Ernest Cline sold the film rights to Ready Player One to Warner Brothers on the same day that he signed his book deal with Random House, a year before it was published. So the movie has been in the back of the minds of readers for nearly seven years. How would a movie pack in the dense ’80s pop-culture references or recreate the sprawling virtual world of the OASIS? How would a studio even secure the rights to the countless videogames, movies, manga, cartoons, TV shows and music referenced. How would quests that mostly involved playing videogames or reciting every line of dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail translate onto a big screen?
The answer is that significant changes to the plot were necessary, but they mostly serve the story well (full review from Will Leitch here). Readers may lament the disappearance of their favorite little-known anime character or Atari game, but there are plenty of cameos from across the world of nerd-culture to tickle those nostalgia pleasure centers in your brain, especially if they happen to be owned by Warner. The timeline and geography of the real world get significantly compacted to fit the 140-minute runtime, but the OASIS is the visual delight that most readers were hoping for.
The year is still 2044, but in the book, Wade Watts lives in Oklahoma City—not Columbus, Ohio, the headquarters of both OASIS and IOI. The Stacks appear in the film much like they’re described in the movie (though there were 15 people living in his aunt’s trailer in the book, not three), but Wade begins his journey far from any of his in-game friends or anything else that matters to him in the real world. He only moves to Columbus after IOI blows up his aunt’s trailer. Likewise, his friends are scattered from Canada to Japan.
The book is much more dystopian than the movie. As Wade narrates about the death of James Halliday: “The people of Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. You know: ‘dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!’” Major cities have been wiped out in nuclear war. In the movie, Wade only hints at the fact that we as a civilization have stopped trying to fix things and instead are just trying to outlive worldly problems. Wade’s love of ’80s culture stemmed in part from his imagining that his life was more like Family Ties and less like the horrors of 2044 reality.
In the movie, Wade has free reign of the OASIS. It’s a virtual paradise. In the books, he’s too poor to travel anywhere beyond the boring starter planet Incipio and his public school on Ludus. The fees to teleport anywhere else were beyond his means. He couldn’t even afford clothing upgrades for his avatar. The only way he could even access the OASIS was through his school issued console and visor. Jobs in the 30-year-long Great Recession were nearly nonexistent, and virtual objects in the OASIS were as expensive as their real-world counterparts.
In the book, Wade struggled mightily with his weight. It made going to school in the physical world through sixth grade miserable for him. When he moves to Columbus, he actually enables a voluntary OASIS fitness lockout, so that he wouldn’t be able to visit OASIS unless he followed a mandatory daily exercise regimen. In fact, Wade, Samantha (Art3mis) and Helen (Aech) were all overweight—something that rarely gets transferred to a Hollywood movie.
The movie makes James Halliday’s love for Ogden Morrow’s wife central to the whole of “Anorak’s Quest,” and shows Halliday pushing Morrow out of his company. In the book, Halliday did have a crush on Kira, but the primary reason Morrow leaves is because he feels GSS is no longer a videogame company and that the OASIS has caused humanity to run from its problems instead of fixing them.
One of the biggest differences in the quests is that in the books, nobody knew where the first one was. Instead of a giant race where every Gunter and Sixer competed for the Copper Key, the location of the first quest was a mystery. Its location on a public-high school planet says a lot about who Halliday hoped would win with ultimate prize. In the book, it was a Dungeons & Dragons quest hidden in the empty wilderness of Ludus, followed by a match to the death of the classic arcade game Joust. Art3mis actually was the first Gunter to find the dungeon, but Parzival was the first to beat Halliday’s avatar at Joust.
I fully applaud screenwriter Zak Penn, Ernest Cline and Steven Spielberg’s decision to change the quest for the Jade Key from the book version (a TRS-80 adventure game followed by the entire recreation of WarGames where Walt had to emulate Matthew Broderick’s character) to The Shining-inspired adventure in the movie. Seeing Aech’s response to the creepy twins got the biggest laugh and cheer from the audience at my screening. But in the book, this was still very much a solo quest with Parzival and Art3mis competing against each other, along with the rest of the High-5—Aech and brothers Daito and Shoto, who are suspicious of the other Gunters.
In the book, there’s a big gap between clearing the first gate and figuring out the clue to the second. During that time, Wade leaves Oklahoma City for the first time in his life, creating a whole new identity—Bryce Lynch—and getting an apartment in Columbus, paid for with endorsement money from his new in-game fame. He even gets a job in OASIS tech support. It’s during this time that Art3mis begins letting her guard down, and she and Wade get to know each other online. Wade begins to care more about hanging out with Art3mis than the Hunt. He won’t leave his apartment for another six months.
In the movie, Daito and Sho are real-life brothers, and Sho is only 11-years-old. In the book, Daito and Shoto never meet in real life. They were both enrolled in a support group for hikikomori, OASIS addicts who’d disengaged from the real world. Shoto is the younger of the two, but not a kid.
Nolan’s chief henchman in the movie, voiced by TJ Miller, is a poseur Gunter in the book, a wealthy but unskilled jackass whose only role is to try to blackmail Parzival and Aech into telling him how to get the Copper Key. When they won’t do it, he goes public with the knowledge that they’re both students at schools on Ludus. In the movie, he’s more like an elite wizard/hitman of OASIS who provides IOI with the Orb of Osuvox (and much of the comic relief).
