Popcorn flick vs. book

Previously published in The Daily Star of Hammond, Louisiana. 

With Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, “Ready Player One,” (RPO) out in theaters people are asking the same question: “Is it as good as the book?”

Admittedly, not as many people are asking this question for RPO as they did for other books made into movies like Harry Potter or the Twilight Saga (of course the Twilight series of movies demands to be called a “saga” instead of a “series.”). RPO was a New York Times Bestselling book, but it wasn’t nearly as popular as Harry Potter or Twilight but had an incredibly large following for a book about video games.

There are other problems with comparing the two different mediums trying to tell the same (or a similar) story too. The great thing about a novel is the ability for an entirely new world or an alternate reality to be created in the head of one person and transferred to tons of other people. The only limitations are the writer’s ability to turn their abstract thoughts into words on the page and then the ability to craft a compelling story inside that universe that people want to read (OK, it’s actually very difficult).

But in movies, there are way more limitations because writing and storytelling ability of the screenwriters and director can still limit a film, but a film is also limited by budget, reality, the laws of physics (usually, CGI is making that a little easier to beat) and more behind-the-scenes issues. So many more people work with a film than a novel and there are more steps to making a movie, so there are more ways to mess it up in some way (the sound is off, the soundtrack isn’t great, the composition or lighting in some scenes don’t work or the CGI looks terrible, etc.).

Movies also have way higher expectations to try to reach than books. Today, most studios rely on a preexisting intellectual property (referred to as IP; like a comic book, novel or short story that a studio can pay a screenwriter to adapt into a movie) to make movies because they should have some built-in audience that will guarantee at least some people see it. If they don’t make money, they’re considered a failure.

Books are different. They exist more in the old-culture of making movies that Hollywood used to go by, which is that a book publisher will publish a bunch of books (like 50, for example) in a year and hope that they have a couple of hits (like 5-9). Those hits pay off the losses on the other “failures” while making the company a lot of money (or as much money that can be made in an increasingly digital culture).

What’s interesting about RPO is that, I think, the movie improves upon certain parts of the book, but some are probably still upset about the film (it’s weird it seems nowadays when someone doesn’t like a movie they get mad at the creators or movie instead of just saying, “I didn’t like this” and moving on with their life). But allow me to break down, what the movie gets right or improved from the book.

One thing I enjoyed about the movie was Spielberg’s attempts to add more warmth and a desire to highlight other characters besides the main character.  James Halladay, the creator of the virtual reality system most of the movie is set in — the Oasis —, possesses shades of Spielberg’s heart from earlier films. He was the character I was the most interested in, and the one that brought me the closest to feeling anything outside of the fun and thrill I got from some of the set pieces and funny bits.

The movie gets rid of some clunky writing style of Ernest Cline and constant explaining of different pop culture references. The first 50-80 pages of the book consisted of exposition and “world-building” that treated the audience like elementary schoolers. The movie still has lots of characters explaining things or voice-overs, but the initial explanation is just a couple of minutes long and paired with fun tracking and panning shots that could’ve told the story on its own if the movie had no sound. The movie also took advantage of the visual elements of the medium by throwing little things in for a brief second on the periphery of the screen instead of spending a paragraph or two inserting and explaining the 80’s pop culture reference for fans.

That’s the biggest issue for the book — Cline has a great story and plot but isn’t a great writer (yet. He can improve and the sequel novel, “Ready Player Two” may end up being better). RPO, the book, was the first time in years I sat down and read a book for five hours straight since I read teen-fiction in high school. It was fun to read, and the movie is fun to watch. Some people may take umbrage with the fact that it portrays the online world of 15-20 years in the future as a kind of utopia without the toxicity that infects most of the online community today.

But this movie isn’t trying to do any of that. It’s a pure popcorn-flick of escapism, designed to be enjoyed for pure enjoyment. It doesn’t need to be anything else.

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