When I read the novel Ready Player One, I made a blog post about it: “Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE is 80s Cyberpunk Bliss.” While I downplay the novel’s weaknesses and may overstate my praise for its strengths, I think the post generally holds up. Now, though, we’ve had a film, and I’ve finally seen said film, and it invites at least a brief word of comparison. So, taking a break from preparing to move house and from the latter stages of drafting and editing my dissertation, I’ve decided to revisit my thoughts on the story and mull it all over. This will not, I note, be particularly a film review. I enjoyed the film, and I think it both improved on some of the book’s shakier elements while remaining true to its spirit, but it did lose some of what I loved most about the book, and it certainly had a few cringe-worthy moments. If I were writing a film review, I’d probably say something like that it “starts strong but loses something along the way.” Still, it was a fun movie. But I’m getting distracted! So, onward.
Warning: very belated spoilers for both book and film ahead!
The novel, while I loved it, was not perfect. The prose could be a bit clunky, here and there, and the narrative was a safe one. It didn’t ask many deep questions, though it vaguely flirted with a few cool and worthy ideas–such as gender presentation and queer identity, different perspectives on escapism and play, individual agency and personal freedom versus corporate oligarchy, abuse of power over the downtrodden masses, and more. The book keeps things light, though, and doesn’t dive too deep. That wasn’t its project. Mainly, Ready Player One wanted to tell a fun story about nostalgia and finding personal meaning (maybe rich, maybe shallow) in rediscovering old pleasures, all dressed up in casual grail quest pajamas. It does this well. What it doesn’t do especially well is render terribly interesting characters.
Wade/Parzival, the main character, is a pretty typical super-talented protagonist guy, mostly sympathetic and well-meaning but kind of an idiot when it comes to how to treat other human beings. Helen/Aech is criminally under-developed in the novel, but at least she poses some interesting questions–even if the novel has no intention of actually exploring said questions at all. Samantha/Art3mis is a generically cool “strong female character” who kicks ass and proves how great she is, all so she can deflate at the proper moments and serve as a shallow romantic interest for Wade. (Wade is uncomfortably true to gamer-nerd form by being awkward, creepy, and kind of a douche throughout their relationship, but he wins her back by not finding the birthmark on her face hideous, like she thought he would. The romance in this book is so awkward and shallow, I long for the relative depth, complexity, and emotional credibility of Bella and Edward.)
I said above that the novel stumbles over some interesting questions. Sometimes, it just plain stomps a foot right through one of them. For instance, there’s also a very uncomfortable moment when Wade expresses the possibility that Art3mis might be “some 300 lb. dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit” (Cline 170). When pressed, he makes it clear that he’s really concerned is the legitimacy of her gender expression. While I realize that part of what’s being addressed here is the idea that a user avatar may not represent the person behind it, and I take no issue with that, what really bothered me was the (presumably unintentional) transphobia of the way he asks her about her real-life gender. While she has invited him to ask personal questions, and the moment is treated as light-hearted, Wade asks, “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?” (Cline 173). On the one hand, I realize that the sociopolitical ramifications of genital preference as a component of sexual attraction are complex, and to be clear, I am not arguing, nor am I implying, that Wade would be obligated to be attracted to Art3mis even if she had physiology that he was not inclined to be attracted to.
People like what they like, and I am not at all interested in policing what anyone finds attractive. What I do object to is the assertion that Art3mis’ womanhood is presented, by Wade, as being determined by purely biological factors. He does not say that if she isn’t cis she isn’t a woman, but his definition of “woman” certainly seems to. The issue isn’t even necessarily that Wade awkwardly asserts a biologically determined approach to gender, it’s that the novel itself seems to entirely miss how problematic his statement is. When we later learn that Aech is a lesbian who presents, online, as a man, there was ample chance to revisit this problem in some way, to have Aech (a queer woman of color) at least challenge Wade’s narrow and privileged view of gender, but nothing particularly comes of it. Thus the broader problem: the book takes on (or blunders into) some big questions about gender, identity, and how to treat other humans, but it seems to have no idea what to do with them. (I don’t feel at all qualified to even address the question of how the novel deals with race, but I’d be very interested to hear more informed opinions on the subject.)
Yes, the book has definite shortcomings, and the neglected secondary characters, the big questions they suggest and that the narrative neglects, and the truly terrible romance are the worst of them. So, now there’s a film. In general, it’s a nice job of adaptation. It looks great, and it reinterprets the visuals and ideas of the book with style, even improving on many of them. The main narrative departures are either a helpful aspect of translation to condense the book down to feature film length, or they’re an attempt to fix some of the book’s bigger problems. Sometimes, they’re both. In other cases, the film does nothing to improve on the book or, maybe, makes things a bit weaker. For instance, while the secondary characters in the book were fairly shallow, in the movie their puddle-deep characterization evaporates almost entirely. Aech is still a (barely hinted at, never really confirmed) lesbian who presents as a man in the Oasis, but the fact is almost entirely glossed over. Daito is reduced to nothing more than “He’s Japanese, I guess,” while Shoto (“Sho” in the film) is reimagined as Chinese (and taken from being the virtually adopted brother of Daito to being his best friend) and his entire character summed up as “he’s eleven years old, but he has attitude.” The actors do well with what they’re given, but they’re given little. I did enjoy seeing Sho given a bit more individuality, rendered as a Chinese ninja fanboy rather than just the “smaller, younger samurai” as compared to Daito. The tertiary characters don’t suffer much, perhaps because there wasn’t much there to neglect. Bumbling gamer-merc i-R0k, avuncular game designer Ogden Morrow, Wade’s aunt Alice, her dick boyfriend named Rick, and kindly neighbor Mrs. Gilmore are all rendered just as richly in the film (if differently, in some cases) as in the novel, despite much-reduced time in the narrative. The biggest change comes in the form of Art3mis and her romance with Wade/Parzival.
