Ernest Cline, Part 2: The author talks books vs. movie adaptations

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May 4, 2016, 9:12 PM EDT (Updated)

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In Part 2 of our interview with Ready Player One and Armada author Ernest Cline, he discusses why the film version of a book can never really surpass its source material, and what The Force Awakens draws from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe novels.(And don't miss the first part of our interview with Ernie from yesterday.).

Is your involvement with the production of the movie Ready Player One done at this point?

I think I’m about to actually fly out to visit the set. Zak [Penn, second screenwriter of Ready Player One] just called me about seeing the previsualization stuff that they put together, just to consult on that. Every time that there’s something they can’t manage to get rights to, or something that they need to change in the story just for brevity, then Zak calls me. He says that it’s like that trick that Woody Allen pulls in Annie Hall, “I happen to have the writer right here.” He’s been working on the script for over a year now, and we work scenes together, so I’m lucky to be involved right up to the end.

What is it like adapting your own novel for Ready Player One and for Armada into a screenplay, having also been a screenwriter before writing the novels?

Adaptation is its own art form. Like with the Harry Potter films, those were really dense books, full of a lot of detail. People know those details all around the world, so, like, to write something that plays out over two and a half hours and is still true to the novel, it’s a huge undertaking. It can be done, but not always.

Reading a book is almost like directing the movie in your head, which is why the casting is always perfect to you. The sets and the special effects, everything is always perfect because you imagined it the way you wanted to. You end up bringing a part of you to the story when you read a novel. What can ever top that? I think that’s why when a movie gets announced for a book, people rush to read the book, so they’re not robbed of that experience.

But sometimes, the film exceeds expectations. It’s like a band doing a cover tune of a song that you love. You can love both versions of the song, one doesn’t cancel out the other or harm the other. For a screenwriter, if you write your script and then it gets rewritten, which it almost invariably does, there’s no record of how you intended the story to be. But if you write a novel, then the novel always exists as a record of how you imagined the story and how you wanted to tell it.

When you were writing Armada, you had already written your Ready Player One scripts. Did you think about the second novel more cinematically, more visually, or with a different idea on how to pace it?

I’m sure I did. I tried not to. I used all the tools that I had at my disposal as a novelist. Reading the different drafts of Ready Player One didn’t really help me, because that was still in flux. In a film you have to make use of every second to tell the story in the best way that you can, where in a novel you can echo things or elaborate as much as you want.

I think maybe, with Armada, I was much more cavalier about cutting or amalgamating things than I was with Ready Player One, because I knew this process of adapting it into a movie was going probably go through other writers than me. If I didn’t make those changes, somebody else down the road would have to make them, and this just increases my chances of having my interpretation of certain events be how things are executed.

Do you have any other favorite examples of a movie that you thought turned out much better than the books, or maybe the other way around?

There was actually an article I saw last year in Wired magazine that mentioned my book and The Martian by Andy Weir, and said something like, this is proof that the movies are better than their source material. Which just seems ridiculous and asinine. One can’t exist without the other. I’m one of those people who thinks, “How can Empire Strikes Back be better than A New Hope when Empire Strikes Back couldn’t exist without A New Hope?” So, to discount the source material’s influence on the film version, I don’t know, it seems like an unnecessary line to draw. It’s like divorcing the songwriter from the person who ends up singing it, when clearly both people are essential to the completed work of art that you love.

When Ready Player One comes out, people are going to have both opinions. The consensus might be, well the book was better than the movie. Or it might be, the movie was better than the book. And if you’re both the novelist and the screenwriter, how would you feel about both those scenarios?

I’m happy with either one. The thing is, to have that opinion, you have to read the book and watch the movie.

That’s true.

So, I win both times. If a movie creates a world that you want more of, then reading the source material is a way to have your own experience with it and see how it’s different.

Or like you said, look at how big the Star Wars Expanded Universe grew when it was just novels and comic books before even the prequels came out.

Yeah, it’s interesting to me now that they’re telling stories in the same time periods as the expanded universe. They can’t end up not echoing some things, like telling stories about Han and Leia’s kids. There’s a character in expanded universe, Jacen Solo, who’s very much like Kylo Ren. There are fans who are upset that they’re not adapting the expanded universe novels, but that was ever going to happen. But again, one doesn’t undo the other, it’s just more art, more stories in that universe for people to enjoy.

How could you not want that?

I know, right? A whole other art form that’s even harder to crack is making a good video game out of a movie or your favorite franchise. You have to anticipate the actions of the player so it’s a type of branching storytelling. If they go left, this happens, and if they go to the right, this happens. That’s even trickier to pull off. When that works out, I’m even more in awe of writers who can still tell a coherent, immersive story.

Or the other way around, which is when you take an open world video game and try to transform it into a two hour movie. How do you convey the same feeling of playing Grand Theft Auto?

Yeah, you can’t, right? Or you take its base elements. It will be interesting to see. I think Duncan Jones is a great filmmaker, and he’s doing World of Warcraft. It is hard to take an interactive story and turn it into a non-interactive movie, and engage people who aren’t fans of the game at all while also pleasing fans of the game. It is a slippery slope.