Review: Ready Player One – Way back at the beginning of April, HJ and I went to see Ready Player One (which I’m going to be abbreviating as RPO from now on). This review has been a long time coming—it’s been over a month and a half now since we saw the film. I did take the time early the following week to write down some detailed notes, and I probably could have written a quick and dirty review in a much more timely fashion, but I wanted to revisit the book to see how the film stacked up. Then life interfered and I found myself with not as much time to write the review as I needed. I did work on it bit by bit when I could, and I am finally ready to release this sucker into the world—now that the film has been forgotten and all anyone is talking about is Infinity War (which, incidentally, I’ve also seen—expect a review of that this summer!).
I should say that this is a really long entry. Actually, it’s kind of embarrassing how long this is, because it is hard to justify spending this many words on RPO, be it book or film. All I can say is that I got a little carried away, and I kept thinking of more things to say the longer the review sat around. The entire review currently stands at 8020 words, which is no doubt too many (for reference, the first two paragraphs here are 351 words, or less than 5% of the whole). So here’s a TL;DR summary. RPO the film changes a lot of things from the book. Most of these changes were probably necessary to make sure that the story even worked as a film for a general audience, and in the end I think the filmmakers did a pretty good job, even if I didn’t agree with all the changes. It’s probably not going to blow your mind, but it’s good fun. OK, now let’s dive into the review, with the obvious caveat that there will be spoilers for both the film and the book.
When I first heard that they were making a film out of RPO, it did not surprise me at all; it’s the kind of book that is just begging to be made into a film. I remember thinking that, if they did it right, it could be fun—but if they got it wrong, it was going to be a massive flop. Little did I guess how problematic the subject matter might prove for some critics.
I mentioned above that I wanted to “revisit” the book after seeing the film. I first read it not long after it came out in 2011, and I enjoyed it. It didn’t blow my socks off as a work of high literature, but it was fun, and it was aimed squarely at my generation (James Halliday, the ultimate motive power behind the story, was born within a year of me). More specifically, it was aimed at my particular slice of our generation: the (white) male gamer geek (or “nerds,” as we used to call ourselves). I was not unaware of the issues that RPO had, but at the time it didn’t seem like that big of a deal, and the book wasn’t exactly crying out to be taken seriously.
Fast forward a few years, to 2014, and the Gamergate controversy. This is way too complex a topic for me to get into here, so I would recommend looking it up if you’re not familiar with it (but be prepared for a lot of unpleasantness if you do). After Gamergate, white male gamer geek culture became downright radioactive (I don’t think the usual descriptor of “toxic” will cut it here). So a lot of eyebrows were raised when it was announced that they were going to make a film out of what is essentially a paean to this now radioactive culture. In the weeks before the film opened, critics started digging around for reasons to be wary, and they did not come up short. Photographs of particular cringe-worthy passages started making the rounds on Twitter. And RPO became as radioactive as the culture it praised, at least in certain media circles.
Now, let me reiterate here that RPO is by no means high art. No one is going to mistake this for a classic of American literature. But not every book needs to be the next Great American Novel to be enjoyable. It was uncommon to hear good things being said about this book in the run-up to the film, but in 2011 things were different. Here are some review quotes from the back of the book. From CNN: “An addictive read ... part intergalactic scavenger hunt, part romance, and all heart.” From The Boston Globe: “A most excellent ride ... Cline stuffs his novel with a cornucopia of pop culture, as if to wink to the reader.” From NPR: “Ridiculously fun and large-hearted ... Cline is that rare writer who can translate his own dorky enthusiasms into prose that’s both hilarious and compassionate.” From I09: “[A] fantastic page-turner ... starts out like a simple bit of fun and winds up feeling like a rich and plausible picture of future friendships in a world not too distant from our own.” And the Huffington Post—this Huffington Post, mind you—called it “delightful ... the grown-up’s Harry Potter.”
