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Pure Imagination and Clunky Source Material: A Conversation About ‘Ready Player One’

A movie watcher and a book reader talk about Steven Spielberg’s latest, pop culture nostalgia fan service, and the troubles of adapting a very flawed novel

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Normally, the prospect of Steven Spielberg making another action-adventure film would be cause for celebration, but the lead-up to Ready Player One’s release has been defined by an air of icy skepticism. “Ready Player One is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie,” read a headline in The Outline back in August. And—again—people are proclaiming this about a goddamn Steven Spielberg movie.

The issue isn’t Spielberg, though. Rather, it’s the book that he’s using as his source: Ernest Cline’s eponymous novel, which itself sources a ton of its references from ’80s pop culture and beyond. Since being released in 2011, Ready Player One has been a divisive book for geekdom—from criticisms of the clunky writing and exhaustive fan service, to more serious issues with Cline’s writing in a post-Gamergate cultural landscape. That overall sense of polarization has now spread to the movie. (Whether it’s valid is debatable; what’s not debatable is that the memes dunking on the movie are pretty good.)

But is the book criticism justified, and is Ready Player One a good movie in spite of its source material’s flaws? Ringer staffer Zach Kram—a Ready Player One book reader who’s yet to see the movie—and I set out to answer these questions while comparing the two things, discussing whether there’s an over-reliance on nostalgia, and why The Iron Giant is awesome.—Miles Surrey

Surrey: Zach, you’re coming at this as a Ready Player One book reader, and I’ve only seen the film. Before I dive into how I felt about the movie, I wanted to know where you stand on the book. Are you pro–Ready Player One? Is its backlash out of control? Has your opinion on the book changed over time? Do you hate it? If it’s the latter ... [Emperor Palpatine voice] let the hate flow through you, and into this discussion.

Zach Kram: I generally find myself in the “well plotted, poorly written” camp of opinion. I’m a sucker for scavenger hunts, and RP1 is fun, with ample adventure, some imaginative ideas, and enough moderately interesting twists to sustain a reader’s attention for 350 pages.

But that plotting—while compelling enough to propel me to finish the story—is just about the only part of the book I enjoyed. Aesthetically, the writing is awkward on a sentence level; the romantic subplot is so cloying and clichéd that I laughed out loud when it reached its conclusion; and the main character is such a Gary Stu that it’s hard to relate to anybody in the novel. Which is perhaps the point—it’s the ideas that are supposed to be relatable, and the nostalgia that represents Cline’s whole conceit, which, again, is fun enough on the surface. But it’s no more than that, and until I re-read the book this week in advance of the movie, I had no inclination to revisit it.

Surrey: It’s funny you mention the writing specifically, because Spielberg—shocker!—made a really fun action-adventure romp that feels weighed down by clunky dialogue (Cline was credited as a co-screenwriter for the movie as well). To use just one egregious example, Wade Watts refers to his aunt as “my mom’s sister.” Nobody does that, right?

In a less capable director’s hands, Ready Player One would be hampered by that poor writing—and the fact most of the characters don’t feel like anything more than a collection of archetypes, with the exception of Wade’s charismatic digital bestie, Aech. But I have to admit I was thrilled watching Wade sift through all this ’80s pop culture, collecting the three “keys” in the OASIS. It was a reflection of a lot of stuff I absorbed growing up and that just feels good. The Iron Giant is taking on Mechagodzilla? Hell yeah!

But I can’t escape the feeling that Ready Player One’s nostalgia—and there’s a lot of it—is told through a narrow prism. If this isn’t the pop culture you connected to, it isn’t going to feel all that inviting. Wade is basically a human encyclopedia for the work and inspirations of OASIS creator James Halliday, and there’s nothing that ties into what pop culture means in the 2040s. Is everyone just reliving the past; the “better” days? Maybe that’s the point, but it’s a point that feels less important to Cline, who’d rather fetishize a DeLorean as it tries to outrun King Kong in a race across New York City.

Kram: First off, wow, some of that is new to me and rather exciting. In the book, Wade selects a different robot than the Iron Giant—Vin Diesel’s best role; come at me, Groot fans—and I have no idea how King Kong features in this story. The longest a DeLorean appears in the book is when Wade describes how his virtual-reality Back to the Future homage is decked out with Knight Rider equipment and Ghostbusters paraphernalia. Which sort of encapsulates the entire RP1 reading experience: It’s a lot, and at some point the imaginative fun ends and becomes sort of messy.

You’ve also touched on my biggest criticism of the book’s world-building, which actually relates to a lack of imagination: Outside of the fictional OASIS technology developing and infiltrating the whole world, there are few cultural indications that any time has passed from the present day. It’s strange that a fictional creation so centered around pop culture and tech would fail to think about how the greatest invention in pop culture and tech history would inspire new trends or further inventions or art.

