Ready Player One.
To say I have been looking forward to this film would be an understatement. As a big fan of the book, hearing that Spielberg would be the one directing this big screen adaptation was a dream come true.
Looking back on my experience with the book the following things stood out for me in my review:
- It brought me back to my childhood
- It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child
- It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in novel form
I found myself actually giddy with excitement the day the film finally hit theatres, and it did not disappoint. Without even thinking about my love of the book I wrote down some of my immediate reactions which essentially resonated with a similar refrain.
- It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in movie form
- It brought me back to my childhood
- It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child
At the very least this experience told me that the film had successfully managed to capture the spirit of the book even if it did change a lot of the book in the process.
Moving from my experience of the film towards dialoging with others about the film, it became clear that while it has been getting a lot of well deserved praise, not everyone shared my exuberant and hard to contain sense of excitement. To be fair, the book had its fair share of critics as well, but unique to the film is/was its potential reach as a pop culture phenom- the book is about 80’s references and celebrating geek culture while the film’s pop culture references are much more diverse and inclusive- along with the fact of it being an adaptation. People were free to criticize the book based on what the book was trying to be, whereas people are free to criticize the film both based on what the film was trying to be and also for the ways it interprets or was different from the book.
Which is to say, while the film has the potential to reach a wider audience it also opens itself up to a greater potential for public criticism, some of which I have found myself grappling with on the level of my own personal conversations.
Even with the positive reaction overall, the criticism has compelled me mostly because it has been surfacing in circles that share my love for the book (and consequently don’t necessarily share my love for the film). Given my experience of the film and the fact that I have been discussing this book at length with anyone willing to listen, I found myself wanting and struggling to understand both of these contrasting views, not simply to justify my own experience, but as a means of bridging this dialogue and understanding their own experience.
I have heard some fans of the book complain that the movie changed the story to the point where it is no longer a fair representation of the book they love. Some who either didn’t read the book or were not a fan of the book found the films love affair with pop culture (which of course is fully present in the book to an even greater degree) along with the films half-hazard approach to character development and the reigning love story (also a problem I noted in the book when I read it) either weighed down the film or failed to fix the problems they had with the book.
On my journey to understanding these criticisms I happened across an interview with the main screenwriter Zak Penn where he was talking about the process of writing what he considered to be a difficult screenplay to adapt. He suggested that of all the liberties the film took in bringing Cline’s story to the big screen in a way that worked (and Cline is credited as a screenwriter as well), the most important choice was the decision to use the film to tell Holliday’s story rather than Wade’s.
So here is what I would like to suggest. Of all the changes the film makes the most noted are the pop culture references, the relationship between Wade and Artemis and the nature of the Oasis itself, and each of these changes were made to reveal something about Holliday’s personal story. And in my own experience, being able to see the film as Hollidays story helped me make more sense of the story the film was trying to tell and why they made the changes that they did, ultimately making it a more compelling viewing in my eyes and perhaps answering some of my own questions about how to approach some of the criticisms more appropriately and comprehensively.
Pop Culture References
The focus of the book was on Wade and his relationship to his crew. It tells a rags to riches story (to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine) that is marked by a governing moral question- if we were to suddenly find ourselves with money, power and control, would we use this to change the world or simply to change ourselves? And of course with the virtual-reality premise that moves the narrative forward, this notion of changing ourselves relates directly to the idea of becoming something we are not when we do not like who we are in the real world.
While a large component of this story is Wades relationship to H and his growing relationship with Artemis in the virtual world, his relationship to Halliday also plays an equally vital role in telling this rags to riches story in the book. Wade’s relationship to Halliday revolves around his fascination with 80’s culture which is put to good use when the contest comes into play. For Cline, Halliday is a technological and cultural god to Wade, but one whom he admires from a distance. Halliday does become demythologized over the course of the book but only to the degree that this demythologizing is able to shed light on Wade’s own rags to riches story. In the end the book suggests that Halliday remains immortal in Wade’s eyes, the image of a technological god whom ultimately presents Wade, the winner of his contest, with a governing question regarding his one big regret- “not being at home in the world” and creating the Oasis as a means of “escape”. The contest and all of it’s 80’s references were merely an expression of who Halliday was in the real world, and Hallidays invitation to Wade is to consider the technology that he created is now Wades to control and to consider it carries the potential, as everything does, for both good and for bad where our humanity is considered. The question then for Wade is will he leave the Oasis with the same regret as Halliday or will he grow from that mistake and learn to find his home in the real world by working to protect it against the corporate overlords that are holding it hostage using the technology Halliday created.