The upheaval of Gamergate, though, caused a reappraisal of the white male gamer geek culture and those who sang of it. RPO went from a book that was a bit dorky and over the top at times, but still a lot of fun, to everything that is wrong with gaming culture today. I’m not going to argue that there isn’t a lot wrong with gaming culture, because there is. I’m also not going to argue that Ernest Cline, RPO’s author, is not a problematic figure, because he is (if you didn’t read the poetry at the first link two paragraphs above, you should). And I’m definitely not going to argue that there aren’t weaknesses in RPO itself, because there most certainly are. Those passages where Cline rattles off pop culture references like he is reading the ingredients off a box of Twinkies (although there aren’t as many of these passages as you might think—the passage that made the rounds on Twitter is by far the worst) trigger a lot of cringing and eye-rolling, but this is the least of the book’s problems. I’ll talk more about these as I discuss the film and how it differs from the book. (As I mentioned above, it differs a lot.)
The day after I saw the film, I was talking with my youngest brother Matt over Skype. I told him that I had seen it, and he asked me what I thought. I replied that I had enjoyed it, and he asked me if I had read the book. I could tell by his disapproving tone of voice that he had read the book and been disappointed by the film. When I replied that I had, in fact, read the book, he complained: “They kept the quest and the characters, but they changed everything else!” He’s not wrong—I spent much of the film thinking, “Hmm... I don’t remember that from the book.” I certainly did not remember an extended sequence that took place in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, for example. The truth of the matter, though, is that I didn’t really remember that much from the book at all. I remembered that it was a fun page-turner, but it’s not the sort of book that really sticks with you. So I decided to read it again and refresh my memory. As it turns out, Matt is right—they really did change everything. I don’t think this is a bad thing, though (and Matt has since emailed me to say that he has also come around to seeing a number of things differently after thinking about them for a while.)
Before I get into the differences and what I think the film got right and wrong, a brief synopsis is in order. Despite the massive changes in the film, the basic plot structure is identical, so this synopsis will serve to summarize both the book and the film. Our protagonist is Wade Owen Watts, a young man who lives in the slums of Oklahoma City—an area called “the Stacks,” because it literally consists of stacks of mobile homes piled high into the sky. Reality sucks, so he, like many people around the world, escapes to a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS (the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where he goes by the name Parzival. Wade/Parzival is a “gunter” (a shortened form of “egg hunter”) looking for the fabled Easter Egg left behind by the OASIS’s recently deceased creator, James Halliday. If you’re not familiar with gamer parlance, an “Easter egg” is a little surprise hidden in a game by the creator, put there for players to find and enjoy. Easter eggs have no intrinsic value and are meant to be just a bit of fun, but this Easter egg is different: Whoever finds it becomes the owner of the OASIS and effectively the richest person on the planet. Needless to say, a lot of people are looking for it. Some gunters, like Wade, operate alone. Others have formed clans and cooperate in an attempt to find the egg.
Then we have the story’s main antagonists, the sinister multinational corporation Innovative Online Industries, or IOI. Their clone-like avatars are known to the gunters as “Sixers” because they have no names, only six-digit serial numbers, all beginning with the number six (the number of the beast, of course, just in case you needed convincing that they are evil). In addition to being able to draw from a seemingly unlimited pool of manpower, the Sixers are also backed up by IOI’s army of oologists (a term used for those who study or collect eggs, but cleverly repurposed by IOI to refer to their own phalanx of 80s-pop-culture nerds). IOI is a telecommunications company that has its fingers in a lot of pies, and not only are they willing to invest an obscene amount of money in the egg hunt, they also have no compunction about acting in the real world in an attempt to stop any gunter who might be getting close to the prize.
And yet, despite the fact that it has been five years since Halliday’s death, no one is any closer to finding the egg than they were the day the Hunt began. The scoreboard that tracks player progress is still empty (although in the book each place on the scoreboard lists Halliday’s initials—JDH—and a score of six zeroes). There are three keys to be found, a copper key, a jade key, and a crystal key, but no one has been able to get their hands on the copper key yet. Our hero Parzival, of course, is the first to accomplish this feat and set the narrative in motion. This is where the book and the film diverge. In the book, a riddle points the way to the first key, which in turn comes with a clue pointing the way to the first gate. Once the first gate is entered and the challenge within is completed, another clue points to the second key, which comes with a clue pointing to the second gate, and so on. In the film, this structure has been greatly simplified—there are only the three keys and a single gate at the end that is opened by inserting all three keys into their respective keyholes. The challenges themselves have also been changed completely, and that’s a good enough place as any to start talking about the differences between the book and the film.