In the movie, Art3mis takes Parzival out to a club for zero-gravity dancing almost immediately after they meet, in an attempt to find another clue. In the book, The Distracted Globe is the site of Ogden Morrow’s 73rd birthday party, to which they’ve both been invited. Parzival does dress up like Peter Weller in Buckaroo Bonzai in both. And he arrives in the custom DeLorean that he races in the movie. When he proclaims his love for Art3mis, though, she realizes she’s let things go too far online and breaks things off. And it’s Morrow’s avatar, the Great and Powerful Og, who single-handedly neutralizes the Sixers when they attack at the party.
Ready Player One is a family film—Aech’s trip to Room 237 notwithstanding—so it’s unsurprising they skipped over Wade’s purchase of ÜberBetty, an anatomically correct haptic doll. In the wake of his break-up with Art3mis, he’s desperate to fill the void inside, but quickly realizes virtual sex is not going to do it.
In the movie, the High 5 find the Jade Key soon after teaming up. In the book, after nearly a year of frustration, Art3mis surprises everyone by finding the Jade Key first. IOI has an artifact that traces what sector she was in. Aech is next and gives Parzival the hint he needs to catch up, though their friendship has become strained because of Parzival’s infatuation with Art3mis. The actual quest is a 3D play-through of Zork that includes finding a plastic whistle in a box of Cap’n Crunch.
Sho’s older brother is around for the final fight in the movie, but in the book, Daito never makes it off Frobozz, the planet with Zork. He’s killed by Sixers IRL. They break into his 43rd-floor apartment and throw him off the balcony, making it look like a suicide. Shoto becomes more interested in avenging his friend than winning the contest.
In the movie, the quest for the Crystal Key is as simple as finding an Easter egg in the middle of the Atari 2600 game Adventure. This is mentioned twice in the book, first in Halladay’s initial video referencing the Hunt and then as the final task once Parzival is through the third and final gate. In the book, IOI’s Nolan Sorrento is the first one to decipher the clue for the Crystal Key and clear the second gate. It involves a Voight-Kampff machine from Blade Runner, an immersive version of the 2D side-scroller Black Tiger, and the lyrics of Rush’s “The Temples of Syrinx.” Yes, the book’s ’70s and ’80s references are that dense and occasionally obscure.
In the book, Wade intentionally gets himself arrested using the Bryce alias. He becomes an indentured servant at IOI headquarters, but only after purchasing IOI intranet passwords and systems exploits that allowed him to steal data from IOI before escaping in a maintenance uniform. In the movie, Samantha (aka Art3mis) is taken by IOI agents raiding her house looking for Wade. Her friends break her out of her indentured servitude pod by tricking Nolan into thinking they’ve broken into his office while he’s still in OASIS.
In the movie, Ogden is merely the tour guide to the Halladay museum. In the book, he has the ability to eavesdrop on conversations inside the OASIS, including the one where the remaining four members of the High 5 are in Aech’s chatroom talking about how they have no where safe to go. He offers his home in Oregon, where they end up meeting for the first time. A philanthropist, it’s Og and his deceased wife’s company that provided all the educational software that taught Wade as a young child. He sends private jets to collect Wade and his friends before the assault on the Sixers.
In both the book and movie, the Orb of Osuvox is a rare magic artifact that creates a forcefield around the final gate. In the book, that’s the entrance to Castle Anorak, Halladay’s own little slice of the OASIS. In the movie it’s a frozen planet with an old Atari console and tube television. In both, Parzival recruits the entire Gunter community to come fight the Sixers. In the movie, Art3mis sneaks in and disables the Orb, but in the book, it’s Parzival’s scheming inside of IOI that disengages it, with a pre-programmed Johnny 5 detonating an explosion inside the field.
In the movie, Aech is building a custom Iron Giant. In the book, the Iron Giant is one of the options when Parzival beats the Black Tiger challenge, but he chooses Leopardon from a 1970s Japanese TV version of Spider-Man, Supaidaman. It’s Leopardon (or more specifically, the starship Marveller that the robot turns into) that Parzival rides into the final battle. The other robots were from anime series: Art3mis selects Tranzor Z from Mazinger Z. Aech had an RX-78 Gundam mech from Mobile Suit Gundam. And Shoto went bigger with Raideen from Brave Raideen. One thing that remained the same was Nolan’s Mechagodzilla. His Sixers also had the five robotic lions from Voltron.
In the movie, Daito enters the final battle by turning into Ultraman. In the book, Parzival’s friendship with the Japanese “brothers” begins when he invites them to high-level challenge he’s discovered, and they complete the quest together over the course of a week. Instead of auctioning off the prize, Parzival tells the brothers that Urutoraman’s powers belong in Japanese hands and lets them keep the priceless artifact. When Daito is murdered, Shoto gives the capsule back to Parzival, who uses it to defeat Nolan’s Mechagodzilla in the final fight.
In the movie, Parzival wins the quarter in a bet with a virtual guide to Halladay’s library (who turns out to be Ogden’s avatar). In the book, it happens during his search for the Jade Key, when he plays a perfect game of Pac-Man. In both cases it’s the only thing that keeps him alive to complete the quest.
In the book, Wade and Samantha don’t meet in person until after Wade has secured the Egg. Parzival meets Aech on the way to Oregon, but Samantha and Akihide (Shoto) are already in their OASIS pods when they arrive. The four surviving friends don’t even clan up once they realize it’ll take three of them to open the final gate. It’s only when Wade becomes the sole winner that he announces to the world he’s splitting the prize four ways. And rather than closing the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays as in the movie, Wade simply says, after his first kiss with Art3mis: “For the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.”