‘Ready Player One’: 5 Key Ways in Which the Movie Differs From the Book

Leigh Singer

FANDOM has already examined one major way in which the Ready Player One movie differs to Ernest Cline’s book. The following are five more changes that the filmmakers made. So be warned, there are SPOILERS AHEAD

1. Ready Player One Champions Movies Over Games

Admittedly, Ready Viewer One isn’t half as catchy a title, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Spielberg’s film adaptation is far more immersed in cinema than the arcade. While the basic narrative maintains the premise of a VR game that must be played and won, most of the trials that Parzival and his crew navigate are steeped in movie lore.

Sure, the gaming community is huge, but it’s simply dwarfed by a wider prospective audience who will recognise, say, a Jurassic Park T-Rex rather than ‘80s video game Joust. As a result, the film cannily substitutes specific video games (Dungeons of Daggorath, Zork, etc) for a game-like experience that incorporates film characters from King Kong to Child’s Play’s killer doll Chucky.

Given the convergence of the movie and game worlds in recent years, it’s the one area where Ready Player One updates its relentless nostalgia trip. Ernest Cline’s novel is hardwired to replicate the specific games of his youth. But Spielberg’s film wants a more all-purpose experience. As perhaps the biggest entertainment influencer of the 1970s and ‘80s, Spielberg is well aware that movies (and TV) and music are the instant reference points that most people will share and remember, and wisely upgrades the movie’s operating system to reflect those pop culture giants. Speaking of which…

2. Choose Your Own Adventure: Switching Up the Pop Culture References

The Iron Giant plays a big part in Ready Player One.

Cline’s novel is bursting with pop culture raves, lists and name drops. It’s exhaustive and exhausting. You could make a seven-season Ready Player One TV show and not cover a fraction of the movie, game, TV, music and comics cited in the book. As Cline’s surrogate Wade Watts brags, “I knew them all. Because knowing is half the battle.”

Spielberg, on the other hand, isn’t trying to solve a multi-versal puzzle, he’s trying to make a two-hour movie. So not only can he casually drop a ton of references in the film’s busy VR backgrounds, he can pick and choose which ones to focus on, or ditch Cline’s favourites altogether. So, for example, the book’s sequences where Parzival role-plays Matthew Broderick’s computer nerd from War Games, or various Monty Python and the Holy Grail characters, are gone. Instead we get a much more visually striking supporting turn from The Iron Giant. Or a dance sequence from ‘70s disco behemoth Saturday Night Fever, which probably isn’t on most geeks’ shortlist, but will definitely pop with audiences (of a certain age) at large.

Then there’s the much-ballyhooed sequence set within a classic ‘80s horror movie. No spoilers here, and though it’s clearly a tribute to a dear friend (and sometime collaborator) of Spielberg’s, some might consider this extended set piece sacrilegious. That said, it’s actually one of the few times where the non-stop pop culture riffing has a genuine impact on the movie’s narrative.

3. You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Oasis: The Movie Streamlines Ready Player One‘s World

Yes, the film points out the size and scope of Halliday’s all-encompassing OASIS project, but given its time constraints, and presumably, to help orientate spectators, the world that Parzival and crew inhabit feels more like a one-terrain deal: like Middle-Earth, or Azzeroth, rather than the VR landscape that Cline describes in his novel: “The Firefly universe was anchored in a sector adjacent to the Star Wars galaxy, with a detailed recreation of the Star Trek universe in the sector adjacent to that… Worlds upon worlds.”

This makes sense for the movie’s storytelling, but it does leave the film feeling a little cramped – ironic, for a story about the infinite possibilities of VR and the human imagination. It also makes the solving of the clues seem a lot easier than described in the book, where IOI’s massive, systematic search over five years without turning up a shred of evidence is much more plausible. Here, Wade and co’s sleuthing is like a chapter in a Dan Brown/DaVinci Code book, and seems as if it could be solved as quickly.

4. “VR” Does Not Stand For “Virtual Romance” Onscreen

Tye Sheridan as Wade/Parzival and OIivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis.

A major plot point of Cline’s novel is that our heroes and potential romantic couple, Parzival/Wade and Art3mis/Samantha, only actually meet in the flesh three pages from the end. Until then, they interact solely through their virtual alter egos, as do Aech, Daito and Shoto; it’s a situation that, if Spielberg kept us tied to their synthetic, anime-eyed shapeshifters, might threaten to lose any real connections we have with the young protagonists,

Fortunately there’s little real suspense as to whether Wade and Samantha will hook up. And so, introducing them to one another much earlier on is no betrayal of the source material. If anything, it helps raise the stakes, getting more out of the film’s expressive actors like Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe. It also provides a neat repeat gag, homing in on multiple characters’ surprise when they find that hotshot Shoto (Philip Zhao) is an 11-year-old kid.

5. The Cheat Code? Ready Player One Makes Real-Life Consequences Into a Game

Wade in his VR gear.

VR, obviously, isn’t real. When you die in a computer simulation, you simply reload and play again. It’s Groundhog Day without the Buddhist subtext of necessary moral salvation to proceed. Cline knows this, and so took pains to make some lasting, life-or-death twists in the novel. On the page, Daito is killed by Sorrento’s Sixers. Likewise Wade’s aunt, taken out in the explosion Sorrento rigs to kill Wade. For these characters, it really is game over.

Onscreen, Ready Player One does off Wade’s aunt (and her dimwit lover), but, honestly, no one could care less, so marginal and unsympathetic are the characters. The kid, Daito, unsurprisingly for a Spielberg film, does not die. The genuine jeopardy that Cline input into his original has deliberately been erased here. Earth’s dystopian state is barely mentioned, let alone shown, which is unusual for Spielberg, who created such rich, detailed sci-fi worlds in films like Minority Report or War of the Worlds. While the film clearly wants to privilege feelgood ‘80s family fare over anything too disturbing, it also robs the story of some of its power. And in a time where fellow nostalgia fests like It or Stranger Things do go dark, Ready Player One’s insistence on being mainly ‘just’ a game feels like a hindrance that prevents the movie getting to the next level.

Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!