In the book, the challenges require detailed knowledge of a fiendish Dungeons & Dragons module, two classic arcade games, two early computer games, three films that were and are still geek favorites, and one Canadian prog rock band. To find the first (copper) key, for example, Parzival must locate the Tomb of Horrors, survive the many traps and pitfalls inside, and make his way to the final chamber where a powerful lich awaits, ready to challenge him to a deadly joust. Wait, I mean: “ready to challenge him in the classic arcade game Joust.” Yes, he actually plays an arcade game against a lich. Once Parzival has the copper key, successfully completing the challenge of the copper gate requires him to play the old TRS-80 game Dungeons of Daggorath and then reenact the entirety of the 1983 film WarGames from the point of view of Matthew Broderick’s character. If that all sounds a little ridiculous... well, it is. But the Hunt was designed by Halliday as a way of encouraging people to share his love of the geek culture of his generation.
Imagine trying to bring these quests to the silver screen. Even a montage of Parzival playing that perfect game of Pac-Man to win the magic quarter (the one that, in the film, he gains by winning a bet with the Curator) would be insanely boring. And all those references are likely to miss anyone who doesn’t belong to the particular slice of geek culture that Cline was targeting. I saw WarGames more than once back in the 80s, and I have fond memories of playing Dungeons of Daggorath. But even I wasn’t a fan of everything Cline seemed to be a fan of. I never really got into Rush (or prog rock in general), for example. Cline was also apparently big into mechas and kaiju; when it came to Japanese pop culture, I was much more into anime. I actually found it kind of funny that Matt was so upset that the film didn’t preserve the plethora of references, seeing as he is over a decade younger than me and thus a child of the 90s. But that’s nothing compared to Wade—all of that culture he studies religiously for the Hunt happened a half century before he was born. That would be like me being obsessed with flapper culture. (In fairness, though, I am a little fascinated by the culture of that era.)
Anyway, although I was looking forward to seeing the Tomb of Horrors brought to life on the silver screen, in retrospect it is obvious that there was no way the filmmakers could follow the book. Instead, they chose to make the clues and quests about things that were very personal for Halliday—namely, regrets that made him who he was. The actual challenges—a race through an obstacle-laden New York to Central Park, a breathtaking recreation of the Overlook Hotel, and the early video game Adventure—are things that do not require obsessive geek knowledge to understand or appreciate (HJ has somehow never seen The Shining, but she was still able to follow what was going on). So although it was a bit jarring at first to see such radical changes, the more I think about it the more I feel that the filmmakers made the right choice. A faithful recreation of the book would have been disastrous.
Of course, these changes required other changes to some of the relationships in the story, or at least to when we learn about them. The triangle of Halliday, Ogden Morrow (Halliday’s business partner), and Morrow’s wife Kira does exist in the book, but we don’t find out until the very end that their respective relationships with Kira were what caused Halliday and Morrow’s relationship to become strained. Also, in the film we are told that Halliday forced Morrow to sign a contract giving up his interest in the company. This is Halliday’s greatest regret, and it also becomes the final hurdle that Wade must overcome—he must recognize that the contract Anorak (Halliday’s avatar in the OASIS) gives him is the same contract that Halliday gave Morrow. This doesn’t happen in the book, though. Morrow becomes concerned that people are spending too much time in the OASIS and not enough time in the real world, and he voluntarily leaves (selling his share of the company to Halliday) to found an educational game company with his wife. The idea that Halliday would force Morrow out of the company is really out of character, and it makes Halliday much more of a jerk than he is in the book. It does make Halliday’s relationship with Morrow more fraught and emotional, though, and allows for some catharsis at the end of the film. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it—I can see both sides of the picture here.
