'Ready Player One' Proves the Movie Can Be Better Than the Book

Steven Spielberg's departures from Ernest Cline's book attempt to fix some of its biggest issues, but also introduce one of the film's biggest flaws.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

[This story contains spoilers for Ready Player One]

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One plays a little fast and loose with Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, changing key scenes and deleting others — and that makes sense. 

In order to make the best film possible of a given narrative, it is not a simple matter of direct translation. The best book-to-film adaptations are those that are willing to take liberties from the source material, not merely for logistical reasons like budget or keeping a film at a watchable length, but to make the story suit the film medium. A good film adapted from a book isn’t necessarily synonymous with being a good adaptation — the former means that the final cinematic product is a quality film, while the latter implies that the film, in a sense, feels the same as the book — that a lover of the source material walks away from the film adaptation without feeling like they’ve just seen an imposter wearing a good friend’s stolen clothes.

There are two elements found in nearly all of the best film adaptations, two things that, through all the changes made in the adaptation process, must be maintained. The first is, for lack of a better term, the soul of narrative — the themes, the pacing, the tone. It’s a vague description, yes, but this is a nebulous thing. It can be captured in adaptations that take significant liberties from the plotline of the source material (28 Days Later, which I consider a "spiritual adaptation" of the 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids, falls into this category for me) or lost in adaptations that remain faithful to events as described in the original. We’ve all encountered those disappointing adaptations that feel like a lifeless version of their source — the basic storyline and characters preserved, but missing heart, that spark of something that makes the novel compelling (many fans felt this way about 2009's Watchmen).

The second thing has to deal with detail — what we'll call the punctum, to shamelessly steal from media theorist Roland Barthes. To vastly oversimplify for the purposes of this article, Barthes uses the term in reference to photography to describe a certain detail or element that pierces the viewer (thus “punctum”) — the thing in the image that sticks out, that clings to your memory above all others. While this is in a fundamental sense an individual thing, subject to variation depending on taste and so on, I have found, across all admirers of a given work, there tends to be at least a few consistently beloved “piercing details.” Those iconic elements that turn into defining features — Mona Lisa’s smile, the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. For admirers of a book, a film adaptation has to keep at least a few of the source material’s key details. If all of a reader’s favorite details are missing, it’s just not going to feel like the same story. From a filmmaker’s perspective this requires some guesswork, but in the finished product of most adaptations comes in the form of a smattering of dialogue, specific plot details and set pieces lifted directly from the source material.

Though the characters and locations are mostly preserved in Ready Player One — with a handful of additions, subtractions and modifications — the series of events depicted over the course of the film differs considerably from the novel. All three of Halliday’s riddles and key quests are more or less completely different, barring the location of the final showdown (Anorak’s Castle on Planet Doom). The general adaptation strategy taken in Ready Player One is actually remarkably clever, maintaining enough consistency to feel like the same story — that soul thing I talked about — through making use of repurposed book dialogue and plot points tweaked to suit their new contexts, while also enabling book readers to experience a new adventure.

The film’s revamped storyline also tries to fix some of the book’s biggest issues — perhaps most noticeably its female characters, who are as tastelessly flat and unoriginal as cookie-cutter shapes cut from cardboard and, fittingly, have about as much narrative agency as a moving box (barring Aech, but we only learn she’s a she in the eleventh hour). The film attacks these issues from multiple angles — giving Samantha/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) some real-world agency by letting her take over a variant of a gambit played by Wade/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) in the book, significantly dialing back Aunt Alice’s (Susan Lynch’s) “harpy in a housecoat”-ness, and giving mega-corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) a significant female presence, including the introduction of F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), who IOI head honcho Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) sends on a quest to identify and deal with Wade and his friends in the real world. It’s still not the film’s strong suit. Despite the changes and Cooke’s best efforts, Samantha/Art3mis’ character is too fundamentally a video gamer’s version of a manic pixie dream girl to take the leap from daydream fantasy to actual human person, but you know what, at least they tried. Credit where credit is due.

The only major narrative change that overall marks a loss of depth compared with the book is in Halliday’s first challenge. In the book, it is explained that Wade is only really able to afford OASIS access because he goes to school on Ludus — the academic planet full of virtual public schools briefly mentioned in the film. As Ludus is just a planet full of identical school buildings with the spaces in between filled by computer-generated forests, few people other than its students and teachers rarely visit. However, it is also established that traveling from planet to planet in OASIS costs money — money which Wade does not have, meaning he spends most of his time on Ludus, studying Halliday and trying to strategize ways to start his “gunting” in earnest once he graduates. Through a series of fortunate happenstances and some quick thinking, he eventually realizes that the first key is hidden on Ludus — at the heart of a re-creation of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and only accessible after defeating an evil undead creature at the video game Joust.

Admittedly, a gigantic car race involving dinosaurs and King Kong is far more exciting and cinematic. However, the Ludus version presents a far more feasible explanation as to why it took years for someone to figure out Halliday’s first riddle and why said person was an average teenage boy instead of one of IOI’s full-time Halliday experts than the car race “riddle” with the answer being drive backwards.

Ironically enough, while the switch from Joust tournament to car race can easily be understood on a superficial level, the way in which it is done introduces one of the film’s biggest flaws — treating Wade Watts as a “chosen one” without really making a case as to what makes him so supposedly special. The film improves upon the novel in several regards, but in doing so also accidentally managed to create a hole that wasn’t there before.

So that addresses the soul, but what about the punctum? While the film was generally on the money as to the specific details and lines of dialogue it chooses to keep from the book, there is one rather strange absence, and it’s the title. “Ready Player One,” the OASIS loading screen message that is a key feature of the novel, is nowhere to be seen. Of all details to leave out, it’s a decidedly odd choice.

As an adaptation, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has both strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole, it makes for one of the best reminders in recent memory that, when it comes to making a good book-to-film adaptation, faithfulness to the events of the novel is far from the most important consideration.