Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is the geekiest novel ever written. Wall to wall references, it’s a joyful love letter to obsessive fandom and nerdy pursuits of all varieties. A bestseller with a fiercely devoted fan base, a movie version has been in the works since 2010, before the book was even published, but it’s been spinning its wheels ever since. Screenwriter Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, Pacific Rim 2) has been on board for a while, and recently shed some light on what’s taking so damn long.
One of the key challenges is also the most obvious. You can get away with a lot more, rights wise, in a novel than you can in a feature length motion picture. Every time you show a logo or other copyrighted image in a movie, you have to clear it, which usually involves paying, or at least going through a legal process that involves lots of paperwork and other hurdles. If you’ve ever read Cline’s book, you know exactly how much of this sort of thing is present. Movies, games, TV shows, and more are all over the place. There are entire worlds based on a specific game or show or movie, and this is a huge obstacle to the film.
Writing this script, Penn did his best, and talking to Nerd Report, he says:
You write a script, you take your chances, you say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. This is where we’re going to take cars and scenes from these movies and these properties,’ and then you hope that you’ll get the rights to it, but we’re not at that point yet. I just finished the script. When you start getting into production and casting, that’s when you would start going through and saying, ‘Okay, can we get the rights to Donkey Kong?’ or what have you. It’s very different in a film like that than it is in a documentary where you can just declare fair use and do it.
It’s going to be interesting to see what they’re able to do with this. The story is so steeped in every facet of popular culture that it’s going to be damn near impossible to clear everything. Even trimming it back to a manageable level seems like a herculean task for a writer.
There’s also another massive pitfall they need to avoid. Most of the book takes place in a virtual reality world, one where the actual characters are strapped to a machine, controlling avatars in a game, and not actually moving. The trick is to make this interesting to viewers and not have it feel like you’re sitting on a couch watching your buddy play Destiny or Call of Duty.
Just the way the story unfolds, this is a more easily surmountable problem. The game is so immersive that the character, or at least their digital stand-in, is essentially in an entirely other, completely realized world, and this could translate very well to the big screen, including some sequences tailor made for a big time movie (giant fighting robots anyone?). It might even allow them to do some cool things visually and stylistically, incorporating elements from games and films into scenes. How cool would it be to be able to run around a Joust inspired world?
Penn says he has an approach that works, one that got the okay from Cline. The two worked closely together, bouncing ideas off of one another, and if Cline didn’t approve of a particular idea, Penn tossed it aside and tried something else. Hopefully with a strategy like this, even if it doesn’t adhere strictly to the story from the book, the movie will capture the spirit and feel. I care more about that than following the source blow by blow.
There’s not timeline for when we might see the ball really start rolling on Ready Player One, though you have to imagine they’ll try to get as many rights battles out of the way up front before they start working in earnest, just so they know what they can and can’t do. The finished script has been submitted, which indicates that things are indeed moving forward, and you have to hope that it will all start to coalesce before too long.