The movie on the other hand takes the idea of these pop culture references and relegates them more to the background rather than allowing them to be the driving force of the narrative itself. It feels slightly unsettling to consider we are looking at a futuristic world in which there appears to be little to no representation of an emerging culture or anything beyond the culture of our modern day. Have they simply stopped making new culture or art? But this unsettling feeling I think is a part of the world the film is trying to establish. Even more so, the references are integrated into the fabric of the film in a way that says something important about the people that inhabit the world of the Oasis. For example, when we see the Iron Giant shooting a gun in a way that sits quite contrary to who the Iron Giant actually is, we are reminded that we aren’t seeing the Iron Giant, we are seeing one persons imagining of the Iron Giant in a virtual world of their own making. This is who they see themselves to be outside of the limitations and the labels the world places on them. And the film gives us glimpses of just how large and diverse these imaginings are, reaching into sub-groups and sub-cultures that seem to be endless and ongoing in Spielberg’s vivid and expressive imagination.
The landscape of the Oasis in the film is littered with so many faceless people that it seems to force the question, who are all these people hiding behind their avatars. We do get glimpses of the people behind the mask, moments in the real world seeing them at their jobs or in their homes, but for the most part this reality seems more of an illusion than the virtual world that surrounds them, and being exposed to this reality appears to bring more pain and hurt than freedom. And so what is clear is that people chose and prefer to stay in the virtual world, to remain faceless, and it is through the truth of this faceless universe that we come to know Hallidays own story as the creator of the Oasis, a person haunted by and defined by regret, missed opportunity and broken relationships. Halliday wants to be known, and once you figure out the key to solving the puzzle is retelling Holliday’s own tragic story, all of the pieces start to all into place.
Wade’s Relationship To Artemis
Wade’s rags to riches story in the book works as a larger social commentary. The stacks become pictures of poverty and economic divide, and winning the game considers how one can use their new found riches differently than the corporate overloads that currently rule society, not just to change ones life for the better but changing the very reality of the economic divide. And for Wade, most important to him are the faceless avatars that eventually help him to win the game.
In the book, Wade’s determination reminds us that we do not need to go through life alone, and that the relationships we build are a big part of what makes reality meaningful. It is about the ways in which our economic divide separates us from one another, and the ways in which a world like the Oasis allows us hide behind our insecurities and our problems rather than actually face them in the real world, whether that be poverty, status, sexual orientation, the colour of our skin or the way we look. And what happens when we simply ignore the problem is that the the Oasis simply begins to mirror this problem in a different and even more harmful way.
Also important to the book, and central to Wade’s story, is the relationships between Wade and his crew, primarily with his best friend H and then with Artemis. When Wade eventually meets H in the real world it’s a climatic moment in the book that helps establish the idea that we prefer to hide behind our masks rather than face our problems. It turns out that H is the opposite of what Wade expected, and yet in the world of the Oasis the two of them are best friends. The question is can they bridge their differences in the real world when everything about them and the world in which they live is out in the open. Will their relationship get stronger or will it fade away?
It is this encounter with H, and the relationship that then develops in the real world that sets the stage for Artemis and Wade to finally meet in the real world as well, which in the book literally does not happen until the final chapter and the final scene. Their entire relationship has been built on the virtual world that Halliday created, and so Hallidays one big regret is not only the thing that begins to informs Wades relationship to his home and the economic turmoil that persists around him, but it also connects to his relationship with Artemis. In the book it is Artemis who kisses Wade, which reminds us that Wade’s own story has been developing through these relationships, each with their own arc and storyline.
Turning back to the film, we find Wade’s journey from rags to riches is far less developed in Spielberg’s vision for the film, as are some of the side characters. One of the shortcomings of the film was the decision to avoid giving H and Wade any real life interaction. In fact, the entire world of the Oasis is streamlined so that it is represented more as a virtual version of a modern gaming system/social media than a governing social system. But even with these changes and shortcomings, I think these decisions do work to allow Spielberg to tell the story he wants to tell in a more effective manner, and I think he does this so that he can tell what is at its heart an adventure story that fits with some of Spielbergs older works and style, while also allowing The Wade-Artemis relationship to focus us more intently on Holliday’s own journey as a means of infusing this adventure story with a necessary human element.
In the film it is intentional that Artemis meets Wade far earlier in the story because Spielberg uses this relationship to mirror Halliday’s own journey in a symbolic fashion. We see Halliday as a god becoming more and more human over the course of the movie, and this happens in the context of the characters growing relationship to Halliday’s personal story. Where Halliday began his romance in the real world and ends up fleshing out this relationship imaginatively in the virtual world, Wade has imagined his relationship first in the virtual world before engaging it in the real world.
