Ready Player One’s Exposition Problem



Last week it was announced that the much-discussed film adaptation of the beloved Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One had found its director. And what a director it is! Steven Spielberg is as big of a get as possible and even the source material’s author is in heaven with the announcement. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Cline joyously stated:

“This is a lifelong dream come true for me. I never could have or would have written Ready Player One if I hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of Steven Spielber films. His work helped to shape my whole worldview, and set me on the path of becoming a writer.”

Having Spielberg attached to the project almost guarantees a successful box office as he is one of those bankable superstar directors that is known by the mass market for gripping yet easily digestible films. In fact, it is quite possible that he is the most well-known director working in Hollywood today.

SpielbergSo why am I scared? Isn’t this the best thing for this film? Well yes and no. First and foremost, having Spielberg guarantees a large budget for the film, which is almost needed on the licensing end alone. I mean the novel is filled with references to pop-culture items from the late 70s through to the early 00s, the absence of which would be a significant detriment to the film. So this is most certainly a positive, and like the Lego Movie, most property holders will likely jump at the opportunity to be a part of it. Yet, with numerous references to so many obscure, yet iconic geek culture materials, the film risks losing its audience without heaps of exposition.

Cline’s novel handles exposition perfectly. Being a book, it has the luxury to explain its more obscure references to its audience in a way that is not overly ham-fisted. A film is dictated by significant issues of length. An epic of Ready Player One’s quality may lead to a longer film, say the 150 minute mark, but that still does not leave a lot of time for drawn out explanations regarding the cultural significance of Zork and Joust. Audiences will certainly get references to Back to the Future, but will they understand a reference to Heavy Metal magazine. Now there are hundreds of references in Cline’s novel, and surely not every last one of them will make it into the script. That being said, they serve the direct purpose of world building, and thus Spielberg and co., will have to walk a very fine line between world building and over-saturation considering the film’s condensed size. Many fantasy novels have failed the transition from page to screen due to the poor handling of world building. Take for instance The Golden Compass, a failed attempt at a new franchise in the post-Lord of the Rings world. The film failed so significantly because it mistreated its expositionary subject material leaving its audience confused. Character motivations become lost in an abyss of over-explanation. I pray that this will not happen with Ready Player One, but it remains at the top of mind as this project moves forward.

ernie_cline_official_author_photoNow Cline himself is very involved in the scripting of the film, so maybe all of this worry is for not. I have a great respect for his capacity to draw out a succinct narrative from so much pop culture. I do hope, however, he takes the failures of the past and learns from them. That he looks at what has worked most in successful adaptations, as well as what hasn’t in those that flopped. Ready Player One belongs to such a large group of dedicated fans, and to fall short of everybody’s hopes and expectations with this film will be crushing. Such is the risk one takes when adapting such a beloved property. It will not be easy to please everyone, but here’s hoping that they do the film the service the book deserves.

Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar

One response to “Ready Player One’s Exposition Problem

  1. I hope it’s great, but have to worry about the exposition issue in RP1. I’m going through it the first time, listening to an audiobook, and so far, I’m 2.5 HOURS in, and the lead has left his house, went “downstairs,” and “gone” to school. That’s it. So far, the book seems to be all “tell” and no “show.”

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