Can a movie adaptation be better than the book? In the case of Ernest Cline’s 2011 tale ‘Ready Player One,’ that argument can be made

December 28, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 28, 2018

This spring, when I watched Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, I had yet to read the 2011 debut novel by Ernest Cline on which the movie was based. I recently did so, and I’m here to tell you that the book is… OK.

I can see why Spielberg would have wanted to adapt the tale for the big screen. The man at the center of Ready Player One, the late computer programmer James Halliday, harbored “an extreme fixation on the 1980s, the decade during which he’d been a teenager.”

That was, of course, the period when Spielberg was arguably at the peak of his cultural influence. E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, which Business Insider ranked as Spielberg’s second-biggest box-office hit, premiered in 1982. Raiders of the Lost Ark and its first two sequels came out in 1981, 1984 and 1989, respectively; all three are top-10 earners on Business Insider’s list. The Color Purple, slotted 12th by BI, was released in 1985.

That same year, Spielberg and his production company launched Amazing Stories, a Twilight Zone–style anthology series that was considered prestige television. (At least initially; the show only lasted two seasons.) Spielberg also produced a number of major ’80s hits, including director Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future, along with Poltergeist and Gremlins, to name a few.

All of which is to say that I can thoroughly understand Spielberg’s nostalgia for the decade. The same is true for Cline, who is the same age as Halliday.

But as I worked my way through Cline’s book, I frequently caught myself comparing it to Spielberg’s adaptation and finding the former wanting. Cline and Zak Penn, who scripted the movie, enlarge the role of the main villain, an immoral scheming CEO named Nolan Sorrento; they also put protagonist Wade Watts face to face with several other characters far sooner than the book. The movie also puts the heroes in physical jeopardy at its climax; this is a bit contrived, but it raises the stakes in a way that the end of the source material fails to do.

Perhaps more importantly from a visual storytelling standpoint, however, the movie completely revamps the nature of the challenges that Halliday programmed into his Oasis, the immersive virtual-reality realm where Earth’s immiserated population uses as an escape from their mundane lives. Whereas Spielberg had his heroes race cars through New York while dodging wrecking balls to earn one of three keys, dinosaurs and King Kong, the literary Watts beats a lich in a best-of-three match of the classic arcade game Joust:

Our second game came right down to the wire, but by the end of it, I’d spotted a pattern to the loch’s playing technique. By changing my ostrich’s direction at a certain moment, I could get him to slam his stork into one of the oncoming buzzards. By repeating this move, I was able to pick off his extra lives, one by one. I died several times myself in the process, but I finally took him down during the tenth wave, with no extra lives of my own to spare.

I stepped back from the machine and sighed with relief. I could feel rivulets of sweat running down my forehead and around the edge of my visor. I wiped at my face with the sleeve of myself shirt, and my [virtual reality] avatar mimicked the emotion.

“Good game,” Acerarak said. Then, to my surprise, he offered me his withered claw of a hand. I shook it, chuckling nervously as I did so.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Good game, man.” It occurred to me that, in a weird way, I was actually playing against Halliday. I quickly pushed the thought out of my head, afraid I might psych myself out.

Acerarak once again produced two quarter and dropped them into the Joust machine. “This one is for all t6he marbles,” he said. “Art thou ready?”

I  nodded. This time, I took the liberty of slapping the Two Player button myself.

Our final tie-breaking game lasted longer than the first two combined. During the final wave, so many buzzards filled the screen that it was hard to move without getting dusted by one of them. The lichee and I faced off one final time, at the very top of the playing field, both of us incessantly hitting out Flap buttons while slamming our joysticks left and right. Acererak made a final, desperate move to avoid my charge and dropped a micrometer too low. His final mount died in a tiny pixelated explosion.

I think Joust is a terrific game, but Cline’s prose here didn’t exactly get my heart pumping. For me, the real appeal of the novel lay in following Watts unravel the clues that Halliday has hidden. None of the book’s puzzles and challenges track those in the movie, either because the original references were too obscure or didn’t make for interesting visual sequences.

Unfortunately, the whiny Watts is a bit of a pill, and none of the characters are nearly as intriguing as Cline’s carefully devised 1980s-centered riddles.

I’m not sorry that I read Ready Player One; the fictitious Halliday is close in age to me, and I was interested in some of the games and movies that obsessed him. But I wasn’t wowed by Cline’s story or the way he told it, and I likely won’t be rushing out to read the author’s second novel or any future works.

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