No other film genre boasts such an unimpeachable reputation for dreadfulness as the video game adaptation. Some, such as this year’s Tomb Raider film and the zombie-themed Resident Evil efforts, almost achieve mediocrity. Others are so fascinatingly terrible that they have become Hollywood legend – for instance, the baffling interpretation of Super Mario Bros proffered by edgy British directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton in 1993, in which Nintendo’s bright, joyful Mushroom Kingdom was reimagined as a futuristic dystopia called Dinohattan, where everyone was dressed in fishnets and black leather trenchcoats. A quarter of a century later, it is still impossible to understand why anyone thought that was a good idea.
The ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe is ample proof that films can do an excellent job of exploring geek culture and fleshing out the paper-thin characters that dominate it; Black Panther has just become the fifth highest-grossing movie ever at the US box office. Millions have now grown up with video games, so why is it that studios have failed to make a single video game movie that doesn’t stink?
“Big screen video game adaptations have had perhaps the most chequered box office past of any genre, and there has yet to be a consistent string of hits to qualify it as a true blockbuster genre,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “For every Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Angry Birds Movie, there have been numerous big-budget flops. Studios clearly feel that the international box office returns are enough to justify the investment [but] they are all hoping to be the lucky winner to crack the code and become the next superhero-like genre to break out and generate billions of dollars … it just hasn’t happened, yet.”
The most successful video game movie at the US box office was 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, which grossed $131m. The least successful was infamous director Uwe Boll’s hopelessly convoluted schlocky horror flick Alone in the Dark, starring Christian Slater, which brought in $5.1m. Most video game movies have failed to break even domestically, but they are sometimes saved by international markets; 2016’s deeply boring World of Warcraft movie met with a resounding “meh” at home, but did so well in China that it ended up grossing more than $430m. There’s clearly money to be made here, which explains why studios seem so obsessed with pursuing it despite the critical maulings.
Film critics have often relished the opportunity to have a pop at video games as a whole in their takedowns of awful film adaptations. “Maybe the only people who can explain this flick’s nonsensical plotline are those who squandered their youth mastering the Atari video game on which it’s based,” wrote LA Weekly’s Chuck Wilson of Alone in the Dark. “Wing Commander is based on a video game and has roughly the same degree of character development. That is all most moviegoers will need to know,” said the New York Times’s Anita Gates in her 2000 review. It is true that, historically, games’ plots were thin justifications for whatever action was being depicted on-screen, but in the past 15 years, story has become as important a part of video games as anything else.
Developers such as Naughty Dog, makers of Uncharted and The Last of Us, spend millions on teams of scriptwriters, actors, and lifelike performance capture to make their characters more than blank avatars and their stories resonate with players emotionally. A good video game tale these days can rival those told by film and TV. The problem is that the strengths of video game narratives – control, choice, immersion in the point of view of the character you play – do not translate well to film. Instead, video game adaptations tend to get caught up in tedious backstory.
“The kinds of games people want to put on film are often not very good examples of stories that have dramatic tension,” says Cara Ellison, a video game narrative designer who has also written for TV and comics. “A good film script is concise, and big games are not. Big-brand franchise games, the ones film studios think they can make brand recognition money from, are at least 15 hours long. Fitting all the weird stuff people jam into a game into a 120-minute film is a difficult (and probably unnecessary) job.”
“The issue with adapting video games for film is that there’s a lot of well-known gameplay features that just don’t translate into film-making,” says Lauren O’Callaghan, entertainment editor at video game and entertainment site Gamesradar. “Playing a game and watching a movie are two hugely different experiences. One requires the participant to take an active role in the story, making choices, while the other is more passive. Problems arise when film-makers try to incorporate key elements of a game into their film adaptations, because there’s often no (or at least a very weak) storyline reason for them existing within the movie. While fans of the game might understand why a shot of a flying eagle (a recurring symbol in the game’s mythology) was incorporated into so many scenes from the Assassin’s Creed movie, to traditional moviegoers it felt random.”
Many video game movie scripts attempt to find a middle ground between the people who know and love the game, and moviegoers who aren’t familiar with it at all. This, says O’Callaghan, is another major reason why they don’t work. “It’s something that book-to-film adaptations also fall victim to, but it’s less likely because books and films at least follow similar storyline patterns. Film-makers get trapped trying to make something that appeals to its gaming fanbase as well as the more casual filmgoer. Often they end up missing the mark for both audiences, creating dissatisfaction on both sides and a mediocre movie at best.”
There’s no good reason why video game movies should stick slavishly to the meandering plots of actual games. Film could provide a great space to explore the hidden inner lives of their characters, or play around inside their fictional universe. There are endless different stories set in the Star Wars universe, most of which have nothing to do with Luke Skywalker. Why shouldn’t the same be true for, say, Skyrim?
“The least terrible game movies lean into the core mood of the source material, and abandon the requirement of fitting in references to every damn collectable or idiosyncrasy of the game,” says Ellison. “Street Fighter has a funny script, you get a real sense of the character personalities, and a Jean-Claude Van Damme genre pop-art martial arts mess is exactly the tone of the game. The Sean Bean Silent Hill film has a really good sense of mood and tension lifted directly from the games. And the Resident Evil set of films takes the outrageous melodrama of the games and transplants it into an entirely new character and world of almost medical-fetish dystopia, which again is tonally appropriate B-movie trash that is wildly fun to witness. Leaning in to a few key tonal notes with very considered character-building is the way to making a good video game adaptation.”
Fantastic video game movies do exist – it’s just that none of them are adaptations. Video games fare better as movie-fodder when they are tackled conceptually – such as in Tron and War Games – or part of the cultural backdrop, as they are in Wreck-it Ralph and Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One. Unrestricted by the narrative constraints of an individual game’s tedious lore, these films are free to tackle what is most interesting about video games: how they intersect with real life. Wreck-it Ralph asks what would happen to famous game characters if, like real celebrities, they had an internal life outside of their public persona. Tron, last year’s Jumanji reboot and Ready Player One imagine what being sucked into a virtual world would be like. In Scott Pilgrim vs the World, games are just a part of the cultural backdrop, as they are for most people under 35. These films don’t bear the name of some giant, famous brand; instead they are about the role that video games play in our lives.
This is Ready Player One’s great strength – though having Spielberg as a director doesn’t hurt. It’s packed with references to well-known games alongside other pop culture, but you don’t have to spend hundreds of hours with a controller to enjoy the film.
Nonetheless, in the next few years, there are films forthcoming based on the 1986 arcade game Rampage (starring Dwayne Johnson), Nintendo’s Super Mario (this time made by Illumination, the studio behind Minions), Sonic the Hedgehog, and giant-dinosaur-hunting game Monster Hunter World. Perhaps one of them will get to the next level.