In the 1984 film The Last Starfighter, a boy immerses himself in a video game world to escape his mundane trailer park existence. His skills with a joystick lead to real-world adventure, fame and fortune when he’s recruited to protect the galaxy from invasion.
It’s no wonder the film is among Ernest Cline’s favorites: At 39, the spoken word artist, screenwriter and novelist is that boy all grown up.
Best known for the 2009 cult film Fanboys, Cline was raised in a trailer park by his grandparents and found solace in a fantasy world. As a teen in the ‘80s, he devoured comic books and sci-fi novels, “played Dungeons & Dragons, absorbed Tolkien and memorized words in Elvish.”
“Plus I had glasses and was overweight,” says Cline, who was raised in Ohio and now lives in Austin.
Rather than run from his geeky teenage self, as an adult he celebrated it through stand-up comedy and slam poetry. Today, Cline has turned nerd culture into commercial gold, and speaks to a generation that came of age in the 1980s with Reagan and Atari video games.
Cline sold the screenplay for Fanboys, about a group of friends trying to break into George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch before the release of The Phantom Menace, for $50,000. For his first novel, Ready Player One, which hit bookstores in August, he received an advance of $500,000. For the book’s promotional tour, he spent $37,000 for a DeLorean modeled after the one in the 1985 film Back to the Future.
Ready Player One is a dystopian comedy that expresses all of Cline’s fanboy interests. “I wanted to write something that celebrates pop culture,” says Cline. “I really thought I was writing a book for people my age, for people that would get maybe 50 percent of the references.”
The bookis an epic adventure set in a future where life is so miserable everyone lives online. It is laced with dozens of 80’s allusions—from Atari to Oingo Boingo. The effect is as dizzying as a VH-1 Pop-Up video marathon on fast forward. “If people can make it past the first 50 pages and are still intrigued, that’s where everything takes off,” says Cline.
The novel hurls its anti-social protagonist—a poor kid living in an overcrowded trailer park—into a deadly hunt for riches on a planet he desperately wants to escape. “Part of [the idea] was that I wanted to do this virtual reality treasure hunt,” Cline says. “I wanted to do a video game or pop culture Willy Wonka.”
There is a certain amount of irony in choosing a novel, an old medium, to tell a story about the virtual world. With all the effects and visual in-jokes, Ready Player One seems best suited for film. But Cline knew the idea would never work commercially or artistically as a film because he wanted to include so many pop culture references —the John Hughes clips, the Matthew Broderick flicks and images from the Saturday cartoon show “Super Friends.”
“You just can’t have someone acting out War Games [a film starring Broderick]in another movie, but I knew that you could get away with enough ‘fictitious use’ in a novel and not have to pay for rights,” he said. In a book, “you can riff on anything.”
Because of his track record with Fanboys, Cline was able to successfully negotiate to write the screenplay for Ready Player One. “I definitely didn’t expect to write something that there would be a bidding war for; I thought I was writing something that would be a cult novel, that would appeal to someone in my generation,” he says. “ I was still reeling, I was still shocked when they sold the rights to Warner Bros.”
But turning his book into a screenplay has not been easy. “It’s a little like someone paying you lots of money to mutilate your baby,” he says.
Cline, who worked on the novel for 10 years, had to “explode it, and re-imagine it as this great big Warner Bros. summer action movie.” In a novel that is all about 80’s video games, Cline was actually asked to scale back the 80’s video games.
“Tron had just come out and hadn’t done too well,” he says.
Hopefully, one aspect that will be left in tact is the novel’s Slaughter House Five-like social critique.
“When I was young, I felt like the baby boomers had kind of ruined the planet, and I was getting handed this bankrupt world where they had ruined sex, the environment, the economy,” he says. “If you choose to give in to that view, you can feel that there is no hope, and since I had an 18-year-old protagonist born into this hell hole, that’s where the story went.”
Cline sees himself as part of a new wave of geek cinema, which includes recent films like Paul, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and his own Fanboys.
“But I also think those movies are about real people with the same passions that millions of other people share,” he says. “I love movies that acknowledge the pop-culture saturated world we live in. In my opinion, if a work of fiction doesn’t acknowledge pop culture at all, it’s leaving out an essential element of what makes up our global culture.”
These days, being a “geek” doesn’t seem all that bad. The computer nerds rule the world and are as hip as hip can be. Cline says this is the natural course of events in a technologically-driven world.
“I think the rise of the geek is rooted in the success of the Internet, which was built by geeks,” he says. “The entertainment world has also come to be dominated by geek filmmakers like James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino who produce wildly popular films. Since the geeks pretty much run the world now, I think it’s only fitting that they inherit it, too.”
Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, writer, and contributing editor to Latino Magazine, whose fiction has appeared in the Threepenny Review and the anthology Hecho en Tejas.