It’s been 20 years since the Super Mario Bros first lit up Western cinema screens with the first live action film adaptation of a videogame. I have no idea what that videogame was but, after viewing the film multiple times, I’m pretty sure it was not Super Mario Bros. It may have been based on Totally Rad I think. The film was pure shit. Well, except for Samantha Mathis… she was quite tasty. Point is, Super Mario Bros kicked off a trend which has continued to this day… That being that films based on videogames suck. Why is that? Click the link for a series of reasons in no particular order.
On this site I have reviewed a few film adaptations of videogames. I actually started the site after watching Mortal Kombat and deciding I could probably write a thing about that… and thus The Film Dump was born. Feel free to go back to review No.1 and have a read, I don’t mind. Since then I have also reviewed Mortal Kombat Annihilation, Tekken, Street Fighter, Resident Evil and something called Uncharted 3 Drake’s Deception… Which may have actually been a game… so I’m told. All these films (Except for Uncharted 3) share one thing in common. They stink a little. At best they’re passable. At least Mortal Kombat and Tekken gave me at least some modicum of entertainment. Possibly because Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is in both. The cold hard fact is that none of these films are actually good. As in classical good. None of them explore themes of humanity, or display great film making craftsmanship on a higher level. They’re scripted by apparent simpletons and are thick as your mum (BURRRN!).
If you look at the scores on Rotten Tomatoes for videogame based films you’ll find that none have ever been rated fresh. In fact the highest scoring one of them is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Suck it Advent Children!) with a measly 44% rating. For the millions of you that haven’t seen Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it is a mediocre CG animated sci-fi film that has nothing in common with the game series apart from one character being called Cid. I think it’s passable but probably shouldn’t have been called Final Fantasy. The highest grossing films was 2010s Prince of Persia which grossed $335 million and the most expensive ever made at $200 million. Think about that for a moment. The most expensive videogame based film of all time failed to turn a profit (Films usually have to make multiple times their budget back to make profit), was made by Disney and still wasn’t the best reviewed. It is one of the few I’ve seen that I would say looked like a blockbuster movie. The only game that’s spawned a consistently profitable film series so far is the rancid Resident Evil films and each of them have pulled in total box office numbers that would make some actual blockbuster’s first weekends look like flops.
So what is the intrinsic flaw causing all these adaptations to fail? It’s not like adaptations of other mediums are as consistently weak. Books and plays have been adapted since cinema began. Some of the very earliest films are reiterations of old fables. Even albums such as The Who’s Tommy have been successfully turned into films. Some films have been turned into very successful stage productions. Some films have been adapted in ways that completely deviate from the original’s style, such as Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors to Frank Oz’s musical adaptation, and yet still retain the original’s core appeal and have managed to succeed. In the case of Little Shop of Horrors it was a film made in a week, that later spawned a stage musical, which in turn spawned the Rick Moranis starring film. So, I ask again, what is the intrinsic flaw of videogames that makes adapting them so hard?
Let’s start with the most obvious one. They are very different mediums. Books, films and plays are all passive examples of being told a story. They share a common link that they’re stories will be told in with the order and pacing they are designed to each and every time they are experienced. Videogames are interactive which, barring a few exceptions, will always be told at the pace and sometimes the order the player chooses. Or at least the pace their skills allow him to. This means that, whilst linear in it’s storytelling, a game such as Uncharted or The Last of Us are experienced at the pacing the player dictates. Some of the best games will even tell a story that can’t exist in the same way outside of their medium. Last year’s Spec Ops: The Line may be based on an amalgam of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now but the act of playing, and continuing to play is key to the experience, even more so than a game like Uncharted. Without playing you are not fully experiencing the weight of the story. Films cannot replicate this personal level of storytelling. A film won’t make you feel bad unless it is making a commentary on the act of viewing the subject of it’s story.
