Warner Bros. and producer Donald De Line purchased the rights to Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One back in 2010, a year before the book was even published. When it was finished, the producers immediately realised they had a massive problem—literally.
The book, about a virtual reality MMORPG obsessed with pop culture called OASIS, was much, much too big. “The number one biggest challenge to begin with [was], ‘How do we take this and distil it down to a three-act structure in two hours?’” DeLine told us. “Obviously the book takes up a lot of real estate. It’s multiple worlds. It’s incredibly layered. It’s complex storytelling.”
Cline himself was first tasked with doing the adaptation, but he was more faithful to the original than the studio or the producers wanted. “Ernie did a fantastic draft but was probably a little [too close] to the book,” DeLine said. “We still had issues and things that we needed to figure out and boil down, and Zak [Penn] came in and really kind of cracked the code on that.”
Penn, best known for X2, The Avengers, and Last Action Hero, was brought onto the project in 2014. By this point, Clive was more open-minded to changes, which helped Penn a great deal.
“When I talked to Ernie, he was like ‘We can’t do the same challenges,’” Penn told us of the central set pieces in the book. “He totally acknowledged that we need to do something cinematic... and that we couldn’t do the challenges and gates the way they were [in the book]. That made it a lot easier for me.”
One change in particular was the choice to start the movie later in the story. In both, the protagonist is Wade, who’s obsessed with finding the Easter egg left in OASIS by its creator James Halliday, which means solving three challenges to get the final clue. In the book, Wade discovers the first challenge himself; in the movie, the challenge was found years ago by someone else.
“I mean, it’s a total throwaway line,” Penn said. “‘Some long forgotten Guntur [“egg hunter”] found the first challenge’ [but] that changed everything. It just made it so much easier to write the script because suddenly they were acting from the very beginning and the things that they were doing were actively trying to win this challenge instead of reading about it.”
It was at this point that Steven Spielberg read the book and script and became interested in making the film—and suddenly, a lot of problems weren’t so problematic anymore.
“I had been trying to write not thinking [we’re] going to get Steven Spielberg,” Penn remembered. “I was trying to write something that I thought would be makable.”
Spielberg signed on to direct the film in 2015, and he of course had his own thoughts on the script. “[Our] first meeting was like, ‘Great job on the script, I love some of the fixes that you made, here are some things in the book I want to put back in,’ and he had them all dog-eared,” said Penn.
The biggest example was the Distracted Globe, a zero-gravity dance club that Penn, obviously, assumed couldn’t be in the movie because it would be too expensive. Spielberg disagreed.
“Usually there is a villain in the development process,” Penn said. “There isn’t in this case. A lot of it was ‘Can we actually do this?’ and Steven Spielberg says ‘Don’t worry, I can do it.’ You are just like, ‘Awesome. Totally. I believe you.’”
Avatars battling in the Oasis
Image: Warner Bros.
Other changes included several speeches given by the main characters, as well as more shuttling between the virtual world of the Oasis and the real world.
“[Spielberg] had a lot of notes about how the movie was going to be intercut between the real world live-action, which was very different than any of us imagined it,” Penn said. “And we were all like ‘Why?’ And then we saw the movie were like, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ Because it’s like a dance. It’s lyrical.”
The biggest problem in bringing Ready Player One from bookshelves to the big screen was always going to be the monumental task of getting the rights to innumerable different pieces of intellectual property from all across pop culture, whose abundance defines the world of OASIS—and to an extent, the story itself. There were some characters and franchises that Warner Bros. itself owned (like The Iron Giant and Batman), which were obviously less of a problem. But there were countless properties owned by other studios, like Back to the Future and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all of which needed to be negotiated if Ready Player One wanted them to make an appearance in the film. Unsurprisingly, both De Line and Penn credit Spielberg, his clout, and his team with making that process much, much easier than it would have been otherwise.
“A lot of talk [early on] was ‘Oh, you’ll never be able to get the IP. You’re not going to be able to do it,” De Line said. “Having Steven Spielberg as your director opens a jillion doors that would have been locked before. His stature as a filmmaker, him being an icon in the business, his relationships with all the filmmakers or pop culture people, whether it was music, film, games, everybody when they heard ‘Steven Spielberg’ and he’s making a movie out of this, they had a completely different attitude.”
However, on top of all the changes Cline, Penn, and Spielberg made to the original story, and all the obstacles along the way, De Line said the movie always had one more overarching need that had to be met.
“[We had] to make sure that [the movie] offered the audience and the fans of the book everything that was the heart and soul and true to the book,” he said. “So if you love the book, all the great touchstones from the book are there. And it’s very true to the integrity of that. But then also there are new set pieces that will blow your mind and give you a great new experience.”
Whether audiences agree with De Line’s proclamation is yet to be seen. But much like the making of the movie, having Spielberg as director probably helps.
Ready Player One is in cinemas now.