops and starts. The film is radically different from the book but as in one very clever scene involving one famous film (which I won’t spoil), the very inclusion of it becomes a paralleled social commentary about adaptations and the essence of nostalgia and the past. It revels in a visual pompousness that is both beautifully kinetic and stimulating. But what it does reinforce (which is identical to the themes of the book), is that it places the responsibility of the future in the hands of the children. Like a great line from a Whitney Houston song, that’s one of the strongest aspects to take away.
But as much as Spielberg builds on the spectacle and the larger themes at hand, Ready Player One gains so much but it ends up sacrificing other elements that made it what it was.
“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.” – Parzival
It’s somewhat sacrilegious to talk about characterisation in a Spielberg film.
It’s the last thing you expect to take for granted because for an influential director, a lot of the emotional connections in his films are personal. Take Close Encounters of the Third Kind for example. The slow descending break-up of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family mirrors the break-up of Spielberg’s real-life parents. In his own words from Susan Lacy’s fascinating documentary, filmmaking became a cathartic experience, his way of dealing with the distant and isolated emotions he was unable to express. It’s that kind of factoid personalisation that makes his films what they are that you can’t help but re-watch and re-examine. As film became that vessel reflecting the important moments in his life, it always draws to the same conclusion. We sympathise and we empathise knowing how powerful those emotions can be. Because Spielberg makes you care.
Yet the characters within Ready Player One are severely neglected. Because for a story that deals with a disconnection with reality, somehow the characters become disconnected from the audience.
Through the simplification and streamlined plot, you lose a lot of the depth. Moments happen as a matter of rushed convenience instead of a prolonged development. The Easter Egg quest for Halliday’s prize doesn’t get enough thoroughness that the audience can mentally participate along (imagine watching The Goonies and it cuts straight to the big reveal). But it doesn’t explore why the characters of Parzival, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) would participate in the OASIS. Because it’s much more than just the quest.
Some would argue friendship and camaraderie but it ultimately neglects a real life social context. MTV’s Catfish displays this notion best. Not every incident is the same (because there are some horrible people with shameful acts of behaviour) but behind every manipulative story about the catfish, there is always a tale about being online as a tool of escape. It could be an escape from being bullied, a traumatic relationship and break-up, physical or mental insecurities or the person unable to deal with past and painful struggles because they were hurt once before. Of course, it doesn’t excuse their lying, deceptive and trolling behaviours but it goes some way in understanding them as a person. Ready Player One struggles to handle that concept. The idea of pretending or hiding online to appear “normal” or “accepted” doesn’t stretch far enough or it’s brushed aside, particularly Aech and Art3mis whose stories have a direct and emotional impact on using the OASIS. Wade’s story is explored but it’s a truncated exploration. The quest and their in-depth study of pop culture references is an incentive that gives them a specialised focus and direction. But for something that is set in a distant, dystopian future and the very concept of a dystopia is viewed as a mirrored reflection of our society, its omission is a grave missed opportunity. By removing or simplifying the mysterious complexity behind these characters, the less engaging they become.
This aspect coincides with the film’s lack of emotional consequences. Ready Player One lacks a game changing moment, one that puts a perspective on saving the integrity of the OASIS. Otherwise as it stands, IOI lead by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) come across as a typically generic and bland evil corporation with an army of researchers, gamers (sixers) and money. The essence of their characterisation is there, stopping at nothing to win the game but as a threat, they don’t provide enough of a perilous challenge for the main characters or other gunters within the OASIS. By the time a dangerous threat is established, it happens during a third act where it becomes anti-climactic and loses momentum.
My attachment to the book is obvious and nostalgia can be a procrastinating liberator and destroyer. However, this is not as simple as “the book is better than the film”. In a rare occasion that absolutely rings true for Ready Player One. For all its faults or lack of depth, it at least carried a perceived subtlety that the film exploits in a blunt like fashion. Films (if done well enough) can transcend those arguments. For example, The Bourne Trilogy (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum) redefined the essence of being a modern-day spy fighting in a shadowy world of lies, deceit and political changes. The Martian may have lost the comedic beats from the book but still had the gripping human drama to pull you through. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was an emotional epic tale of good vs. evil that believed in courage and that the smallest of actions can change the course of a world slowly descending into darkness. Even the very film that Ready Player One paid homage to is regarded as an icon of cinema despite the novelist hating the adaptation.
But as a film standing on its own feet, Ready Player One falls short of that concept. It tries to make a statement about the world but doesn’t reinforce it enough with its characters. For all the pop culture and nostalgic references, Ready Player One feels shallow and underdeveloped in places where the book at least gave a developmental arc. It approaches it far too simple, clean and straightforward that it loses the societal complexities, motivational decisions and threat that characters experience. Not everything needs to be highbrow. You can switch your mind off and enjoy the thrill ride. But if you came away thinking that Ready Player One barely scratched the surface, then you’re not alone. As an experience, it left me disappointed and unfulfilled rather than celebratory.
It may have been compared to Stranger Things but a TV concept would have felt rewarding with more time to build-up a suffice resolution, high technological concepts and characterisation instead of the rushed, truncated and condensed storyline that doesn’t do the story any justice or favours.
Ready Player One won’t be remembered as Spielberg’s worst film but it’s not his best either. It’s a purgatory state of a film that understands the appeal of the book but fails to convey those aspects in a satisfactory manner.