Steven Spielberg has a new movie coming out – an adaptation of Ready Player One, the renowned pop-cultural post-apocalyptic action adventure novel by Ernest Cline. The story follows a kid named Wade, who uncovers a long-hidden artifact in a worldwide RPG game that, in the desolate new world, everybody on the planet retreats to for comfort. The movie version comes out next year and, as with any adaptation, it will feature a few changes from the source material. But while these changes might worry hardcore fans of the book, they may be crucial to the movie’s success.
Recently, news about the movie has surfaced that hints at what those changes might be. First, Silicon Valley actor T.J. Miller made comments about his character’s role in the movie. Miller said his character isn’t in the books, which is actually inaccurate, but since i-R0k only appears briefly in Cline’s novel, what Miller said might as well be true. In the movie, i-R0k is described as being a Boba Fett-type figure, suggesting that his role will be much bigger than it was in the book.
Later, Ben Mendelsohn, set to play the villainous Nolan Sorrento in Ready Player One, mentioned that his character would also differ from the Sorrento in the book. Mendelsohn wasted no time admitting that the film version of Sorrento would not be faithful to the book version of Sorrento “at all.” Unlike Miller, Mendelsohn didn’t specify exactly how his character would change in Spielberg’s adaptation. But considering how in the book Nolan Sorrento is a bland, one-dimensional villain, presumably these changes will be for the better.
Which brings us to a question that’s been around for decades in fan-culture: Is “different from the book” automatically bad? This question gained prominence when the Harry Potter films got underway, specifically following the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Though divisive among fans of the book, many film fans would point to Prisoner of Azkaban being the best of the series. It’s understandable that fans of a book are disappointed to find out that their favorite moments and character won’t be realized with total faithfulness on the big scree, but there’s something troubling about that mentality.
Ready Player One is a contagiously fun novel, mixing elements of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Matrix. It moves at a breakneck pace and invents a fascinating world that’s completely unlike our own, yet also feels familiar. But as entertaining as it is, Ready Player One is also extremely flawed. In the third act, the story abandons what could have been a powerful message about society’s obsession with nostalgia, and instead swaps in wish fulfillment by way of a boss-level on a video game. Granted, Ready Player One is about a video game, and to ignore video game tropes in telling the story would be foolish. But Ready Player One squashes its own potential to provide a deeper moral, making way for a shallow celebration of all things nerdy. In order to work as a film, and as a more meaningful story, Ready Player One has to change.
And the changes that have been hinted at so far sound, on an objective level free of the “book is always better” mode of thinking, perfectly reasonable. As mentioned earlier, Nolan Sorrento is a classic villain for villain’s sake, much like the ones in Marvel movies that get heavily criticized by fans. Considering the mammoth talent Ben Mendelsohn is (re: Animal Kingdom, Bloodline), fans would be wise to look forward to his interpretation of Sorrento, even if it is different from the character in the book. And Miller’s comparison of his i-R0k to Boba Fett foreshadows a specific kind of antagonist that Ready Player One could use. In the novel he was used as a foil for the main characters one second, and then gone the next. If you know Miller from his work on Silicon Valley and Deadpool, you can predict that having more of him in any movie should make for a hilarious viewing experience.
Even if you don’t trust Mendelsohn or Miller, you can certainly trust Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is a virtuoso not only at filmmaking, but also at adapting novels for the screen. Jaws was based on a novel written by Peter Benchly, and because of changes the movie made to the Brody/Hooper dynamic, the movie is a timeless classic. Then there’s Jurassic Park, which was based on a popular thriller by sci-fi writer extraordinaire Michael Crichton. For the film, Spielberg made adjustments to the character of Dr. Alan Grant, giving him a more substantial character arc. Jurassic Park, like Jaws, has become a classic film, thanks in large part to the changes made from the source material.
Spielberg understands the cardinal rule for adapting material for the screen: avoid regurgitation, aim for refinement. The pairing of Spielberg and Ready Player One is beyond fitting – a union on par with Wes Craven signing on to direct Scream. That alone should get fans excited, and the notion that Spielberg will make changes to the novel, as he did for Jaws and Jurassic Park, only bodes well for a story that could stand to see some changes. Instead of opting for rigid allegiance to what came before – a strategy that leads to decent but trite movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Spielberg seems intent on steering his movie towards something far more potent, like Prisoner of Azkaban.
If you’re a diehard fan of Ernest Cline’s novel, and can argue against these changes with a rebuttal that amounts to more than “the book was better,” then you should of course stand by your opinion. In fact, stand by your opinion no matter what. But understand how flimsy a defense it is to treat one version of a story as scripture, and suggest that anything new is inherently bad. If you allow change to come in, you might end up loving the story you discovered even more than you already had. You might end up with a new favorite movie.