Caveat: I am not squarely a member of the “the book is always better than the movie” camp. I was a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, but there was something incredibly compelling about the film that really spoke to me. I have seen more than a few films that I think are either competitive with their books or had an entire different flavor that still made the film highly effective.
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash was arguably one more the most prescient works of our era, predicting in some specifically-functional ways the interface and interrelationship between a meaningful and immersive virtual environment and a consequential and experiential physical consensus reality.
Note now a philosophic phenomenon you’ll need to understand throughout this blog: there are two worlds: First Life, or the physical consensus reality in which we live as fleshy, potassium-and-sodium-neurology humans, and Second Life, or the electronic consensus reality in which we live as digital, bit-neurology avatars. The two are irrevocably linked, but you will not hear me use the term “real life” in this blog, because both are real.
If you cannot accept that experiences that do not occur in the physical are “real,” then you must reject every television show, every podcast, every movie, every book, every story you’ve ever been told, as fallacious, inexperiential, unsubstantive, and false. I don’t believe you do, because you’re reading this, so let’s agree to ignore the false divide of “real” between these two worlds.
Ready Player One as a novel continues the tradition of Snow Crash, and both speak most profoundly to those of us who have lived in the virtual. Whether we are World of Warcraft players immersed in story-driven worlds (I was an EverQuest II guild leader for almost eight years, for the record), FPS players of the top-title Overwatch, or residents of Second Life (the most expansive virtual world in history), we were deeply affected by the book Ready Player One. Ernest Cline is a consummate geek, and especially for those of us who have a cultural touchstone around the 1980s – I am an unapologetic Xennial, having been home sick in first grade and watching the Challenger accident live from my bed at home as a child old enough to know what happened and young enough that I shouldn’t have had to – he hit on many cylinders, arousing fond nostalgia around the Atari 2600, CRT displays, Rush albums, and the fanboy-squealing-worthiness of the DeLorean DMC-12.
Consequently, I went to see this movie with such enthusiasm that I bought my seat – back row, center – and the two seats on either side, to make sure nobody touched me, disturbed me, bothered me, talked to me, interrupted me, or otherwise lessened my ability to focus completely on this film. I expected to be spoken to.
Now, let me be clear: the novel isn’t Tolkien, for crying out loud. Ernest Cline’s near-Dickensian obsession with detail is fun at times, but his expository passages can descend into the mind-numbing. Additionally, there are moments of narrative inconsistency that can be pretty jarring, and better editing would have helped that. The writing is, at times, very clunky and ineffective, and at times sounds like the worst of Star Trek’s “technobabble” phenomenon, even if those of us with a pretty functional 1980s pop culture reference mental database catch a good portion of the references. It is, in that way, not always an inviting work, shutting out those who (through no fault of their own, and likely due to a healthy dose of having learned other far more useful things, LOL) may not know what the hell Cline is raving about at times.
But all in all, the book was both fun and meaningful. It took the time to tell a powerful story powerfully, and created characters that showed the very best in kids, teenagers, and young adults, and made them the heroes who ultimately defeated “the machine.” They were genuine characters who we rooted for loud and hard all through RP1 when reading it. But yes, the book has some issues and I understand if people don’t love the thing. For me, personally, I was energized and engaged by its ability to help readers see the beauty of the virtual, and invited them inside if they weren’t residents of a virtual world like I’ve been for so long.
My lament isn’t really about the film’s style. It’s about some serious departures of substance that, I believe, really failed to tell the story appropriately.
I fundamentally disagree with the headline of The Verge review of RP1: the film does not improve upon the book. That review rightly points out that some of the book’s flaws carry over. Indeed the book is rife with instances of Wade having just so happened, ever-so-conveniently, to be a master of any given challenge, leading one to exclaim, “oh, of COURSE you did, Wade” with some regularity. But the effective translation of the pop culture and visual references to the big screen doesn’t constitute an improvement of the story, which was not simmered down and concentrated, but chopped into shards of itself and glued together awkwardly and ineffectively, which is why I think a huge part of the problem is the selection of a single film to tell a big, big tale.