There are plenty of other differences, though, even beyond the quests and the relationships. For one, I had forgotten just how dark and cynical the book is, especially at the beginning. Even when the tone becomes much lighter and more exuberant once we get into the Hunt itself, there is still a very dark undercurrent that breaks the surface every now and then. The film does show us the scene where IOI blow up the entire stack that Wade lives in—killing dozens of people, at least—but we aren’t really given the time to process the tragedy. Also, remember Daito and Shoto? Well, Daito—Toshiro, that is—is straight up murdered by the Sixers in the book. They break into his house, tear him out of his haptic chair, and throw him off the balcony of his forty-third-floor apartment in Tokyo. It is a shocking scene in the book, more so than the stack explosion. Part of this is because the victim is someone we’ve gotten to know, at least to some extent. I think it goes deeper than that, though. Toshiro’s death is a very harsh reminder that the OASIS can never truly be an escape from reality—no matter how powerful you might be in the OASIS, all it takes in the real world is some goons to throw you off a balcony and it’s game over. In the OASIS, Daito is a famed gunter, one of the High Five, but in the real world he is just a recluse who died terrified and alone.
I’ll talk more about the relationship between the OASIS and reality later, as it is an important theme, but first I want to talk about some of the characters and how they were changed in the film. Since I’ve just mentioned Daito and Shoto, I might as well start with them. Perhaps the most obvious change is that the pair are both Japanese in the book, whereas in the film Shoto is an eleven-year-old Chinese boy. The two are also not friends with Parzival in the book at first; Parzival does manage to gain their trust and respect, but it isn’t until after Daito’s death that Shoto decides to aid Parzival in the Hunt (Daito and Parzival part on a less-than-cordial note, and there is no reconciliation before Toshiro is killed, making his death that much more difficult to process). Daisho (as the pair is abbreviated, like a celebrity couple) are probably my least favorite characters in the book. They spend too much time talking about honor and bowing incessantly. In fact, they (perhaps unsurprisingly) seem more like what a white male geek thinks a pair of samurai-obsessed Japanese otaku should be as opposed to feeling like real people. Daisho don’t play a very large part in the film, but I was glad to see that they weren’t the caricatures that they were in the book. And, no, I don’t have any problem with the filmmakers making Shoto Chinese instead of Japanese. I guess it feels a little less on the nose that way.
On the other side of the aisle, there are two characters that we get to see a lot more of in the film than we do in the book: i-rOk and Nolan Sorrento (the leader of the Sixers). In the book, i-rOk is a bit character who has two brief appearances, and in both appearances he is way too full of himself and incredibly clueless. The first time we see him is in Aech’s basement (a private chat room hosted by Aech), where he boasts of having a clue to the first riddle. This clue, though, is already common knowledge, and Parzival humiliates him by showing off his superior command of 80s pop culture. Now, it is true that knowledge of 80s pop culture is one of the most important things for a gunter to have, and this scene serves to demonstrate that, but it is super cringe-worthy nonetheless. The only other time i-rOk appears in the book is when he publicly blabs about an important clue to the location of the first key, putting the Sixers on the trail. He never actively helps the Sixers, though, and is mostly just incompetent. He’s not even really a properly realized character, to be honest. I love what they did with him in the film, though. He is a much more fully realized character and a force to be reckoned with—in fact, it is pretty clear that Parzival is no match for him. I think it makes for a more interesting dynamic to have an evil henchman who is actually threatening, as opposed to a cardboard character who is little more than a foil for the protagonist.
Sorrento is another character that is realized much more fully in the film. I didn’t realize this until I went back and read the book again, but we don’t directly see that much of Sorrento at all—his only real scene is when he has the chat with Parzival and attempts to turn him to the dark side (and then murders dozens of people when Parzival refuses). We hear about him throughout the book, but we never actually get to see him in action, at least until the final battle. I like that we get to see more of him and get to know him more as a character in the film. I especially like how they went into his back story and gave him a history with Halliday—that was a very nice touch that definitely made him a more compelling character. (I do think his actions at the end of the film crossed over into ridiculousness, but more on that later.)
If there is one character that undergoes a radical transformation from book to film, though, it would be Art3mis. In the book, we see her through Parzival’s eyes as the perfect geek girl. Yet for as much as she is played up as being competent and skilled, we rarely get to see her do anything. This is partly due to the fact that Wade/Parzival is our only POV character in the book, so if Wade doesn’t see it happen, we don’t see it happen. Thus, after Wade passes the first challenge and gets the first key, we see Art3mis’s name go up on the scoreboard, and Wade realizes that she must have passed the challenge as well. In the film, we get to see her actually being competent and skilled. And she is much more fully fleshed out as a member of a real-world resistance trying to do something about real-world problems.