As a side remark, there has been some criticism of the way in which Spielberg handles the romance between Wade and Artemis. They question how he can say I love you after only knowing her for a brief moment in the real world, and they scoff at what feels like an old fashioned romance where girl needs boy to affirm she looks pretty and the female characters are little more than sidekicks to the true white male hero. I really do feel some of the most incredible scenes in RPO are the virtual moments between Z (Wade) and Artemis. In the book their relationship in the real world develops over an equally short amount of time, and I think in both cases the intention is to recognize the way in which the virtual relationship, one that we are meant to perceive is not based in reality, is actually slowly uncovering who they are together and perhaps informing reality to a greater extent than we initially thought. The moment they meet in the real world we are being asked to consider that they have actually been getting to know each other for a long while in virtual terms. It’s plays into the virtual-reality dichotomy and for me it worked really well. And the entire scene where we see Wade choosing a virtual outfit to go and meet Artemis is about the ways in which relationship helps to uncover who we really are and give us space to reveal who we really are. Now, to be fair I have little context to speak to geek and gaming culture and some of the conversation surrounding gamergate, so I can only interpret it from my own limited perspective. But if I take it simply as a developing relationship in the story of the film, I think it actually has something important to say about the films larger themes.
Back to the movie though. The image at the end, with Halliday looking at his younger self, is supposed to be a key moment in which Halliday’s legacy, the Oasis, sheds light on a life of regret, past mistakes and crippling fear. And as Wade and Artemis embark on this adventure in the beginning of the film they discover more and more about these regrets, these past mistakes and what Halliday fears most of all, being known by someone for who he really is. As they uncover this truth, Wade and Artemis’ relationship sees the both of them facing these same fears for themselves in their own way.
In the end, recognizing this narrative shift from book to film had me more in tune with this idea of RPO as an adventure story first with a deeper human story underneath, only that this human story is not Wades, it’s actually Hallidays.
As was already mentioned briefly, the book also spends a lot of time (which would never work in the film because most of it is exposition) creating an entire system out of the Oasis. In the Oasis of the book the world works on levels or tiers which mimic society. A virtual version of the public-private sector. They attend public school in the Oasis and they can generally engage in public services, but if you wanted to explore the Oasis itself, move to bigger worlds and neighbourhoods, go to better schools or climb further up the social and economic ladder (because basically everything in the Oasis basically comes down to having money), you have to be able to afford it. The Oasis mimics the worlds real life poverty.
In the film the Oasis is a way to escape and avoid the mundanity of reality (and the demoralizing condition of the existing world), but it is not a school or an economic system. Spielberg also decides to immerse us in this world through what I felt was a pretty impressive exposition that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. The decision to leave the world building to the details of the unfolding narrative rather than building it up as a complex system at the front of the film gives Spielberg the freedom to hit the game running, which he does at full speed. It also allows Spielberg to really narrow in on what the Oasis means to the story he is looking to tell. In telling Halliday’s story, the virtual world in the film becomes a way of trying to rewrite or atone for his past mistakes. It is a way of imagining what his life might have been like had he learned to embrace the world that he lived in rather than trying to escape or hide in the world he created. In this sense the film goes to much greater lengths to de-mythologize Halliday and to reveal him as a technological god who turns out to be much more fallible than Wade or others first thought. Much of what is going on in the real world appears to be, at least in part, Halliday’s responsibility. And to consider the way in which Halliday might come to terms with what is essentially his legacy leads to a rather brilliant moment in the end of the film where Wade’s final question of “who are you then” is left largely unanswered. It is a question the film leaves each of us to answer for ourselves. After all, the Oasis looks far too familiar to our modern world even in its most fantastical moments. In a world that just this week has been so taken by tragedy and war and loss of life, escaping into a virtual world that can mask our reality and our pain and our struggle feels inviting even on our best days. But the question the film looks to leave us with is, what will be our legacy, and will coming to terms with our own past mistakes, regrets and fears be a part of what that legacy becomes in the world we share and inhabit?
It appears that Spielberg wanted this film to be first and foremost Halliday’s story, the story of a man who finds himself weighing his legacy against his regrets. And so he uses Wade’s journey from the book to really try and explore Halliday’s character over the course of the film in more intentional depth. The film accentuates and highlights Halliday’s motivation for the contest and the Oasis as intensely relational in nature, and it plays with this idea of a man who lived much of his life in fear, so much so that he recreates this virtual story, this role playing game out of his deeply held regrets and allows these characters to play out the decisions of his life in the context of this game. The game becomes this means of living through his mistakes vicariously, and ultimately trying to imagine what it might have been like if it had all played out differently. There’s a real irony to what Spielberg does here given his own legacy in film. But the truth we come to find in the end is that coming to terms with who we really are, mistakes and regrets and fears and all, is a part of what it means to build a legacy that lasts, because who we are is what feeds the relationships that give us value.
What the film also carries over from the book is that where much of the film revolves around the heartbreak of a lost romance and the pain of divide passions (between what he loved and what he created), it is actually Halliday’s relationship with his creative partner and friend (Morrow) that is even more telling when it comes to the films concluding moments. Spielberg’s choice to write this character in as the virtual library was a brilliant move that gives him a greater and more prominent character arc than he had in the book. It is Morrow who is eventually able to embody Halliday’s journey in a more physical sense following his death, and it is through that relationship that we get a glimpse of hope in the midst of the failure, that for as far as Halliday has fallen, it is this relationship that remains his most defining legacy and this relationship that is now feeding this legacy into others in a meaningful way.