Now all this really results in is a different experience on film to playing the game and the experience it’s story delivers. I mentioned The Who’s Tommy earlier for a reason. The act of listening to their album will deliver the story to you, with the right amount of imagination or imagination enhancing erm… products, as you would from watching the film. I recommend imagination enhancement for the film too. But… let’s say you’re a musician and you have musician friends. You don’t need to play that Tommy CD. If you’re good enough you can play the Tommy album and experience the story first hand. You can even manipulate and adapt it yourself to maybe play out differently.
Videogames don’t have the luxury of an entirely passive mode. Well, unless you count watching long play videos. But then you’ll be watching someone else potter their character about a bunch of mazes while you wish time would speed up. The act of interacting increases the involvement in the story. So in order to adapt a videogame to a film you need to find the core of the story, character and setting… if possible identify intellectual themes, and then find a way of conveying them in a traditional 3 act structure that won’t recall videogame logic or too many specific gameplay experiences. There’s a reason Let’s Play videos are booming these days. It’s because the added commentary gives the viewer an extra level of engagement that can distract from the parts of a game that would often be boring to watch. Of course, if you watch my Let’s Play videos they’re still boring to watch. But that’s another issue.
One videogame adaptation I felt came pretty close to being an actual well made and produced film was Silent Hill. Director Christophe Gans identified that what makes the Silent Hill games effective was not the interaction but the disturbing nature of it’s horror. Many of the Silent Hill games are borderline broken gameplay wise, often filled with clunky controls and even clunkier production quality. Yeah, that’s right, send the hate my way. With the Silent Hill film he at least attempted to make it a horror movie first and foremost. Where the film falls over was it’s script and structure. The film feels like you’re watching a videogame play out. The main character isn’t having a journey of self discovery, she just wants to find her daughter. Meanwhile Sean Bean’s Christopher is wandering around the not haunted side of Silent Hill looking for his wife. They’re both searching for their win state. Radha Mitchell’s Rose spends a lot of the time only knowing where to go next because she has picked up and inspected another object to lead her to the next location on the tick box of locations people remember from the first two games. There’s no conflict between Rose and Christopher prior to their individual arrivals in Silent Hill other than they’re not sure what to do about their daughter’s sleepwalking. I’m going to come back to Silent Hill in a moment to present an alternate reality version of the film.
Now we’ll move onto another element which is causing these adaptations to struggle to be all they can be. Studios are more interested in the name of a game than what the game is. For example, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are both fairly similar games with very well known names. The logical adaptation for both is a tournament fight movie, something along the lines of Bloodsport perhaps… although I’d hope with more Stan Bush on the soundtrack. Mortal Kombat did this and even managed to not shy away from the game’s wackier elements. It was watchable. Street Fighter ignored the feck out of the game’s entire premise and made some sort of military action film that sort of meanders around with no direction. What both these films failed entirely to do was engage with strong characters and their development. Liu Kang had a plot thread regarding his failure to save his brother from being killed by Shang Tsung but it was largely ignored for the vast majority of the film.
The trouble here is that, in order to guarantee success, the studios latched onto whatever name they recognised or were told was huge and so a film was made regardless. A less recognisable game that was entirely story focused would have been the right choice for a good adaptation, The Secret of Monkey Island for example. Monkey island may not be deep in it’s story but it tells an adequate and enjoyable swashbuckling adventure that bucks storytelling trends and is filled with enough quirks to stand out. The character’s may be simple but they interact and clash in a fun manner. The film may not have had brand recognition from the start but had it been a success they would have had a big franchise to play off of.
Guess what? That pretty much happened. The Secret Of Monkey Island was, at one point, entering production in a joint venture between Lucasfilm and Disney. The time passed and the film was dropped from the priority list as the parties moved on. A few years later though the script was dusted off and re-appropriated into what we now call Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Watch the film again and start noting the similarities. Undead pirate villains, a humble man becoming a pirate, a not so damsel in distress holding her own against the pirate villains. There’s even the dog named Walt that holds the prison keys in both Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. Monkey island was loosely based on/inspired by Tim Power’s On Stranger Tides, which you may recognise as the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean film’s subtitle. So, it is possible to adapt a game into a genuinely good film. At least the first Pirates film that is. The others kinda blow.
