Looks like I’m avoiding an Avengers: Infinity War review again. Oh well. Moving on…
Steven Spielberg has a handful of book adaptations under his belt where his movie surpassed its source material. Three come to mind. Jurassic Park, Minority Report and Jaws. Jurassic Park was an okay-fine book by Michael Crichton that couldn’t possibly match the awe and glee with which movie audiences were treated to some of the best meld of CGI and practical effects the world had ever seen. Holy shit, dinosaurs! Minority Report was an insightful, thematically rich, not to mention fun as hell, glimpse into the not-too-distant future. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he doesn’t phone it in, ever. Minority Report was an adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story of the same name whose plotting was a bit convoluted, as PKD stories tend to be, with a big bummer of an ending. Spielberg’s film streamlines the primary story elements to create a slick, fast moving crime drama in a sci fi environment. And then, of course there’s Jaws. The original blockbuster. The movie that launched Spielberg’s career. And it’s based on a pretty shitty book. Jaws by Peter Benchley is a dull, clunky book. So much so, that I never read another book by Benchley after it. Plenty of books have been written about Jaws, so I’m not going to waste your time getting into here. It’s great, we all know it.
So, where does that leave Ready Player One?
Ready Player One is not a particularly well written book. Ernest Cline wrote a somewhat awkward story with very little focus on character development and only the scantest interest in exploring the ramifications of a life lived almost entirely in a virtual world. But it is one great big love letter to the popular culture of the 1980’s and I am a child of the 80’s. As such, I loved reading Ready Player One. I couldn’t help myself. For all its flaws, I couldn’t resist the nostalgic pull of its central premise: a programmer in love with the 1980’s creates a virtual world based entirely on the popular culture of that decade. Slap a kid at the center of an adventure to save that world and I’m happier ‘n a mangeek at a Goonies convention.
My experience with the film was similar, but for different reasons. Spielberg has crafted a lightning-paced adventure filled with action and excitement and just enough character development to keep us emotionally invested (but absolutely no more than that). It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as the main character’s narration explains the background behind the OASIS as we, the viewer are whisked through the OASIS as if flying through a never-ending CGI spiderweb that just keeps going and going. It’s a bit much and almost turned me off from the movie entirely right at the start. But after that somewhat frenetic intro and an over-the-top vehicular race in a digital New York City, the story kicks in and the rest of the film, for the most part is executed with a bit more restraint. But only a bit. One thing Ready Player One has going for it is that the OASIS isn’t supposed to be a photo-realistic environment, so whenever the CGI gets a bit cartoony, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter. The audience is in the middle of a video game, for lack of a better word. Normally I would think of that as a bad thing. But here, somehow Spielberg makes it work. He’s a smart enough filmmaker to know a constant onslaught of CGI is going to turn off even the most forgiving movie-going audience. So he wisely cross-cuts between the OASIS and the real world, in which there are additional sub-plots going on. Added to which, within the OASIS itself, he finds moments and scenes to slow down the action and either develop the character relationships or progress the plot more cerebrally. One particular scene comes to mind, when the players suddenly find themselves in an entirely real-world looking Overlook Hotel. It’s a great scene, particularly when one character who hates horror movies and hasn’t seen The Shining starts wandering naively through the hotel, curious as to why these two little twin girls are beckoning him onward. It’s a fun scene, marred only by an idea that keeps nagging at me. Or rather a question, which is why did they choose The Shining? It’s the only time in the movie they focus so long on a specific bit of 80’s pop culture (other than an old Atari game, Adventure) and yet, how many of us think of The Shining as a quintessential 80’s movie? Sure, it qualifies having been released in 1980, but within our collective zeitgeist (that’s right, I just used that word) I can think of a dozen other movies that seem far more representative of that particular decade. What’s that, you want me to list a few? Okay. How about Ghostbusters? Or The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Gremlins, Beetlejuice, The Karate Kid, Aliens, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future (the main character already drives a DeLorean throughout the film) or how about Spielberg’s own E.T.? Poltergeist? Or how about one of the greatest adventure films of all time, also a Spielberg joint: Raiders of the Lost Ark? In the book, Blade Runner plays a significant role and I’ve read that Spielberg couldn’t use it because Blade Runner 2049 was in production at the same time. But choosing The Shining seems more like professional nepotism than serving the story.
Which brings me to my chief complaint about Ready Player One the movie vs. Ready Player One the book. As I’ve already written above, the book is a 385 page tribute to the 1980’s. But the movie reels that aspect in a great deal, instead conveying that idea through seemingly random imagery and Easter Eggs. The movie never really comes out and says that James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, based his entire creation on his obsession with 80’s pop culture (at least to my recollection). Instead, that concept is more or less alluded to by its design and usage by the characters. In the movie, the main character who calls himself, Parzival (an Arthurian hero on a never-ending quest for the Holy Grail) succeeds where others have failed because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the life and times of James Halliday. In the book, Parzival is triumphant because he too is obsessed with the 1980’s. His character knows more about that decade’s pop culture than any other character save Halliday himself. The main plot, which I’ve been remiss in omitting until now, revolves around a contest to find three keys hidden within the OASIS by James Halliday before his death. Find the three keys and gain control of the OASIS. He also left behind a series of clues, all cloaked in 80’s nostalgia. Parzival discovers the first key, bands together with a small group of like-minded Gunters (egg hunters) and sets about discovering the other two keys before the big bad Innovative Online Industries (IOI) corporation gets them first and turns the OASIS into a nightmare of capitalist excess. In the book, the hunt for the keys is needlessly complicated. Finding a key unlocks a path to a challenge that you must then overcome to receive a clue to the next key. Spielberg was wise in streamlining the concept for the film, having each key a prize unto itself. Find a key, receive a clue to the next key. Had they made Ready Player One a limited run series on HBO or Netflix, the books conceit could’ve worked, but for a feature film, trimming the fat makes sense.
So, is Ready Player One the movie better than Ready Player One the book? I think i’m going to say no. Only because they’re different. Each is successful in different ways, much like how The Shining, actually, is successful both as a Kubrick film and as Stephen King originally wrote it. Both are very different in their approaches and both work wonderfully. And no, I’m not saying Ready Player One is as good as The Shining. Come on now, let’s be real. Ready Player One is a popcorn film. So is the book, if that makes any sense. I enjoyed them both. Now…
Let’s all enjoy a truffle shuffle together.
p.s. Steven Spielberg has a long history of adapting books of various quality into excellent films. Schindler’s List, War of the Worlds, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Amistad all come to mind. War Horse, Lincoln, Catch Me if You Can and Munich are all adaptations of books. And one could argue all day long about which version of each story is better. But my point was that he has three distinct examples where an excellent movie is a clear improvement over a lackluster book (or short story). Somewhere in there, is Ready Player One.
p.p.s. It is neither here nor there, but I’m going to mention anyway that there are only two Spielberg movies I actively hate. 1941 and Hook. Regarding Hook, Spielberg was once quoted as saying, “I wanna see Hook again because I so don’t like that movie, and I’m hoping someday I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.” But still, two turds in a sea of goddamn masterpieces is a pretty impressive track record.