Samantha/Art3mis’s transformation in the film is helped by one major change made to the plot: In the book, Wade and Samantha do not meet until the very last scene, but in the film, they meet much earlier. As a result, Wade and Samantha are together when the Sixers bust into the hideout, allowing Samantha to sacrifice herself so that Wade can escape. The sacrifice itself is of course noble and heroic, but it also gives Samantha the opportunity to infiltrate IOI and perform the crucial task of disabling the Orb of Osuvox (the magic item that creates the forcefield around the final castle). In the book, it is Wade who (deliberately) gets himself captured and disables the Orb—and he does it in such a way that he can also be outside the castle to lead the gunter army into the final battle. Samantha/Art3mis is there for this battle, but ultimately everything comes down to Wade.
There is something else worth noting about how Wade and Samantha meet in the book. As the remaining four members of the High Five get together, Wade finally meets his best friend Aech in real life—and learns that the “H” stands for “Helen” (more on Aech/Helen next). But Samantha is already ensconced in her own room with access to the OASIS, and she tells Wade that she doesn’t want to see him face-to-face until after it’s all over, because she is afraid that it will be “an unnecessary distraction.” This seems a little weird if you think about it. The four of them—Wade/Parzival, Helen/Aech, Samantha/Art3mis, and Akihide/Shoto—are about to engage in the final battle to determine the fate of the OASIS, and meeting in person would be a distraction? Wouldn’t having a real-world connection with the people you are fighting alongside give you even more motivation? Apparently not. Even after the battle is over and the day has been won, Samantha is not waiting there to greet Wade when he emerges from his OASIS chamber. No, she is waiting at the center of a hedge maze modeled after the maze in Adventure—she is literally the prize that Wade gets after defeating the big boss and winning the game. The cringe is strong with this one. It is true that Wade gets the girl in the film as well, but that’s a trope that is hard to buck. At least Samantha is a more autonomous character in the film.
There is one final main character to discuss, and that is Aech, Wade’s best friend both in real life and in the OASIS. In the book, Aech is described as being “a tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes” (38). In the film, he is a dark non-human (orc?) instead. I’m not sure why this change was made, because the appearance of Aech’s avatar in the book is significant and deliberate. As I mentioned above, “Aech” is just a phonetic representation of “H,” which in turn stands for “Helen,” who in real life is a heavyset black lesbian. In the film, only the first two of these features is presented; there is no mention that Aech is gay. I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised by that, though. I’m not sure how they would have worked that in without making it seem shoehorned. And I’m not sure that Cline made Aech gay for any other reason than to have Wade feel less uncomfortable about having shared all of his fantasies about girls with her. They both like girls, so it’s OK, right? Maybe that’s not entirely fair, but it did feel like that.
I’ll tell you what else isn’t fair, though, and that is this quote from a Vox article that discusses the book: “Wade’s best friend has a white male avatar but is secretly a black lesbian, a revelation to which Wade reacts by deciding that it does not matter because he doesn’t even see people’s race, gender, or sexuality.” Now, this is a little tricky, but I think this is an uncharitable reading of the book at best. Wade does say,“But it really doesn’t matter. íŽ You’re my best friend, Aech. My only friend, to be honest” (319). Later, in his internal monologue, he expands on the idea: “I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation” (321). A more charitable reading of this, I think, would be to say that Wade’s realization came about because he was able to see beyond those characteristics—not necessarily that he did not see these characteristics or that he didn’t realize they were important to Aech, because they very obviously were.
This is why I found the change in Aech’s appearance in the film puzzling—because the book comments, honestly if briefly, on the issue of race online. We learn that Helen got the idea to use a Caucasian male avatar from her mother, who found that doing business as a white man in the OASIS was a lot easier than doing business as a black woman. This seems to me to be a pretty frank take on online identity issues, even if Cline does not plumb the depths of the subject. Yet the film shies away from this—why? Would it have taken too long to explain? An even more important question: Why is it that all of the other characters have avatars that approximate (if exaggerate) their own physical features, but the only black character in the story has a hulking, non-human avatar? The only explanation I can think of is that the filmmakers wanted to stay as far away from the race issue as possible and decided to not attach Aech to any human race. The only problem with this is that every choice is going to have a meaning, and unfortunately the representation of blacks as non-human Others has a long history. This is one change from the book that I think was very ill-informed, and by trying to sidestep the race issue the filmmakers ended up stepping straight into a big steaming pile of it.