Thus, I begin with:
Ready Player One should have been a trilogy. It should have begun with Ready Player One: The Copper Key, outlining the world in which Wade Watts lived, and helping us to immerse in the world of 2045 America. The tense, long march through the virtual world was nearly total, with very little initial time spent in the physical world. The amazing journey of Parzival, our protagonist’s virtual avatar, from poor kid eking out a life in the physical while doing incredible things as a virtual pioneer and adventurer – a “Gunter” as they’re called in the world of RP1 – would have been better spent as a slow burn, raising the psychoemotional stakes and deepening the tragedy of the world in which the characters find themselves: Corporations run the world, the environmental tragedies in which we find ourselves today are spun out to terrible logical conclusions, and the suffering of the average Earth-bound human is growing in leaps and bounds while the criticality of escapism has become one of the most profoundly important phenomena of humankind. The filmmakers should have understood this.
Ready Player One: The Copper Key
Ready Player One: Level Up or Ready Player One: The Jade Gate
Ready Player One: Game Over or Ready Player One: The Last Castle
These are such obvious mechanisms, built around the narrative Cline wrote, that I have to assume that the writers either didn’t understand the work well enough to build a proper story out of it, or didn’t care enough to make a full story-arc out of the work they were given to work with.
But more than the broad complaint I have about the hurried form factor and the lack of depth, I have specific laments against the Spielbergization of the Cline novel. The hurried format led to a nasty, hurried, silly, and reductive reduction of the story to a mere shadow of its original self.
Now that we’ve tackled format, I need to address a few specific, significant, and (in my humble opinion) rather unforgivable failures of the film to tell the story that Cline wrote, and I CANNOT fail to go directly to the most egregious change of all:
They turned a female bad-ass into a damsel in distress.
Art3mis was an independent cybergenius with a formidable skill set and a remarkable, sophisticated understanding of privacy and identity. She was keenly aware that she was independent in her social interactions, between her human and avatar forms, and that was most exemplified by her port-wine facial birthmark. To Art3mis, her birthmark was a source of tremendous personal anguish and consternation, having been likely brutalized socially by children and adults alike, and was an impetus for her independence and disengagement from relationships. It not only gave her a reason to be strong but gave her a reason to keep apart from others. I have a great deal of empathy on this front, as I have a noticeable facial deformity from birth, and suffered at the hands of child peers growing up, and became isolated and independent as a result. However, that independence and isolation became an impetus to develop personal resilience and strength. While I’ve worked to temper the more extreme characteristics of these hurt-based independences, and have striven to create positive pro-social situations as an adult, I think the writers have no experience with this kind of personal pain.
Art3mis was a fierce woman who needed no saving. She was strong by virtue of necessity, and had all of the suspicion and ferocity that would accompany someone who was forced into such circumstances. However, in the film, she was reduced to a capitulating damsel-in-distress, who had none of the fierce insistence upon privacy, distance, secrecy, and individualism that she should have desired based on her circumstances. She had none of the firebrand independence once we shifted into the physical world; her avatar was fierce, but it didn’t mirror her fierce self as it did in the book. I’m so disappointed that her suspicious nature and her individual power were discarded in favor of creating a pawn for Wade to play with in his quest. Imprisoning her at IOI was stupid, and really failed to acknowledge, understand, and honor the fierce, independent, capable character that was Art3mis. Whereas Ready Player One as a book was comfortable with a heterosexual relationship in a largely sexually-liberated and sexually-independent world, the movie screwed any feminist or independent tropes in favor of a blasé schmaltz relationship of ingenue-and-unexpected-hero. I was deeply disappointed.
I will give credit to the art directors for intentionally adding the pixelated incarnation of Art3mis’s port-wine-stain birthmark onto her avatar in the later part of the film. That’s something Cline could have and should have written, as Art3mis accepted her “fused self” (First Life-and-Second Life together) as her “real self” (they are distinct but related; they are unique in their style, incarnation, and zeitgeist though they stem from the same non-corporeal intellect), as this was her story arc: While it’s not necessarily antecedent-consequent, it is true that many who live genuinely in both lives, grow in both lives, and find power in and acceptance within – if not in spite of and/or through – their true, central selves.
