Ready Player One author Ernest Cline tells Drew Turney how adapting his hit novel into a film with Steven Spielberg was a very different challenge.
If you’re one of the millions who read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and you’re already one of the millions who’ve seen the Steven Spielberg film it’s based on, there’s one thing you might suppose about Cline – he’s not very impressed with the real world.
It’s not just that the hero of the tale, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), lives in a shantytown of caravans stacked on top of each other in a mid 21st century world of political unrest and economic collapse. It’s because being inside The Oasis – the vast online VR simulation many use to escape from the poverty, drudgery and hardship of life – takes up most of the book.
The few scenes in which Wade and his friends (and enemies) are seen in the real world are mostly quick asides to up the stakes before the action goes right back into The Oasis. Even an extended sequence of him in captivity at the villainous company (Interactive Online Industries, which hopes to win control of The Oasis) is a ploy to get back to the online world on a better footing.
Spielberg’s film, co-written by Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men, Avengers Assemble), is quite different, creating entirely new sequences, dropping others, recasting scenes and characters and spending a lot more time in the slums and city of Columbus, Ohio. It also has Wade meet up with his online friends much earlier, particularly love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke).
Cline’s novel, while popular and fun, was constructed very differently from the way a three act movie must behave, and along with Penn, he’s managed to keep the tone and premise strongly intact while not being afraid to make changes that are quite sweeping at times.
For one thing, he says he assumed Ready Player One could never be a movie simply because of the rightsholder issues involved in bringing so many pop culture artefacts from movies, games and TV together (luckily, Spielberg has some pull in the industry).
“I structured it like a novel and there were things in the novel that could only work in a novel,” Cline says over the phone while on promotion duties in LA. “In a book you can have somebody stop and play Pac-Man for six hours, but that would stop a movie dead. We needed things that were in the same spirit as the challenges in the book but would make the movie more cinematic.”
As such, the script gave Cline a chance to rewrite the book in a way, with different – and sometimes better – references. “I got excited about re-imagining the story for the cinema because it would surprise fans of the book,” he says. “The structure, set-up, the real world and the Oasis are the same. The major changes are to the events and the ways the characters meet.”
Speaking of the characters, it must have been tough when it came time to cast the movie. As good as Sheridan and Cooke are along with more experienced actors like Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg and Ben Mendelsohn, authors have a unique perspective on what their characters look and sound like – they’ve been keeping them company for months or years, after all.
“Right, but they almost never do,” Cline says about the look of the characters. “All my favourite book to film adaptations made huge departures from the source material and changes to the characters.”
At the very least Cline knows being involved in the adaptation of his own story gives him a modicum of control. “Even after Peter Jackson’s wonderful Tolkien adaptations there are fans who are upset about changes he made, even though those were Oscar nominated movies. There always have to be changes to make a good film adaptation and I’m overjoyed with the choices we made with Steven. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
And to return to the original point, Cline seemed little interested in the real world in the novel. He used broad brush strokes to comment on the themes of spending too much time online and re-engaging with the real world, but the script and movie take it more to heart.
Though Cline points out that the last line in the novel is ‘For the first time in as long as I could remember, I have no desire to walk back into The Oasis,’ he admits it’s a theme that’s made more prominent in the film.
“But I feel like that sentiment is still there,” he says. “I feel like escapism is an essential part of the human experience. We need to hear stories and escape through music and art and cinema. One of the best things about the human experience is getting to share in your appreciation of the art your fellow humans produce.”
Cline considers the internet, video games, cinema and television to be wonderful things that can enrich our lives, and neither the book nor the film are about unplugging completely but striking a balance between reality and fantasy. “If there’s any message in the novel and the movie I think it’s that escapism is essential, but the real world is the only place where you can find true happiness.”