This is not to say that the issue was handled perfectly in the book, of course. The whole thing did feel a little bit weird to me, probably because I got the impression as a reader that I was supposed to feel proud of Wade for not letting “anything as inconsequential as gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation” get in the way of an established friendship. It’s hard to pinpoint why I got this impression, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it takes Wade quite a while to reach this conclusion, despite the fact that it seemed very obvious to me. In the end, I think my reaction falls somewhere in between what Cline was aiming for and the overly harsh Vox article.
This seems like a natural segue into talking about issues of reality versus (or how it relates to) the online world, and maybe wrapping up this long (and long overdue!) review. The relationship of the OASIS to reality is complicated—and not always convincing—in both the book and the film. When Parzival finishes the final quest and at last claims the egg, Halliday appears to him to give a farewell speech. At least, Halliday’s avatar appears—not Anorak the wizard, but a virtual representation that looks exactly like James Halliday himself (which is, incidentally, the only time a person ever appears in the OASIS as themselves). The speech in the film is lifted word-for-word from the book, with the exception of the punchline: “Reality is the only place you can get a hot meal.” This is actually from an epigraph at the beginning of Level Two (the book is divided into parts, which are called “levels”), a quotation from Groucho Marx: “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal” (167). In the book, however, what Halliday actually says at the end of his speech is: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness” (364). Why the change? Did the filmmakers think it was a little too serious sounding? They obviously didn’t disagree with the sentiment (I’ll come back to this later), so I’m a little confused.
There is another instance in the book where a hard look is taken at the OASIS in relation to reality. For as awesome as the OASIS is made out to be, Wade is aware of the negative real-world consequences of obsessive use. After the Sixers blow up his stack in an attempt to kill him, Wade packs up, adopts an alias, and moves to a one-room apartment in Columbus, Ohio (where both Gregarious Simulation Systems and IOI headquarters are located). He vows that he will not leave the apartment until he has found the egg, and reality takes a back seat to the OASIS. But Wade is not blind to what he has become.
But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.
Standing there, under the bleak flourescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame. (198)
This is fairly harsh, but this is the only moment of such self-awareness on Wade’s part, other than the odd passing mention, that we see in the book. Indeed, in the very next paragraph he goes on to talk about how he is a celebrity in the OASIS, and when he logs in to the simulation a few short paragraphs later, he lets out “an involuntary sigh of relief” (199). He is aware that he is trading his real life in for a virtual one, but he doesn’t actually seem to care, at least not yet. It is not until the very end of the book, after he meets Samantha for the first time, that he loses interest in his virtual life—the book ends with: “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS” (372). He has finally found happiness, so the virtual world loses its grip on his soul. This all feels a little too neat and tidy, to be honest, but Ready Player One is not the sort of book you go to if you want to wrestle with deep philosophical questions (which is totally fine, of course).
With the exception of the destruction of the stacks in Oklahoma City and Daito’s murder by the Sixers in Tokyo, the real world and the virtual world do not intersect that much in the book. This becomes even more pronounced toward the end, when Ogden Morrow brings the four remaining members of the High Five to his mansion so that they can fight the final battle in (real-world) safety. I guess at this point we are supposed to be so invested in the virtual stakes—after all, the future of the OASIS is on the line here!—that a lack of real-world danger shouldn’t matter, but I honestly found that it diluted a lot of the tension. I still looked forward to seeing how Parzival would emerge victorious in the OASIS, but knowing that all of the characters were safe in the real world made it feel less... well, real.
The filmmakers must have felt similarly, because they kept the real-world stakes high throughout the final act. The car chase felt a little contrived, and I though the final confrontation with Sorrento was rather ridiculous, but I will admit that the climax of the film felt significantly more tense than the climax of the book. The filmmakers also brought the real world into the resolution of the story as well, having the High Five decide to shut down the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that people could live their “real” lives. (This is why I said above that the filmmakers did not disagree with the sentiment that living in the real world was important.)
