Steven Spielberg and Co. will begin shooting their adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling geek bible, Ready Player One, in March of 2016. There have been books deemed unfilmable that were somehow turned into flicks in the past, but this one may be the most daunting of them all. It is, by my reading, virtually an impossible task.
Ready Player One tells the story of Wade, a young man in a near-future world practically destroyed and discarded in favor of the OASIS, a virtual-reality of endless planets and systems. Its creator, James Halliday, the most brilliant and wealthy videogame pioneer and geek leader of the 20th century, lays out a game, a quest, for his fortune, tucked away somewhere in this world, sending the disparate society into a frenzied pursuit. Wade becomes embroiled in this frenetic search against his friends and foes, dragging him across a universe of pop-culture references as thick as a rainforest canopy.
The rights to Cline’s story were tossed around Hollywood for a few years, rumored for a while to be headed to Christopher Nolan. Spielberg is taking the reins, and he may not have had a more arduous task in his filmmaking career since Bruce the Shark wreaked havoc on his mental stability back in the mid-‘70s.
Technologically, there are no worries. As we follow Wade from one coded planet to the next, all built from the pop-culture gray matter of the late James Halliday, each is more elaborate and realized than the last. Rendering these on the screen won’t be insurmountable in 2016. What might snag Spielberg is the story’s first-person perspective. Wade spends a majority of time in the “real world” locked into a virtual world. This has been done before, in The Matrix and, hell, The Lawnmower Man. But this setup is unique to the story in a way even Neo was unfamiliar. It belongs in a primarily first-person point of view, tough to perpetually convey on celluloid.
But the real challenge will be the onslaught of references that Cline has strewn throughout Ready Player One. The story is an adventure, strung together by callbacks to video games, anime, TV shows, sci-fi films — some popular, many others less so. The references, too, are aimed at a past generation. Entire sections focus on antiquated text adventure games, like the one in Big. They require expository sections from Wade; as a voiceover narration they would be lost on a theater crowd. They are much too dense and arduous to explain in a few lines of spoken dialogue. Yet without these explanations, the video game Wade is playing or traveling through will fail to connect to an audience that has no idea what the hell is happening.
At one point, Wade is tasked to reenact the entire film WarGames as the Matthew Broderick character. How exactly does a director structure this? In another, his avatar transforms into Ultraman, a most obscure reference that begs explanation. Without the exposition, translation feels impossible. And as Drew McWeeny points out on HitFix, the density of other intellectual properties has greater protection within a novel than it does in movies. It’s not simply a matter of jamming tons of ‘80s pop culture onto the screen — much of that stuff has to be licensed. In a practical sense, this could bog down even the most brilliantly imagined vision of the film.
I’m not Spielberg and his team. I’m sure they have a plan in place; otherwise they wouldn’t be pushing into this opaque breach. Many so-called unfilmable novels have proven themselves otherwise. Most recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of a practically impenetrable Thomas Pynchon psychedelic sleuth yarn, Inherent Vice, springs to mind. The Wachowskis tried their hand at Cloud Atlas and delivered a muddled mess. Some more successful attempts to transform an abstruse novel into a watchable film include Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho and Ang Lee’s man-vs.-tiger-vs.-ocean epic Life of Pi. The latter, though, turned out to be one of the most beautifully rendered films of the decade. The other side of shooting so high is sometimes you just might hit your target.