Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel “Ready Player One” takes America’s obsession with pop cultural references, the unstoppable push of technology, and an unlikely hero and combines them all up into a single vivid story. The movie doesn’t exactly require its audience to know the ins and outs of “Dungeons & Dragons,” but man, it can’t hurt.
It’s only appropriate that the movie version of the film, out later this week, was helmed by no less than Steven Spielberg, one of the biggest inspirations for Cline’s story. Of course, Spielberg has taken his own liberties with the material, though the creative spirit that informed Cline’s book is very much in evidence.
Set in the near-future, the film adaptation — written by Cline and Zak Penn — stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts (also known by his avatar name “Parzival”), who spends most of his time inside a massive virtual reality system known as OASIS, invented by the elusive Steve Jobs-like inventor James Halliday. When Halliday (Mark Rylance) passed away, he left a huge quest inside the OASIS, a search for a literal Easter Egg to be undertaken by so-called “gunters” who are required to steep themselves in all the stuff Halliday loved as a kid. The prize? Whoever wins, gets to own the OASIS. And considering how bad the real world is, the OASIS is pretty much the only good thing left.
Both Cline’s book and Spielberg’s film are mission-driven stories mostly set in the wild world of the OASIS, but there are a few major changes between the page and the screen. Here are the biggest ones. Beware: Many spoilers ahead.
1. Time Spent in the Real World
Cline’s book spends its earliest chapters diving into the state of the real world (not great) and how Wade functions inside of it (also not great). Much of the book’s first hundred pages actually take place in and around Wade’s school, which not only functions as a way to introduce the way the world works now (every school is set in OASIS, for one thing) but what kind of person Wade is when he’s not tooling around for fun in the virtual reality environment that serves as his only real refuge. It’s a meaty introduction, and it builds out both the real world and the world of the OASIS in vivid ways.
Spielberg’s film, however, jettisons most that exposition in favor of dropping his audiences smack into the more fun side of the OASIS, with Wade and his best pal Aech (Lena Waithe) gearing up for a very important race (more on that later) that ties into the quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg. While we do later see Wade muddling through in the real world and a number of small scenes are faithfully recreated for the big screen (like Wade living in his aunt’s laundry room, and his descent from his RV home into the lower level of the so-called “Stacks” via a well-placed rope), those school-set scenes are mostly snipped, in favor of Wade’s search for the keys and the Egg.
2. Wade’s Personal Education
One of the most oft-quoted sections in Cline’s book concerns Wade’s obsessive deep dive into all things eighties — well, all things eighties that his hero Halliday was inspired by — which take shape as a personal education driven by Wade’s desire to bust open some clues and find the Keys (and then, of course, the Egg itself). Although Wade is aided by an online document named “Anorak’s Almanac,” the majority of his scholarship is self-started, and he completes most of it alone.
Not so in the film, which imagines that Halliday-hunting is a social activity (albeit one that has gone a bit out of fashion, thanks to the lag time between the contest being announced and anyone actually making any headway on it). Much of the hunting takes place at “Halliday’s Journals,” a massive library that replaces the “Anorak’s Almanac” of the book and can be visited by anyone inside the OASIS. Once inside, people aren’t just reading books or watching movies; they can literally visit Halliday’s memories, rendered in vivid 3D.
Visits to the Journals are lorded over by The Curator, who helps guide eager hunters to the appropriate memories and ephemera that might aid them on their quest. It’s there that Wade and his friends hit upon some major breakthroughs in their Egg-hunting, including visits to a pair of memories that feature both Halliday and his best friend Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), including the aftermath of a holiday party and a seemingly everyday inter-office exchange during the early years of their working together to make the OASIS.
3. Wade’s Money-Making Endeavors
Once Wade earns the first key in the game, he becomes a massive star in the world of the OASIS, picking up a ton of corporate sponsorships that allow him to kit himself out with all the latest gear, while also putting a strain on his time and attention. In the film, Wade picks up a ton of credits each time he snags a Key, enough to finance his quest without having to delve into the intricacies of OASIS-based fame (though, admittedly, it is disappointing that the film doesn’t feature any of its characters bolstering their fame through the creation of their own broadcast channels, a funny take on reality television that the book does quite well).
4. Getting the Copper Key
For fans of Cline’s novel, there are two major changes to the narrative that will likely stand out in a big way, both involving the first two challenges that Wade and his friends must complete to earn Halliday’s Keys and ultimately win the vaunted Easter Egg. In the book, the first challenge (the one for the Copper Key) takes place on the planet Ludus, where all of the various in-OASIS schools are located, and requires players to journey to the middle of nowhere to play a large-scale version of the “Dungeons & Dragons” module “Tomb of Horrors.” Once that part of the challenge is beaten, the player must then defeat a D&D baddie at a game of “Joust.”
Wade is the first person to complete that challenge, though he’s swiftly followed by Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, whom he meets inside the challenge), and the pair rocket to the top of the Scoreboard to become the most famous people inside the OASIS.
Spielberg’s film does away with all that, instead setting up the first challenge as a large-scale vehicular race that requires participating gunters to navigate a wild road race through the heart of OASIS’ version of Manhattan, while also avoiding giant monsters that include King Kong and the T. Rex from Spielberg’s own “Jurassic Park.” When the film opens, the race has never been won — no one has yet managed to push through to the finish line — and it restarts at various times, giving eager players repeated chances to win. It also gives Spielberg the chance to trot out all kinds of references, and even a glimpse at the sea of cars in the race is rife with pop culture gems: Wade and his precious DeLorean, Aech and his Bigfoot monster truck, Christine from Stephen King’s book of the same name, a motorcycle from “Akira,” and even the van from the A-Team.
In the book, winning a Key isn’t the final step of completing a challenge, because the Keys only unlock a “gate” that leads to yet another challenge (yes, this is a bit confusing). The movie does away with that. Win a Key, win a challenge.
5. Getting the Jade Key
Doing away with gate challenges in the film also effectively wipes out some of Cline’s more vivid games, like the first gate challenge that sees players having to recite the entirety of the movie “War Games” to earn the Jade Key. Finding the Jade Key in the film is a very different experience. The book required players to complete a text adventure game called “Zork” (to get the Key) and then unlock a Voight-Kampff machine from “Blade Runner,” play a game of “Black Tiger,” and untwist some Rush trivia (to unlock the gate).
Spielberg’s movie simplifies all that. In order to earn the Jade Key, Wade and his friends plunge into a staggering recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which they must navigate in order to reach a ballroom-set mission that sees them having to save Halliday’s unrequited love Kira (more on that to come) from a pack of zombies pulled directly from a video game Halliday loved.
6. Meeting Art3mis
By removing the exposition that leads off Cline’s book, Spielberg’s movie also allows Wade to meet Art3mis much, much faster. Wade’s crush gets plenty of hype in the book, so by the time we meet her at the first challenge (when, quite notably, it’s just the two of them interacting), there’s been tremendous build-up as to both her capabilities and how Wade feels about them (and her). While the setting and content of the first challenge has been changed in the film, it’s still the location of the pair’s initial in-OASIS meeting, albeit one surrounded by tons of other competitors.
Afterwards, they go visit Aech’s workshop (in the book, it’s a fancy private chat room designed like the most glorious eighties-era basement hangout imaginable; the film retrofits it as a sprawling warehouse and work space). There, they get to know each other a bit more, something that doesn’t happen in the book until much later. The pair meet in real life towards the middle of the film, while the book saves that it for its final pages.
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