However, neither the book nor the film truly deal with the problems of the real world. As I noted above, the book ends with Wade finally having met Samantha and deciding that maybe the OASIS isn’t the end-all, be-all of human existence after all. As I mentioned earlier, the book is quite dark and cynical, and this comes from Cline’s depiction of a truly bleak real world. What happens to that real world once Wade finds the egg and wins control of the OASIS? Things may be peachy for him now that he’s got the girl, but what about everyone else? He does mention that they can now help people with their new-found wealth, but the line seems flippant: “We’re going to use all the moolah we just won to feed everyone on the planet. We’re going to make the world a better place, right?” (371). Even if Wade is serious here (and he doesn’t sound like he is—he appears to be saying this because he believes it is what Samantha would want), simply throwing money at systemic problems that have been plaguing the planet for centuries is not going to make them go away. Shutting down the OASIS for two days a week, as the characters do in the film, may sound like a nifty idea, but what happens when all those people are forced to spend nearly a third of their time in a real world that still sucks like a black hole? We know that Samantha and her resistance crew are invested in the problems of the real world, but we hear nothing about what she does to solve those problems with her new wealth. I’m probably asking a bit too much here from both the book and the film, but both seem to paper over very real problems for the sake of a neat, happy ending.
And while we’re on the subject of shutting down the OASIS for two days a week, I wanted to talk about one of my favorite parts of the book that didn’t make it into the film: the planet Ludus, where avatars in the OASIS go to school. I loved the idea of having virtual schools not limited by the constrictions of the real world. Teaching a class on ancient Egypt? Well, why not take your students back to the banks of the Nile in the third millennium before Christ? Maybe you are studying Shakespeare. How about attending a play as a groundling in the Globe Theatre? Or—more pertinent for me—you could take your students back to the festival held to celebrate the reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace in 1867, when pansori singers and other performers put on a grand show. I have to admit that, as an educator, I was giddy at all the possibilities.
The virtual school also serves important story functions. For one, it explains how Wade, despite being poor, has access to OASIS equipment—he has his equipment issued to him by his real-world school to allow him to attend virtual school. It also explains how IOI figure out Wade’s true identity. In the film, he is boneheaded enough to blurt out his real name in public, but in the book IOI get access to his school records, which contain his real name. These are relatively minor points, I suppose, but they are still important. I guess it is unrealistic to think that they would be enough to justify the inclusion of Ludus, but I did miss it. And when Wade announces in the concluding voiceover of the film that they are shutting down the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my first thought was: “But what about the schools?!”
I have a few other gripes with the film that, although not critical, still annoyed me a bit. That the final quest involves the classic video game Adventure and no one but Wade manages to figure out that you’re supposed to find the Easter egg instead of winning the game—you know, despite the fact that the point of the whole quest is to find an Easter egg—was absolutely absurd. After all, Adventure gave us the very first Easter egg, a fact that is noted in the beginning of the book, and IOI had an entire team of oologists working on the problem. I suppose to an audience unfamiliar with the reference, it might seem profound, but to any geek who grew up when Halliday did (that is, the target audience for the book), it was ridiculous.
Another problem with the film was how OASIS users are sometimes shown acting out the motions of their avatars in the real world—such as when the Halo avatars in the final battle are shown to be a group of kids running down a real-world sidewalk with VR visors on. This is, of course, problematic in a practical sense—what happens when you turn left, run out into the street, and get hit by a truck?—but it also makes very little story sense. We’re supposed to believe that our heroes have spent most of their waking hours inside a simulation and have still somehow mastered martial arts and all of the other physical skills their avatars are shown using? The whole point of simulations is to allow you to live a life that is not your own, and to allow you to do things that you might otherwise not be able to do! This did a lot to pull me out of the story, to be honest.
Finally, there is the problem of IOI itself. I know it is supposed to be an evil, all-powerful corporation, but its powers seemed to stretch a little too far. Take, for example, the “loyalty centers,” where people who owe the company money are imprisoned in tiny boxes and made to work as virtual slaves, with no regard for their well-being; Samantha tells Wade that her father died in a loyalty center. These are essentially debtors’ prisons, and I found myself wondering—as I watched the film, mind you—how IOI could ever get away with something like that. In fairness, there is a form of indentured servitude in the book—Wade is subjected to this when he gets himself captured in order to gain access to the IOI systems—but, with the exception of a potentially lethal ankle bracelet (OK, kind of a big exception, but still) and an ear camera, it reads like a (very) thinly-veiled metaphor for a dead-end corporate drone job. It is all very dystopian, although when I read about Amazon fulfillment centers that pay employees 10% less than the going rate for such work, I do find myself wondering if perhaps the difference between the book and the real world is not one of degree. I guess it’s not that hard to imagine a future in which Amazon might have people work at fulfillment centers as part of an individual debt restructuring program (an experience that would no doubt begin with Amazon employees entering your home and rousing you from bed early in the morning). The film was several more steps removed from reality, though, so I had a hard time suspending my disbelief here.