What else can effect these adaptations? How’s about the general quality of the crew behind them. The Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat films both have at various points a director, producer and writer in the form of one Paul W Anderson. He is not a very good director, producer or writer. He’s always come across to me as a yes man, towing the executive line. He’s making a fecking 3D action movie about Pompeii for Christ’s sake! Uwe Boll has adapted a number of videogames to film, all with suitably disastrous results. By the way, thanks for not funding his Kickstarter for Postal 2. means a lot to me. At one point Brett Ratner was working on making a film based on Guitar Hero. Occasionally good director’s do get to work on these films, the aforementioned Christophe Gans and Mike Newell who directed Prince of Persia. As bad as it was sounding the Uncharted film had a damn fine director in David O’Russell. Thankfully that film didn’t happen because he was appearing to be way off the mark.
One element that doesn’t help with these adaptations is that, often, the directors or writer’s are not familiar with the franchises they’re adapting or, quite often, games on the whole. If they are then they’re lumbered with studio decisions that are counter productive or a film that will not adapt well on the budget provided. The Wing Commander film was made on $30 million. That’s a pittance for the kind of intergalactic space opera the game’s setting demanded. The film was awful. This won’t last forever though. In due course the people directing and writing the films will be people that have grown up in an age when sophisticated games with actual stories have been part of their entire lives. Eventually this will be the same for the executives calling the shots. The production of the Halo film fell apart because the guys who knew the games (Microsoft and Peter Jackson) couldn’t get the studios to agree on the sort of backing and production quality they’d require. There was likely a large amount of hubris on Microsoft’s part here though. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had convinced themselves a Halo movie would be Star Wars big. Looks like they’ve convinced Steven Spielberg though.
So now we’ve discussed that, let’s hypothesise how a currently existing videogame adaptation could be made better. Yup, I’m being that big headed. Silent Hill is a film about mother that crashes her card on a spooky mountain pass and awakens to find her daughter missing. She heads into the suspiciously foggy town of Silent Hill and follows a breadcrumb trail of clues until she eventually finds her daughter and uncovers the mystery of this messed up town. As mentioned before Sean Bean wanders around the non-spooky version of the town doing a whole lot of nothing because, and this is the truth, the studio told Gans there had to be some men in the film. That is how Silent Hill plays out.
Now, in the games the creatures of Silent Hill often represent twisted visualisations of the main character’s psyche. This isn’t present in the film beyond the mob of running demon children chasing Rose down. What if, in the opening scenes, we are presented with a different Rose. One who has lived a life of abuse from male figures in her life. A father that had sexually abused her as a child, a husband that treats her as being worthless and incapable of protecting her child after she has sleepwalked he way out of the house again. Maybe she’s looked upon as being odd and a shut in by other females as a result of the anxiety and depression she feels. She has one driving desire though, and that is to protect her child from experiencing the same horrors she has over her life. She plans to make a life for herself in a new town taking her daughter with her, maybe after accidentally killing her husband in self defence. She plans to drive away at night in a rush being sure to not let her daughter see the bloodied corpse in the kitchen as they leave. As they race along a winding path a shadowy figure appears out of the thick fog. She swerves to avoid impact and rolls the car. As she drifts in and out of consciousness Rose sees her daughter wandering away into the fog. She hasn’t the energy to stop her.
As she escapes the wreckage she attempts to stumble her way along the road towards the fog her daughter had vanished into. She is met by another woman in the form of a police officer who is physically stronger than her but apparently quite damaged in her own way. As the film progresses rose encounters various horrors that appear as representations of the fears and anxieties she has lived with her entire life. The sort of anxieties that have crippled her from being the strong woman she could be. She sees Pyramid Head as this stalking figure always watching her movements and taking any chance it can to show its physical dominance over her. Hands grab at her from walls attempting to keep her under their control, molesting her as she attempts to break free. Figures shrouded in the fog whisper words of judgement that tug at her insecurities. Female figures with seemingly perfect bodies chase unnerve her at every turn whilst wielding scalpels that they intend to use to make her as faceless as they are. Animated corpses of small infants remind her of aborted children she may have had to lose as a result of abuse in her teenage years.
