Outside of discovering the meaning of life, a good video game film adaptation is one of the world’s most elusive creatures (that and maybe the female orgasm). Even though I’m not nearly the video game nerd I was back in my teenage years, which got me laid all the time, it still disappoints me that there isn’t video game adaptation worth discussing. There have been near misses, but zero have captured the attention of the film going public or critics alike. So, what’s the problem? As Roger Ebert would likely tell you, video games are a hollow, artistically deprived medium that don’t translate to the big screen. This assertion by Ebert has faced considerable rage from the video gaming community. But I’ll leave the semantic and philosophical battle between the great mind of Ebert and whoever may challenge his position. I’ll take a more simplistic approach to define the issues that plague a proper video game adaptation. Let’s hit the start button.
Video Games are an Interactive Experience: Remember when an 8-bit game was state of the art? Scrolling from left to right was undoubtedly an adventure in the 80’s, but our phones alone can do better than that today. With the advancement of technology and a change in narrative design, video games are no longer constrained to a singular path. Video games now consistently feature an open-ended world, a world where the main plot is just the beginning. For example, a game like Grand Theft Auto rewards gamers with complete control of their character. Want to beat up a hooker before you cap off a major drug deal? Go right on ahead! Through playable subplots and a lack of time constraints, interactive worlds open up a wealth of surprises and never-ending adventures for players. Needless to say, playing a video game is an ever evolving experience dictated by the player’s need to explore and concoct destruction. As it stands, video games have become a sandbox experience that truly can’t be fulfilled on film. In many respects, the experience a person can feel inside a video game is more immersive than a film because they dictate the actions within it. To put it bluntly, films leave an imprint on the viewer, games allows users to leave an imprint.
Many Game Adaptations Hail From Lackluster Material: Outside of the Resident Evil films, and the lone adventure into Silent Hill, most video game adaptations fail to seek inspiration from game franchises that actually hold cache. Ok, Prince of Persia is a prominent franchise, but with Disney funding the adventure and the film having no distinguishing characteristics from other “sword and sandal” films, it was a hackneyed adaptation from the beginning. Outside of the aforementioned films, the adaptations we’ve been afforded are: House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Super Mario Brothers, and Blood Rayne. None of these games are particularly good, nor are they particularly cinematic. It’s awfully tough to construct a film on material that’s as deep as a coffee mug.Because there isn’t enough material to draw on, game adaptations deviate from the ideas established in the source material; rendering its existence pointless. It’s akin to naming a movie after a beloved board game, although the movie shares nothing with said game (e.g. Battleship). “Super Mario Brothers” is a prime example of this issue.
The “Super Mario Bros” games exist on remedial tasks (at least at the time of the film adaptation’s release in 1994), so realistically the film had to build a story about an Italian plumber who eats mushrooms and fights fire-breathing lizards from scratch. Unfortunately, the film was so far removed from the games’ charms that it became a misnomer. But there are definitely games that possess a bit more depth. For instance, take a look at “Metal Gear Solid”. It’s a game exploding with colorful characters, an intriguing anti-hero at the forefront, and a multitude of plot threads that are dramatic and poignant. Sure, there are quirky, fantastical elements in play, but nothing that can’t be reworked by a competent writer. The same idea applies for the psychological horror game “Silent Hill 2”. Much of the game borrows from the horror films that preceded it, as it utilizes dynamic camera angles to tell a thematically rich tale of lost love mixed with an incubating guilt. The fact of the matter is this: material for a good adaptation is out there.
The Source Material Is Egregiously Altered: I’ll admit that this particular category aims at the Resident Evil franchise. Inexplicably Paul WS Anderson has made this into a successful film franchise. How did he do it? By bending over the games’ premise (survival horror) and having his way with it. The crowning achievement of “Resident Evil” is that it relied heavily on overbearing moments of dread and unexpected zombie attacks, where Andersen’s films are action oriented. “Resident Evil” games certainly featured the concussive blast of guns, but they were minimal and less important than running away from a horde of blood thirsty zombies. Anderson seems to believe that the only thing more important than gun play is slow motion action sequences. The only connection Andersen’s vision has with the source material is the title and zombies. Otherwise it’s an indiscernible action flick with weak special effects and even weaker acting. By no means am I saying that Andersen doesn’t have the right mutate the film to fit his mold, but he did it in a way that completely undermines what set the game apart from its contemporaries. It’s like taking the tale of Jane Eyre and making Mr. Rochester a talkative guy that can barely keep a secret.
Studios Don’t Care About the Product: Admittedly, there are very few game licenses out there that connect with the masses. So, it’s understandable to see a studio pump out an adaptation for pennies on the dollar. With that being said, if you’re going to make it, make it in a manner that isn’t dirt cheap. From horrendous special effects to a B-List cast, many of these video game adaptations contain an amateur vibe. Credibility is all but killed when Christian Slater and Tara Reid are headlining your film. If the studios actually gave a shit, their attempts at a worthwhile adaptation would feature actors who don’t have a starring role at the Betty Ford Clinic or on TMZ showing off their vagina. If there was one thing Disney got right with Prince of Persia, it’s that it didn’t rely on the pieces of poop found on the bottom of Hollywood’s dismissive shoe.
Horrible Filmmakers Are At the Helm: Invariably leading the charge behind shitty material are toxic filmmakers. The most notorious video game film director is Uwe Boll. Known for having little taste and an eye for garbage, Uwe Boll has found himself sullying numerous video game properties. Of course, this is not to say the material he started with was actually good, but there’s something special about taking mildly amusing material and rendering it devoid of entertainment. The closest we’ve come to seeing a video game adaptation with a stellar filmmaker is Fox and Universal’s failed attempts to bring Halo to life. Set for producing duties was Peter Jackson, whose name alone is enough to get any fan boy hard; directing was Neil Blomkamp, writer/director of the excellent District 9. Unfortunately, budget issues, and various other production miscues, killed the birth of a legitimate franchise.
Nonetheless, credibility and good films exist when you put good talent behind them. Why not hire Ti West to do a Silent Hill film? He’s a talented director that understands how to uncoil psychological terror in a precipitous manner. Looking to do a “Mass Effect” film? Hire a gun that can handle the ammo. Peter Jackson, Neil Blomkamp or JJ Abrams are directors that can handle high concept affairs while maintaining artistic merit. With the proper script and creative control, atop-tier or budding director will follow. The most recent example of this is David O’Russell who, coming off the Academy Award nominated The Fighter, was working on an “Uncharted” film with Mark Wahlberg set for the lead. The film fell apart last year, but clearly good filmmakers are looking at game properties.
Undoubtedly, it’s going to take a great videogame adaptation in order for Hollywood, the masses and critics to embrace videogames as wells of inspiration. Sure, as noted earlier in this post, videogames are hard to adapt because of their interactive nature. But with an invested studio, worthy source material and terrific filmmaker at the helm, a great adaptation will be achieved.