Artemis/Samantha is far from perfect in the film, but she’s considerably more engaging and given a bit more depth than in the book. She not only espouses a desire to win the contest to help improve the world, but she actively organizes people to pursue that goal, and she definitively places this ahead of her attraction to Wade. While in the book this reads as nothing more than an obstacle in Wade’s romantic story, in the film it feels much more like Art3mis exercising personal agency and pursuing her own goals as a character. The birthmark is still addressed, but now it’s a minor beat in the story, just a chance for Wade to show that he’s not as shallow as he seemed. It’s not the centerpiece to their romance, just one example of how Wade’s not an asshole. The result isn’t perfect, I admit. There are still cringey moments, like when she (for no apparent reason, out of the blue) tells Wade that she believes he will solve the puzzle of the easter egg. I mean, what happened to her being determine to solve the puzzle, herself? Why is she suddenly throwing her support behind him? Is she just trying to make him feel better? Is she just playing to his ego to win him over to her cause? The moment never feels explained or justified, which makes it one of the more awkward scenes in the film. In truth, the romance never goes beyond “Hollywood movie” depth. They like each other, he’s awkward but a decent human about things, and they end up lip-locked by the end. So, in the film, theirs is a shallow but inoffensively basic romance. It’s an improvement on the book, where Wade acts like a dick and still gets the girl in the end because, apparently, he doesn’t mind that she has a birthmark on her face. (The “cyber-” part of cyber-stalking does not make it less creepy, Wade. Seriously.) Overall, the romance is improved, and Art3mis is more interesting as a character, but there remained room for improvement. Ah, well.
The streamlined story works reasonably well, even if at times it feels strangely small and shallow considering the stakes the film tries to present. (IOI has what must be the worst security I’ve ever seen from an evil corporate empire, and while Sorrento is fun to watch, he’s also reduced for unclear reasons to a cartoonish fall-guy for the evil corporation as the narrative unfolds, going after Wade and friends alone and with a gun in hand after his goons fail to capture them. It works in a silly 80s movie kind of way, but it doesn’t seem entirely fitting for the story the film is telling.) The whole back half of the movie feels like it’s missing something. The stakes seem to shrink, not grow, and while the film tries its best to make a massive battle of virtual avatars, followed by a climax of a real-world car chase at the end, it just doesn’t quite feel as intense as it might. The best parts of this are the shots of the real world, where players are running around like mad in their goggles and gloves, while the CG battlescape rings a little hollow for me. I think I’d like to have seen a bit more of what other people brought to the fight instead of the tight focus on Wade and friends. It made the battle feel smaller than it should have. With that said, I won’t pretend that I didn’t get excited when Daito dropped his Gundam-self on Sorrento’s Mecha-Godzilla. I could almost forgive the lack of Ultraman, whose presence in the book I adored.
The ending is a mixed bag. The final challenge of the
grail quest Easter egg hunt, however, was spot-on. It revived some of the more interesting lore from the book (based on real-life history) to wrap things up, and it managed to convey, in a condensed way, the spirit of the book’s central quest beautifully. The theme of Wade going from “dedicated solo” to “team player” felt a bit tacked-on, but it wasn’t too distracting or anything. It’s also nicely offset by the corresponding car chase on the real life side, even if the moment feels smaller than it could. In contrast, the worst part of the end was the last line of the film, which flippantly announces that after taking control of the Oasis, Wade and friends close it two days per week to force people to go out and live in the real world. That’s great, kid, but remember how it’s a crapsack world, and lots of people depend on the Oasis to make their living and survive? Yeah, it could have been an interesting idea, but as a last line, it just feels trite, silly, and even a little authoritarian. (What happened to protecting everyone’s freedom, Wade?) It’s an awkward last line, and it would have worked a lot better to just have Wade announce in a generic way that they “used the money to help people in the real world” over a quick cut of the High Five building a community garden or shelter or… something… anything… that actually indicated that they were making a real difference. (Wade making out with Samantha in the last shot was in keeping with the end of the book, but it was lame in the book and not a lot better as a final note to the film. Oh, well.)
In the end, I still love Ready Player One. I love the book, and I love the movie. Both have strengths, and both have plenty of weaknesses and lots of room for criticism. What I found most interesting, looking back, was how little I’d thought about some of the book’s bigger problems at the time. They registered for me, vaguely, but they didn’t really stick. Maybe that means I’m reading more thoughtfully now, putting more consideration into how I consume media. Maybe it just means that I’ve had more time to percolate on it, and now I have a film to compare with the book. I’m not sure on this one. Either way, I’ve enjoyed looking back on the story, and I’ve found re-considering it and my love for it to be a pleasing bit of escapism from the failings of our own real world. (Ugh. That’s a rotten note to end on. What could I say, instead…? Hey, I know!)
Look, bland Hollywood romance!
While I don’t necessarily agree with everything argued in this video, here is another interesting commentary on the film and the book–in particular, I quite like the idea of taking a page from Willy Wonky and having the tests Parzival undergoes do more to reflect his character growth, rather than simply celebrating his nerd cred. It’s an interesting watch, in any case!