Ernest Cline and the Ohio Roots of 'Ready Player One'


Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg adaptation of the bestselling sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, opens in wide release Friday. It's an action-packed pop-culture cornucopia that happens to be set in Columbus, Ohio.

In the film, a Harry Potter-ish hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertical trailer park — "the Stacks"— on the city's outskirts. It is 2045, and wealth inequality has become even more pronounced than it is in 2018. For the poor folks in the Stacks, the only refuge is escaping to the OASIS, a 3-D virtual world that author Cline described as the "coolest possible version of the internet."

"It was easy for me to see how the internet would evolve from a two-dimensional thing that you view through web browsers and a computer monitor to a three-dimensional space that you could navigate geographically," he geeked out with Scene by phone.

But Columbus, in Cline's vision, is also home to the physical corporate headquarters of Innovative Online Industries, a villainous tech firm led by a monopoly-inclined executive, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendohlson). He's hell bent on winning control of the OASIS via a contest constructed by its architect, James Halliday (a fabulously eccentric Mark Rylance). Winning the contest means besting three challenges that not only test players' gaming skills but their obsessive knowledge and love of '80s pop culture.

Cline was born at Samaritan Hospital in Ashland, Ohio, and lived there until college. He told Scene that Columbus made sense to him as the setting for his novel (and for the film adaptation, which he co-wrote) in part because of its physical qualities.

"When I was writing the book, I thought of the bleak cityscape of Columbus in the wintertime, and how cold and gray Ohio gets," he said. "I thought it would serve as an interesting backdrop to this futuristic, cyberpunk tale."

Columbus was also where Cline got his first corporate job, doing tech support for Compuserve in a "giant cubicle farm." That experience, too, served as inspiration for the story of Wade Watts. In the novel, Watts works tech support to fund his adventures in the OASIS (a portion that was more or less excised in the film adaptation.)

Cline said that when he imagined the towers that comprise the headquarters of Innovative Online Industries, he was thinking of the Nationwide building in Columbus. "Not that I think that Nationwide, or insurance companies in general, are giant evil conglomerates," he clarified.

But speaking of giant evil conglomerates ... When Columbus was selected as one of 20 finalists for Amazon's second headquarters in our world, Cline said that some of his friends were calling Ready Player One prophetic. Cline said the clearest real-world analog to his fictional tale is not Amazon's expansion but the ongoing battle for net neutrality. (In both the novel and the film, the main characters' ultimate motive is saving the OASIS from corporate control.)

"It was crazy to me that the [net neutrality] battle was playing out right as we were finishing the movie," Cline said. "Free and open access to the internet was already becoming an issue in 2010 [before the novel was published]. But the conflicts in this story translate to our world right now."

Beyond the weighty prophesies, one of the most unique aspects of the film is its overt (and frequent) references to cultural icons in film, music and video games.

"I assumed this could never be a movie because of the all the pop culture I wanted to pay tribute to," Cline said. "The only comparison I could draw is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was a perfect storm of licensing. Multiple animation studios agreed to have their characters appear on screen together."

And just like with Roger Rabbit, the magic ingredient for Ready Player One was Steven Spielberg. He produced the former and directed the latter.

"If Steven Spielberg says, 'Hey, would you like your character or your [intellectual property] to appear in my movie,'" Cline advised, "the answer is almost always yes."