The film and the book share something else that befuddled me. At the end of the book, there is a mention of “the feds” showing up to arrest Sorrento. In the film, we see police arrive to do the same. By the time I saw the film, I had forgotten about this, but my reaction ended up being exactly the same as my original reaction when reading the book: “Wait, there is law enforcement in this story? Where were you guys this whole time?!” After reading the book again, I did notice that the police were mentioned very briefly in conjunction with the stack explosion, but that was it. I just found it a little weird that law enforcement is almost entirely absent until they are needed to wrap things up at the end. And, speaking of the end, am I the only person who found it ridiculous that all of the stacks residents parted like the Red Sea when Sorrento whipped out that gun? So they know that he ordered the explosion that killed all those people, and they’re ready to deliver some mob justice, but once he has a gun in his hand they decide to let him through so he can kill some more people? They were surrounding him, for crying out loud! He can only face one direction at a time—how hard would it have been for someone to clock him from behind? And how long would he have lasted had he actually started firing that gun? While it is true that the gun he is carrying (a Glock 17) does have a higher-than-average capacity of seventeen rounds, he’s not going to be able to kill or wound enough people to get out alive. And lest you think that a few shots would be all he would need to scatter the crowd, we know from the book that gunfire is a daily occurrence in the crime-ridden stacks; at some point, someone would start firing back. I nearly laughed aloud during this scene in the cinema, but I managed to restrain myself.
Ending on a list of complaints probably makes it seem like I didn’t like the film, but I did. I thought that, in general, the filmmakers did a good job with some very difficult source material. I think the film benefited greatly from moving away from Wade’s myopic point-of-view, for one. The connection with the real world in the final act does weaken the thematic thrust of the ending—that the virtual stakes are all that matter—but I’m not sure that this is a bad thing; like I said, I found that the book lacked a little tension toward the end for this reason. I imagine that having the characters all safely ensconced in OASIS chambers in Og’s mansion would have played out as boring on screen, so the change my have been inevitable.
The changes made to the actual content of the quests were also a good idea, and probably inevitable. Like I said earlier, sticking close to the source material would have spelled doom for the adaptation. The changes to the relationship between Halliday and Morrow were made necessary by the new direction in which the filmmakers decided to go with the quests, so on the one hand I can understand them, but on the other hand I don’t think I like the Halliday of the film as much as like the Halliday of the book. Morrow is still a sympathetic character in the film, although he didn’t get nearly as many cool scenes as he did in the book (I was especially disappointed that he didn’t show up at the dance club—but, then again, that would have made for a much less tense scene.).
Finally, I also find myself wondering a bit about the tone. As I mentioned, the book is very dark and cynical at the beginning, but there is never really a payoff to this; the way all of the problems of reality are waved away at the end make the beginning feel almost disingenuous. In that respect, I think the film made the right choice to dump the early dark tone entirely and opt for something that feels a little more consistently light (barring the stack explosion, of course), but I can’t help wondering if it might not have been possible to take that disconnect between the OASIS and the real world and run with it a little more. For example, we are told about Samantha and her “resistance,” but we don’t actually see what they do. Maybe this is asking too much, though.
In the end, the film version of RPO was not perfect, but I thought it did a good job with source material that was not only difficult but had grown downright radioactive since it was written. Not all of the changes worked for me (especially the change to Aech’s appearance), but in the end they add up to a good adaptation. It’s not going to blow any minds or change any lives, but it’s a fun romp and a good yarn. That’s all I was expecting going in, so I wasn’t disappointed.
(Oh, hey, and this is totally not related to RPO, but today is my brother’s birthday. Happy birthday, Brian!)