As the officer and Rose progress through silent Hill they encounter other people experiencing their own private hells, their horrors not interacting with Rose or the officer. These other people provide the clues Rose requires to find her daughter. At a key moment the police officer is killed, failing to complete a personal demon she wished to put to rest. This leads Rose to force herself to stand up and fight back against her fears and, in the process, put her anxieties to rest. Eventually she must face the Pyramid Head and after building up the mental strength she requires she is able to kill the beast and put to rest the horrors of her previous life. The film ends with Rose and her child making their escape from Silent Hill as they head towards a brighter future free of the terrors that have haunted her life and the terrors that would have befallen her child. Meanwhile we see the same road she had crashed on as another person with a story we’ve not been told crashes and finds themselves stranded in Silent Hill.
So, what do you think? Would that have been a more engaging film experience? We’ll ignore the fact that she’s going to be a fugitive from the police the moment someone finds her husband’s corpse in their home of course. Many films do that after all. What matters is that she overcame her personal demons whilst confronting actual demons. She used this conflict to grow as a character and in the end was able to achieve the goal she desired. Now think to the various videogame adaptations you’ve seen and tell me how many have conflicts built around actual character development. Many of these films make the mistake of framing their conflict around action entirely, forgetting that it is the character that should be driving those conflicts. I’m not saying an enjoyable film cannot be made without a strong character arc whilst also providing on whatever action based conflict the setting may require, Dredd did that marvellously, for example. But many of these films lack the inherent charm or craftsmanship required to to pull off an effective yet single minded story.
This all leads me to a trailer released earlier this week for the film adaptation of Need for Speed. The trailer is actually quite good. It’s clearly trying to make you believe it isn’t in entirely the same mould as the Fast & Furious franchise. Although it does feature a hell of a lot of fast cars. It’s attempting to make you believe the film has a strong character journey to invest in. You know, in the film based on a game series that is only a series cos EA needed a brand name for all their racing games that share little to no similarities beyond cars going fast. Will the film actually provide a strong character based story? I’m not so sure. Will it provide enjoyable action? That’s actually a strong possibility. The director (Scott Waugh) is a stuntman by trade after all. His only previous feature film was Act of Valor, an advert for the Navy Seals that starred actual Navy Seals. Unlike the film Navy Seals which was awesome… maybe… I’ve not seen it for about 20 years.
Next year we’ll know if Need for Speed is a… I can’t be arsed to come up with a car based metaphor for being a success or a flop. Make your own one up. Regardless, it seems to be following the same pattern that has been the downfall of practically every videogame adaptation before it. It’s a franchise that’s well known with an emphasis on action, despite the trailer’s intention, and an untested director. There’s a number of games you could adapt to make a quality film, such as Monkey Island or Brutal Legend (for fun of course.. not depth). Duncan Jones is adapting Warcraft, which has a wealth of lore to exploit, as would The Elder Scrolls. Uncharted is still being planned and that game is practically a film as it is. You’d only need to tweak the actual story structure and massage the characters to get a complete film. Maybe someone could come out of left field and make a film about one small boy and his indoctrination into a cult of animal skin wearing villagers. It would be called Animal Crossing. That theory exists by the way. Not my idea.
Despite all this though one thing seems certain. We appear to be beyond the entirely dreadful and irredeemable messes that were productions such as Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon and Street Fighter. Well, with the exception of the occasional Uwe Boll film. Maybe in 10 years we’ll have a Mass Effect film that captures the game universe that provides the external conflicts whilst allowing Shepard to grapple with the weight and consequence of his decisions, where each one he makes has galaxy wide consequences. Also, we should get blue alien chick boob. Cos the game cheaped out on us there. Maybe it’ll be directed by an established director, with the production budget to realise the vision. Maybe it’ll have producers that have put in 60 plus hours into each game and know the worlds inside out. We can all dream. Even if those dreams seem almost unreal.