However, this one artistic does not, in my view, undo the damage they did to Art3mis by reducing her to a plot element instead of the fierce character Cline wrote.
Caveat: Lena Waithe is awesome, and she rocked in RP1 as a film, and I don’t take one damn thing away from her about her performance, which was probably the most authentic and electric on screen.
Aech is a loud, big-smiling fat Black lesbian mechanical genius, and if you can’t deal with that, you have entirely missed the point of not only the novel but the values of the virtual. The character of Aech transcends and subverts so many of the most important social barriers in our world today and in the world of 2045 Columbus. The filmmakers missed a huge opportunity to address body image and issues, body shaming, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and bias against kinesthetically-inclined people, and they abandoned all of that.
Aech as a character in-world was bigger, more orc-like, more mechanical, and more obviously voice-shifted than I had in my head, but I really liked the movie version of the avatar. Aech in-world was appropriately strong and badass, and I appreciate that.
But while Waithe’s performance was excellent, her character in the film in the physical world served as an erasure of Aech’s queerness and obesity. Why can’t a fat chick be an ass-kicker? No reason at all. Weight is entirely independent of capability in so many ways in the physical, but it is independent of capability in every way in the virtual. And queerness is as invisible in the physical as it is in the virtual: one’s sex, one’s gender expression, one’s gender identity all of these are independent variables, and we are not ghettoized in the virtual as we so often – too often – are in the physical.
Again, while I think Lena Waithe is awesome and did such a good job once cast, I was disappointed that Aech wasn’t portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe or another actress who would have helped more big girls feel that they could bring down corporations and level entire societies and repair a motorcycle in record time. And I really, really wish they had written Aech as the queer woman that she is in the novel.
Aech was kicked out of her home, and disowned, because she’s gay. That’s a story that needs to be told because it’s real, and a story that we could have shown can be overcome in the virtual. Our sex of birth, our physical appearance, the social normativity of a community… these are all just bits and bytes in the virtual, and we can transcend, overcome, usurp, and use these phenomena in the virtual in a way we sometimes cannot in the physical.
One of the most egregious failures of Ready Player One was writing the villain – the corporatocratic oligarch of Nolan Sorrento – as a technologically-inept older dude who had someone else do his dirty work, specifically the conjured-out-of-nowhere-for-no-reason “F’Nale.” (Though F’Nale reminded me a little of Overwatch’s Sombra, who I adore, but that’s not enough to keep me happy with this unnecessary character.) i-R0k was also unnecessarily involved in the storyline. The faceless throngs that Sorrento hurled at the Easter Egg hunt were nameless victims of his socioeconomic terrorism, and that was a huge part of what made his character in the book so terrifying. He was cold, calculating, and absolutely willing to murder and cheat his way to victory, no matter what. He was a social terrorist. He was a corporate terrorist. Making him a punch-line by leaving his password so obviously stuck on a physical Post-It was a huge failure. That’s not Sorrento. That’s whatever idiot thought rewriting some of these major plot points was a good idea: A corporate hack who will never truly understand the Oasis. He would have murdered – and in the book, did murder – anyone he wanted, without hesitation of moral compunction.
Ben Mendelsohn is a talented actor who is fully capable of menacing. His Krennic in Rogue One was far more like Sorrento than his actual Sorrento, and that’s due to the fluffy writing, not his performance. Shying away from firearms until the end, cringing his way through being fed lines trying to play it cool, and weasling his way around makes little sense. Even his inflated avatar seems inconsistent with the way Sorrento would portray himself in the virtual, making a mockery of him as egomaniacal – which the novel character certainly was – instead of channeling that ego and sinister immorality into the monster he really was, willing to murder children to make his fortune.
Nolan Sorrento is IOI, and that was not the way the film worked, and it made him a used car salesman, not a corporate terrorist.