But the only time I remember Cline inventing a “future” movie or TV show is in a parenthetical reference to multiple bad Indiana Jones sequels, “from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward.” Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube still exist in 2045, and Wade buys an item on eBay. The characters use internet slang that already feels dated in 2018, let alone three decades from now—a crucial plot point involves Wade frequenting the virtual-reality “L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus.” Please tell me that last one, at least, is cut from the movie.

Surrey: It’s technically Aech that uses the Iron Giant avatar, but I agree 100 percent: The Iron Giant is the best thing Vin Diesel’s ever done, and I say this as a devout worshipper of the Fast & Furious franchise. I’m also happy to say whatever the hell “L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus” is, it is definitely not in the movie.

Going back to Cline’s world-building, that remains my biggest issue with the adaptation. Even during the movie’s climax—which I won’t spoil with too much detail here—it feels like Wade and the other protagonists are merely paying lip service to the idea that they want to make their reality a better place, and that whatever experiences happen inside the OASIS can never compare to the “real” world. If that’s true, the movie does a terrible job selling that idea.

It’s a throwaway line when the entire movie is spent luxuriating in the OASIS, a virtual utopia that, admittedly, looks like a great time. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this Pop Culture Fan Service movie. It’s meant to be fun, and it is plenty fun—it’s best not to think about its flaws too much.

Is there anything from Cline’s book that you’d want Spielberg’s movie to tweak? The thing that irked me was Artemis’s character: In a movie that’s a collection of (mostly innocent) ’80s tropes, it definitely didn’t need the “attractive girl as the male protagonist’s trophy.”

Kram: Substitute “book” for “movie” in “[They] are merely paying lip service to the idea that … whatever experiences happen inside the OASIS can never compare to the ‘real’ world. If that’s true, the movie does a terrible job selling that idea,” and you’ve nailed RP1 without even reading the thing! I also agree with you about Artemis—forgive me, Art3mis—who is similarly objectified in the book and who, as a ferocious fighter and popular writer and savvy hunter—she’s the first person to discover the first key’s location, even if Wade completes the challenge before her—is a much more interesting character before crossing paths with the male protagonist.

To answer your question, I think the best part about RP1 as a movie is that it inherently should take care of many of the the book’s problems. The book’s early pacing is weighed down by a full 70 pages of exposition before any action begins, the writing itself is clunky—if not outright offensive—and many of the references are esoteric enough that they fly past the reader rather than gripping them in the throes of nostalgia. If it takes a big-budget movie to even out the action, replace portions of the narration with visual storytelling, and add in a few more familiar faces, I’m all for it. And because it’s Spielberg reckoning and toying with the nostalgia that he himself helped create in the ’80s, then I’m even further on board.

I guess I think of Ready Player One’s adaptive possibilities as opposite those of, say, The Book Thief. There, the narration is a core part of the book’s genius and made it impossible to translate perfectly to the screen, but I’m not going to miss any of the RP1 book’s witticisms or overeager metaphors if they didn’t make it into the script. Just give me some popcorn and the Back to the FutureKing Kong crossover I never knew I wanted before this conversation.

Surrey: That’s the great thing: Spielberg’s opening sequence all but takes care of the necessary OASIS exposition dump in a manner of minutes. He’s able to convey, I’d imagine, pages worth of “Hey, remember that guy?!” instantly, with a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kinetic energy that a movie like Ready Player One requires to work. If you missed Marvin the Martian’s one-second cameo, you might be disappointed, but it won’t ruin your experience.

Just based on our chat, it seems like Ready Player One could be the rare case of a book where the adaptation ends up being the better overall work. (I’d probably put Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that space, too, but please don’t tell Stephen King.)

Ready Player One isn’t the best blockbuster of the year—it’ll be hard for any movie to top Black Panther—but it certainly isn’t a waste of time. The strengths (visuals, pacing, the lurid, extended sequence in the Shining-verse) outweigh the occasional cringe-worthy line of dialogue and poorly developed characters. For two hours, I was … whisked away to a land of pure, specifically 1980s imagination. And I suppose that’s enough for me. Thanks, Steven!

Zach, has our chat done anything to convince you to see or dissuade you from seeing the movie, or were you going to check it out regardless?

Kram: I’ve bashed the book a bunch here, but again, I do think it’s generally fun, so if the multiplex multiplies that factor, it sounds like a healthy afternoon indulgence sometime this weekend. You’ve convinced me. Though I suspect I didn’t do such a stellar selling job to get you to check out the source material.

Surrey: