Writing a book is a lot harder than writing a movie. But adapting your own book into a movie is even harder than that. Just ask Ready Player One author Ernie Cline.
Before I became a novelist, I was a screenwriter. You could even say that my experiences with screenwriting were what made me a novelist. You see, screenwriting can be a soul-crushing profession at times. In a way that makes you want to actively pursue a whole different line of work.
The first screenplay of mine to be optioned was “Fanboys,” which I wrote way back in 1998. It took over a decade, but that script was eventually made into a movie released in 2009. Of course, during the (extremely long and often painful) process of being produced, my original screenplay had been rewritten and reworked by the director, two other writers, the cast (who did a lot of great improv), and by the Weinstein Company, who put up the money for the picture. So the end product only slightly resembled my original story, even though the movie was still set in my hometown and the main characters were still based on me and people I’d grown up with. After sitting on the shelf for two years while the filmmakers fought with the studio over plot changes, the movie was given a small, half-assed theatrical release. It was kind of a nightmare.
But the end product featured epic geek miracles I would never even have dreamed of back when I first wrote the script, including George Lucas’ personal blessing and cameos by Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, and William Shatner. I also got to meet Kristen Bell.
So on the one hand, the experience was incredibly frustrating. On the other, I said to myself, “Shut up and quit your bellyaching, Cline! You actually managed to get a movie made, be in a scene with William Shatner, and have your name on the poster and everything! And you got to see Kristen Bell wearing Princess Leia’s gold bikini. Making movies is the coolest job ever! Count your blessings, fool!”
So I wrote another screenplay, a comedy called “Thundercade,” and it was optioned, too. But after a few years of rewrites and close calls, the option expired, and now “Thundercade” belongs to me again. It still may (or may not) get made one day. This happens all the time. Scripts can bounce around for decades before they finally get produced (while the writer has been starving and slowly going mad). Someone should really do a parody of that “I’m Just a Bill” Schoolhouse Rock cartoon called “I’m Just A Script.”
At the time, I thought Hollywood was trying to teach me that one of two things happen when you write a screenplay: A) It will never get made into a movie, or B) After a decade, it will get made into a movie that will barely resemble what you originally wrote.
So I decided this might be a good time to finish the novel I’d been working on for several years between screenwriting projects. I found life as a wannabe novelist to be incredibly liberating. I could do anything I wanted in the story, without worrying about production costs, casting a big-name movie star, appealing to a global audience, or pleasing studio executives. Finally, I would have total control over how to tell the story. And I could write something crazy and unfilmable that might only appeal to me!
Of course, the joke was on me. The day after I sold my novel to Random House, Warner Bros. bought the movie rights – with me attached to write the first draft of the screenplay. So I immediately had to start over and re-imagine my crazy, personal, unfilmable book as a big Hollywood blockbuster – which entails worrying about production costs, casting a big-name movie star, appealing to a global audience, and pleasing studio executives.
It probably won’t surprise you when I say that it was the hardest writing gig of my life.
Of course, if the movie gets made, all that hard work will be worth it. But filming is still a long way off, and until the cameras roll you never know what can happen. (Or even after they roll – ever see “Lost in La Mancha”?) In Hollywood, you have to remain cautiously optimistic.
Even though I can’t tell you the release date of the movie yet, I do know for certain that the book is out. You can read it if you want to. And the book contains my own bizarre, weirdly personal vision, written without any concern for directors or focus groups. I promise.
ERNEST CLINE has worked as a short-order cook, fish gutter, plasma donor, elitist video store clerk, and tech support drone. His primary occupation, however, has always been geeking out, and he eventually threw aside those other promising career paths to express his love of pop culture fulltime as a spoken word artist and screenwriter. His 2009 film “Fanboys,” much to his surprise, became a cult phenomenon. These days Ernie lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, their daughter, and a large collection of classic video games. Ready Player One is his first novel.