The Lack of Subversion and Revolution
Writing Art3mis as being captured and getting inside IOI, saved by Parzival – vomit – eliminated the fright and time dilation effect of the book having Parzival voluntarily go underground inside IOI. That daring act of infiltration and revolution forced Parzival to face his shadow-self, alongside his self-imposed exile within his lair. His hacking and circumvention of normal safeguards, his need to create serious physical protection for himself, and his eventual decision to go into IOI by using their indenture systems against IOI itself were all acts of subversion that were wholly left out of the film. Parzival’s use of his outsider status as an attribute mirrors the circumstances of so many of us in the virtual world, where we are able to do things and exist in places and participate in activities that we might not normally be able to, as we use our outsider natures to find inclusion and ability.
We who have been virtual world residents are able to project outwardly – and perhaps even more importantly, exist within the psychoemotional condition of being – a more authentic version of ourselves, to explore elements and attributes of ourselves, even our idealized selves, which can equip us with power that is normally reserved for the elite.
In physical consensus reality, the privileged can. Writers and actors can, if it’s part of what they do. The rich certainly have the ability to explore these aspects of self: they can literally purchase inclusion. But in the virtual, we, too, claim this power: we can garner inclusion democratically, even anarchistically, independent of the impositions of society and economy and family and institution.
Why does this matter? Why is outsider-versus-insider so important a trope in the book, Ready Player One? Why does subverting institution and revolting against corporatocracy and corruption matter so much, making me so angry at its erasure in the film?
Because authenticity is everything.
To be one’s authentic, unmolested, uncompromised self is the very zenith of the human experience. To self-actualize, reach one’s potential, and become the best self, fully voiced, with full agency, is a distant dream for so many people, but one that can be more in reach thanks to the virtual. It seemed to me when Ernest Cline wrote this, that he understood that. He seemed to put in James Halliday a complicated journey for a person who knew how hard it was to be an outsider, and wanted to create a level playing field and all the necessary building blocks for everyone to be able to expand beyond the confines of their birth circumstances or whereabouts or appearance or boundaries in the physical world.
In the virtual, we are consistently empowered with choice, and control over ourselves. We are able to choose: choose expression, choose association, choose location… We have ontological agency in ways many of us don’t have elsewhere, are unable to have in the physical.
To eliminate the willingness of true revolutionaries to safeguard that right, and to eradicate the story elements that helped us understand how important these things are, really hurt the story and reduced it to a popcorn flick.
The ending of Ready Player One as a film stunk.
I disagree fundamentally with DenOfGeek’s take that the movie improved upon the finale. Yes, the little “don’t sign the contract” moment was a nice twist, but a waste of creative energies. The idea that shutting down the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursdays will someone help people by forcing them into the “real world” is economically infeasible in a society that depends on the Oasis for a huge portion of its economy, is damningly obvious as a bone-toss to the angry Luddite moms who think blue light is rotting their kids’ brains so they’ll be a little less pissed off after watching this movie, and a slap in the face to the entire concept of being able to transcend the boundaries of the physical in favor of the virtual.
As an IOI employee states in the film, “The Oasis is the world’s most important economic resource.” Shutting it down 48 hours a week has the potential to massively harm an already precarious global economic situation. This concept wasn’t thought through, and was done merely as a gift to people who hate the very technology this film is supposed to be about.
That writing was not only shoddy, but showed a profound misunderstanding of virtual environments at their best. If Cline signed off on this change, he betrayed the world he created, and if he didn’t he failed to maintain the purity of his creative endeavor by ceding control to meddlers.
RP1 as a film betrayed this, the core principle and the most important attribute of augmented reality and virtual worlds: That it has the potential to be a profoundly powerful force for good, and is not something to be feared, reviled, limited, or shut down capriciously. Halliday put ONE big red button in place, and it was PERMANENT. It’s a world-destroyer, and it was obvious to readers that the button existed only to destroy the Oasis if it were corrupted. It was not to force young whippersnappers outside to play “like we used to back in my day,” shaking the proverbial cane.
