Day 6

'Ready Player One': Can Spielberg turn a novel steeped in '80s nostalgia into a box office hit?

'Ready Player One' is based on a novel that fawns over 'Knight Rider', Betamax and all things '80s. But film critic Nick Schager says turning it into a blockbuster is a tall order, even for Spielberg.
Tye Sheridan, who plays Wade Watts, in a scene in the film Ready Player One. (Warner Bros. )
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Published in 2011, Ernest Cline's book Ready Player One quickly became a New York Times bestseller. USA Today even dubbed Cline "the hottest geek on the planet right now."

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One releases in theatres March 29. (Warner Bros.)
Seven years later, the book is back in the spotlight. This week, Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Ready Player One had its world premiere at SXSW. 

The film, which is set in 2045, takes place in a dystopian future where a virtual reality world called the OASIS offers the only escape from poverty and boredom.

Its protagonist is a teenager named Wade, who embarks on a journey to save the OASIS from corporate control — armed only with his knowledge of 1980s trivia.

Speaking at SXSW this week, Spielberg had nothing but praise for the novel that inspired his latest blockbuster. But film critic Nick Schager feels differently.

Schager, who writes for publications like Esquire and Variety, says Cline's book Ready Player One is so bad that adapting it for the screen could be the biggest challenge of Spielberg's career. 

Here's why — in his own words.


         

"If I had to rate the book Ready Player One on a scale of one to 10, I think I'd give it roughly a three — in part because it's really poorly written. It's written sort of like a high schooler might write a novel.

And I think that what's made the book successful has a lot less to do with how well it's written than the fact that it celebrates things that its target audience loves.

The book's story is about the hero's quest, which is driven by his knowledge of pop culture. It presents his knowledge of pop culture as his greatest weapon to complete his mission and also to defeat his enemies.

The problem is, he becomes so obsessed with this quest that he literally shuts himself into a room for months after having shaved his head and body, and stays plugged into the virtual reality machine for months on end — ordering food through the machine, and having no social interaction outside of it. 

In one instance, he brags about the fact that he has watched 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' exactly 157 times and knows every word by heart. I think that is the point at which the book loses the thread, so to speak.

Not only is 'Ready Player One' chockablock with references to various movies, TV shows and video games, it's full of references to Spielberg's own work. It's steeped in all of the 80s culture that its author Ernest Cline clearly loves. And there's nothing he loves more, it seems, than 'Back to the Future.' 

In real life, Ernest Cline actually owns a DeLorean, and in the novel, the hero owns a flying DeLorean with all sorts of other gadgets and gizmos to create some sort of super-80s ride.

Ernie Cline, left, and Ben Mendelsohn sit on a DeLorean after arriving for the world premiere of "Ready Player One" during the South by Southwest Film Festival. ((Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/Associated Press))

 I wouldn't dare to theorize too hard on what Spielberg's motivations were here. But I can imagine that Spielberg found the book extremely flattering, both because it celebrates the 80s — which he was such a big figure during — and because it references his own movies in such a loving way.

Advance reviews of the film have so far been immensely positive. I'm partially surprised, because I'm not sure that he can pull this off.

But what didn't surprise me was that it got a good reception at a film festival to people who are ready to like it in a way that a general audience might not be.

There is great hope now that Spielberg has streamlined it into more of a traditional adventure quest.

We'll know soon enough, since the film comes out in just a couple weeks."

Steven Spielberg (centre) pictured with the cast of "Ready Player One" during the film's world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW)

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. To hear Nick Schager discuss 'Ready Player One,' download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.