Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a bad book. Whatever pleasures it gains from propulsive plotting (which shouldn’t be written off) it squanders on long sections where the main character catalogs endless lists of pop culture references with which he is familiar.
Worse, these sections are written with a vague, masturbatory fervor. They’re the low-level drone of the guy who wants to prove how cool he is by making long lists (ideally ranked) of all the stuff he’s aware of, then share them with everybody else, no matter how little they care. You probably know that guy. If you’re at all like me, you’ve probably been that guy at some point. (If you’ve ever seen the terrific comedy High Fidelity, it gently satirizes this sort of fellow’s approach to music appreciation.)
But here’s the thing: Ready Player One is the kind of book that could make for a great, or at least highly entertaining, movie. Most (though not all) of what makes the book bad will be impossible to translate to screen, while that propulsive plotting I mentioned is exactly the sort of thing that works well in the theater.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet. There’s every chance it’s horrible, or even worse than the book, or even just kind of disappointing. But with Steven Spielberg directing, I think the movie’s chances of being highly entertaining, at the very least, are pretty substantial.
After all, Spielberg has turned a flawed book into an all-time great movie before.
The best movie adaptations of books often are more dependent on plot than literary quality
This probably seems obvious, but it’s worth stating anyway: Movies excel at depicting characters’ exterior lives at the expense of their interior lives, while books have the exact opposite problem. Granted, there are numerous examples of movies that develop rich inner lives for their characters, or books that excel at building large, complicated worlds full of strange new wonders. But the point remains: The standard unit of measurement for a movie is an image; for a book, it’s a sentence.
Here’s an example, from John Huston’s terrific 1987 film The Dead, an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story of the same name. In the story, the main character goes to a Christmas party, where he learns that his wife once loved a man as a teenager, and that man died after catching a cold while waiting for her outside. (At the very least, his wife blames herself in this fashion.) The story concludes with a beautiful, somewhat hallucinatory monologue wherein the protagonist reflects on the nature of life and death and the vastness of space and time.
In attempting to adapt this for the screen, Huston (directing a script by his son, Tony) pretty much just has the protagonist read the closing passages of the Joyce story over images of snow falling. Don’t get me wrong; it works. But it’s a great example of how hard movies have to work to capture something that literature does easily.
The reverse is also true, which is where Ready Player One comes in. Those long, long lists of pop culture references that Cline labors so intently over on the page? Onscreen, they’re going to flash by in a second. If a character is wearing a costume that contains various wardrobe pieces that reference movies and TV shows of the 1980s, Cline has to describe each, even briefly. Onscreen, Spielberg can just show you that character, and if you don’t get the references, fine. You’ll hopefully still be along for the ride.
A lot of what makes Ready Player One so tiresome on the page comes down to world building. Cline really wants you to know everything about OASIS, the fictional virtual reality creation that most of his story takes place in. If you buy in — if you’re the sort of person who would love an exhaustively detailed monument to ’80s pop culture — it goes down more easily than if you don’t. But even the book’s fans will admit it has some clunky writing throughout.
But Cline’s plotting, while not wildly original, boils down to a solidly structured quest narrative, with three smaller goals that add up to a larger one and a variety of barely archetypal characters along for the ride. (There’s the White Guy Nerd and the Love Interest, and so on and so forth.) There are other problems inherent in this (about which more in a second), but the actual plot of the book is serviceable enough that a well-executed movie should be a fairly rollicking adventure.
After all, as I teased above, Spielberg has done this before. Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws is nowhere near as onanistic or self-flattering as Ready Player One, but it’s not a terribly good book, on a pure writing level. However, the plot is strong, its scares are real, and in movie form, Spielberg was able to strip away the poor writing in favor of a relentless adventure movie that became one of the all-time greats.
Spielberg is a potentially strong choice for Ready Player One for other reasons too
Now, there are reasons Ready Player One isn’t good beyond its writing quality. For one thing, its main female character wants nothing to do with our protagonist romantically, until he slowly but surely wears her down, a toxic trope whose time has come and gone.
For another, the book’s celebration of nostalgia has heavy blinkers on: It’s purely obsessed with the sorts of movies, games, and TV shows a white guy nerd born in the early ’70s (as Cline was) might be obsessed with, even though it’s set in the 2040s. It’s a celebration of fanboy culture in a world where fanboy culture already feels like it ate its own tail and then tried to see if it could keep going and swallow its own head. If you’re obsessed with pop culture from the late 20th century not aimed at white guy nerds, you’re out of luck. Hell, Stranger Things is more diverse in its reference palette.
On the question of whether Spielberg’s film will make the female lead an actual character instead of another trophy to be won, it’s impossible to say without seeing the film. (His films vary from project to project in this regard.) But past comments made by Spielberg suggest he’s much warier than Cline might be of going all in on nostalgia for the pop culture of the past — much of which, after all, was created by him.
In a now famous 2013 talk at USC, for instance, Spielberg lamented how hard it was to make his 2012 Oscar-winning box office hit Lincoln, since studios increasingly don’t know how to make anything not explicitly pitched at geeky pop culture fans who’ve elevated everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Star Wars to reliable box office cash-ins, so long as they hit a roughly solid qualitative level. And he’s continued to make the kinds of movies that make him nostalgic for his youth in the ’40s and ’50s, movies like The Post and Bridge of Spies, which engage with questions of what it means to be an American, or what it means to do the right thing, movies it wouldn’t have been hard to see a producer like Stanley Kramer backing back in the day.
On the other hand, Spielberg is also a big fan of geeky pop culture stuff. He’s remarked several times on the Ready Player One press circuit that he loves video games and has been a gamer since the earliest days of the form. And what are the Indiana Jones films — the first of which came out in 1981 — if not nostalgic throwbacks to the adventure films of Spielberg’s youth? He, of all directors, knows that pop culture is always built atop that which came before, if rarely as overtly as it is in Ready Player One.
So while he’s not above critiquing nostalgia culture, he’s also someone who loves it all the same. If he somehow harvested that tension within the confines of Ready Player One, to create a kind of adaptation non-endorsement that takes the events of the book at face value but also sees what can be dangerous about that kind of pop culture-obsessed line of thinking, he could have made something special.
And it’s not as though these themes weren’t already present (if underdeveloped) in Cline’s book, which concludes with the protagonist realizing that maybe getting lost in pop culture isn’t everything that’s important in life, but only in a kind of half-assed way that feels like Cline thought it necessary to pay lip service to the idea. Spielberg, being older and full of slightly more self-doubt about kicking off a lot of this geeky pop culture, is already going to have a leg up when it comes to dissecting this tendency.
But even if Spielberg doesn’t engage with that aspect of the story, which is rich and just sitting there waiting to be mined, and even if every toxic theme of the book survives intact onscreen, at the very least, the movie will struggle to be worse than the book.
All those games and movies and TV shows Cline so lovingly name-checks will, by necessity, be a blur onscreen, and maybe in the midst of that blur, you’ll be able to get lost in a fun story, competently told, instead of being taken out of the plot every five minutes by a voice screaming, “GHOSTBUSTERS! MAD MAX! MARTY MCFLY!” through a megaphone.