No honest-to-gods Rush-blasting l33t gamer hacker is going to think it’s a great idea to shut down the entire system two days a week. It’s foolish.
“I just came here to escape, but I found something much bigger than myself. I found my friends. I found love!” says Parzival.
“Except on Tuesdays.” Really? C’mon.
The book also had to have all three of the trio work together, and that, again, was altered for no apparent reason. Instead of “Kirk-Spock-and-Bones,” we just got the protagonist, but that was never the intent of the way Cline wrote the book. There was always a return to collectivism and teamwork, even in the end when Parzival gives his friends equal shares and rights in the ownership and management of the Oasis.
Overall, the ending really failed to capture the power of the original story, even if the battle scene was cool.
I’m deeply disappointed, and no quantity of pop culture references or shots of a DeLorean DMC-12 will fix that Ernest Cline sold his vision to become eerily reminiscent of the very corporatocrats that created the dystopian enviro-disaster trash-scape in which RP1 is set.
The film betrayed women. It took a powerful, independent, skeptical, thoughtful, skilled woman in Art3mis and made her a damsel in distress, betraying the character, the archetype, and the story. It made a diversity of body types into a punchline. The plus-sized woman dancing on a pole early in the film: The avatar she is in the virtual could be her entire universe, her means of income, her lifelong dream: why is that supposed to be funny? Why not show the full range of people?
The film betrayed queer people by intentionally erasing Aech to a subtle inference, and failing to tell her story, a real story that so many people have found solace from through the virtual. Thriving queer communities in virtual spaces give voice, choice, agency, and safety to thousands of queer virtual citizens, and they had a chance to be seen, acknowledged, and shown to be the powerful voices and potential heroes they are, but that was, again, erased. Aech was wonderfully portrayed, but the character didn’t capture what Aech was really about in the novel.
The film betrayed outsiders and especially “the little guy.” In the book, Shoto’s murder has readers reeling as if the pages became fire. I think I literally dropped the book. It showed just how vicious IOI under Sorrento was – and how treacherous Sorrento himself was – and the impact that that murder had on Daito illustrated how close family relationships between genetically-unrelated people can be, how deep and diverse love can be between people in the virtual, and how vicious and unrepentant unfettered corporatocrats can be. Shoto wasn’t “a cute kid whose height is a punchline.” Shoto was a murder victim, assassinated by a capitalist enterprise hell-bent on domination, and the film erased him. “Sweet Mrs. Gilmore” was also a murder victim in the book, along with Alice and Rick and countless others who died in the stacks bombing. They, too, are dispassionately forgotten, Mrs. Gilmore left alive to snipe at Sorrento and Alice and Rick just forgotten in the narrative.
The film betrayed the poor especially. The world of 2045 that Cline wrote was on the brink of total collapse, between an environment gone completely to hell and a global socioeconomic situation that had people living in trash heaps and stacked towers of old trailers. Wastelands entirely overridden by lawlessness and chaotic crime sprawled across what used to be America, taking the dissolution of the Rust Belt we see today and expanding it to the whole of society. The plight of the poor, the collapse of our ecosystems, and the crushing of those who don’t pay to play, are all completely eradicated from the narrative, showing up only as passing inferences.
I’ll watch it again to enjoy the popcorn factor of all the 80s references, but Ready Player One fails as a film, to me, because it had such real potential in its storytelling, and didn’t deliver. It doesn’t matter how cool the opening race is, and it doesn’t matter that they left out Leopardon in favor of Gundam, and it doesn’t matter that we get a sneak shot of Tracer on the battlefield or that i-R0k was actually pretty funny or that they used the term haptic pretty well throughout. It doesn’t even matter that they totally didn’t use Van Halen or Rush music well enough or appropriately throughout the thing.
What really matters, in the end, is that RP1 could have been an expansive, engaging, human story that made Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis the power-trio they were, and instead they simmered all that incredible subversive social storytelling to a boy-saves-girl-with-best-friend cartoon.
I didn’t want to see that story. I wanted it to be authentic. It wasn’t.