Halliday In The Movie Is George Lucas
If Steven Spielberg's version of Ready Player One (and, more specifically, it's vision of James Halliday) isn't necessarily about Steve Jobs anymore, who might it be about? It could be argued it doesn't need to be about anyone, contemporary or otherwise - the eccentric billionaire is tried and true enough a trope in its own right, and even without the allusions to historical figures the character and scenario of the novel bears more than a passing scenario to Willy Wonka to begin with (not for nothing was an orchestral arrangement of "Pure Imagination" playing over the film's trailers.) But sharp-eyed fans of Spielberg's own ouvre, including his later-career penchant for reflecting on the very idea of artistic legacy, may find themselves thinking about another famous dreamer world created an escapist fantasy world that - to hear some tell it - he came to feel engulfed by: Star Wars creator (and one of Spielberg's oldest friends in the business) George Lucas.
To call Ready Player One a "loose" adaptation of the source material is an almost absurdly conservative description. It's more like a tear-down-rebuild. The general concept, character names and broad outline are retained, but the details - the important parts, the pieces, the guts, how they all fit together and their meaning - have all been rearranged, replaced or completely disposed of. Spielberg has been likened to an expert pearl-cutter in the context of past literary adaptations, polishing densely-bloated beach books like Jaws and Jurassic Park to lean, shiny blockbuster finish, but Ready Player One at times feels more like an inter-authorial debate, an attempt to wrestle the story into a form he can get real perspective on (likely not as easy task, considering it's very much a story about growing up in the post-Spielberg popular culture) and the key seems to have been how he came to view Halliday - which in turn becomes the "real" point of the Easter Egg Hunt in his version of the story.
The film certainly changes a lot: Wade is very different, much less unpleasant main character (less "Comic Book Guy meets Sam Witwicky," more "Mikey from The Goonies meets Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man"), Art3mis gets more to do and a fuller backstory in her own right. The story has been trimmed of its diversions and sidequests into a straightforward good-versus-evil treasure hunt race. But the biggest and most meaningful change has been a complete reworking of the challenges that make up Halliday's game itself - still grounded in obscure gaming trivia, movie references and knowledge of the creator's own life story, but rather than rote memorization the key to finding the Easter Egg turns out to be looking for deeper meaning within the stuff.
To win the game, the film's Wade must ultimately understand the film's Halliday. One challenge involves working out a literalized metaphor for nostalgia itself (which unlocks, along with the key, a view of how the OASIS "works") another requires the heroes to play through a The Shining. Finally, Wade comes face to face with Halliday himself, and what he finds is a quiet, haunted figure with a faraway disposition, occupying a recreation of his own childhood bedroom: proud of his own creation, but also more than ready to hand it off. The final exchange (which only Spielberg could possibly get away with playing straight) even seems to imply that this isn't just a pre-programmed bot Wade is interacting with, but Halliday's literal ghost - that by leaving the OASIS in the hands of someone "like himself" but who won't make the same mistakes, a restless spirit can now move on.
In that respect, it's hard not to think of Lucas if one is given to try and attach a real-world inspiration to this oddly-specific reworking of a character who didn't necessarily need to be presented as more than a vague ideal in more straightforward adaptation (especially since the first most-obvious - and yet completely ill-fitting - suspect is Spielberg himself). And the seeming incongruity of Lucas' demeanor (shy, averse to the public celebrity scene, quiet and contemplative with a voice often described as almost sad regardless of circumstance) compared to boisterous, up-tempo action/adventure films he's known for making. He's also unique among his generation of filmmakers for recognizing and investing in the potential of video games early on through LucasArts.
Related: Ready Player Two? It Could Happen
Actor Mark Rylance's sudden late-career shift into Steven Spielberg's current favorite secret weapon performer has been one of the more unusual but welcome developments in the film world in recent years. His turn as both Halliday himself (seen in flashbacks at various ages, "in person" at the very end and as his programmed game avatar Anorak The Wizard) recall his prior roles in Bridge of Spies and as the title character in The BFG: playful and understated, but also invested with a constantly sense of melancholy and omnipresent sadness. He speaks in half sentences, diction stilted, constantly distracted; and whatever it is that's distracting him isn't making him very happy. It's easily the best performance in the film, communicating through relatively limited screentime a fully-formed sense of suffocating loneliness that you can't help but sympathize with but also understand others not wanting to spend much time in the company of to begin with.
It's a kinder, gentler version of the "awkward nerd genius" character than the one in the book; less similar to real-life Tech Bro archetypes than it is to (perhaps inevitably, in retrospect) the previous generation's preferred incarnation of the trope that's long fascinated Spielberg in particular: The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up (Spielberg also, famously, changed Jurassic Park's John Hammond from the book's cynical greed-monster to Walt Disney-like whimsical grandpa figure). There's definitely a modern, realistic push at suggesting actual nuerodivergence in Rylance's performance as well; Halliday doesn't seem to like making eye contact in conversation and reaches for objects to handle when he's uncomfortable; but in temperament he's a classic Spielbergian Peter Pan figure - a small boy in an adult body for whom the OASIS was the equivalent of staying safe indoors with his favorite toys and whose adult romantic frustrations are described simply as being afraid to kiss a girl.
That's not to suggest that Spielberg set out to reveal some kind of secret tragic knowledge about his friend through a big Summer movie. But personal touches come from a personal place and the reimagining of Halliday is easily the most personal-feeling element of what otherwise feels to have been more of a technical exercise than a meaningful storytelling challenge for the history's most accomplished blockbuster filmmaker; and it's not hard to imagine seeing something of Lucas (and, specifically, his troubled relationship to Star Wars) in the idea of an artist who becomes stifled/imprisoned when a world he creates as an escapist pastiche of his own dreams and memories turns out to be a place the entire rest of the world wants to escape to as well.
- Ready Player One (2018) release date: Mar 29, 2018