If you ever utter the words “video game movie adaptation” out loud in the company of most self-respecting humans, you’re likely to be met with a series of groans and personal attacks on your taste and character. Ever since Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper took part in the atrocious adaptation of Super Mario Brothers back in 1993 (which the late Hoskins described as “the worst job he’s ever done”), the term brings up mental images of terrible acting, even more terrible writing, and hack directors abusing tax loopholes to make some easy money. By-and-large, gamers see them as cash grabs that do little-to-no favour to the often highly-regarded source material, and the average filmgoer certainly isn’t rushing out to go to see them.
There are plenty of moderate financial successes, such as the Resident Evil and Lara Croft franchises, but rarely huge, and for every hit (such as the Angry Birds film, currently breaking box office records) there’s another dose of pure box office poison (such as the Ratchet and Clank film, currently probably breaking records, but the wrong kind). On top of this, the critics have never been kind to them. To date, the greatest critical and financial success amongst these films (in terms of total box office) is 2010’s Prince of Persia adaptation, starring a distinctly un-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal, which still only achieved 50/100 on Metacritic, failed to make back its budget in the USA, and is nowadays more likely to be mentioned in conversations about whitewashing in Hollywood rather than the quality of the film itself. Quite the legacy.
All of this is to say, has there ever been a bigger waste of potential in the modern world, both artistically and financially? The video game industry is one of the most lucrative industries on the planet, and yet 23 years after the first big commercial release, we haven’t managed to create a single film adaptation that the general public can agree on being great, or even all that good. If this were simply a random sample of films, I would call this statistically unlikely. However, when you see the bigger picture, it becomes clear that historically, Hollywood simply does not value quality. Perhaps it’s understandable; the non-gaming executive probably still pictures a 12 year old boy screaming in delight as he runs over his fifth hooker in a pixelated police chase, and commissions a team that can create a film that appeals to those sensibilities. However, I believe that by continuing to do this, they have undervalued the entire genre and likely lost out on hundreds of millions in revenue by doing so.
I’ll be honest; I was really hopeful about Warcraft, the film based on Blizzard’s insanely popular real time strategy/massively multiplayer online RPG series, before I started writing this. Actual money was being put into it! It was being directed by certified-nerd, son-of-Bowie Doug Jones! He directed Moon, dammit! Sure, the CGI in the trailers reminded me a little too much of the waxy, uncanny valley creatures from The Hobbit, but I hoped that maybe that was a flaw from early footage and not indicative of the final product. Of course, my optimism proved once again to make me look like a total fool when the film was slated critically, and opened to a domestic weekend box office of approximately 8 big packs of Maltesers, financially. I’m assuming that was only the second worst thing to happen to Doug Jones this year. (I’m really sorry.)
I sometimes wonder if Hollywood studios just slept through 2008. Remember that Summer, when both Iron Man and The Dark Knight launched around the same time? Sure, we had some pretty great Spiderman and X-Men films at this point, and the odd Superman film or two, but those two films marked a real turning point for the comic book adaptation, because more-so than ever, they trusted in the quality of the source material. Tim Burton, director of Batman (1989) once famously said “Anybody who knows me knows I would never read a comic book”. Despite arguably directing one of the better comic films of that period, that sentiment sums up exactly why they never really took off on the same level they have now; they underestimated the appeal of the material in its original format. It was only when studios took chances on largely unproven writers and directors, who had grown up reading comics and understanding what makes them so appealing, that we really started seeing this change on a cultural level. If you told your past self from a decade ago, what would they find more shocking: that they made an Ant-Man film, or that it was actually pretty good?
Of course, if you look a little deeper, you’ll see that maybe businesses aren’t just resting on their laurels, with a lot of them quietly stacking their decks, seemingly waiting for the floodgates to open. For example, Nintendo recently announced their intention to start making films based on their properties within the next 3 years. JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has the rights to films based on Half Life and Portal, mostly because Abrams has a pathological desire to own every single thing nerds hold dear. Some are even beyond rights, such as The Last of Us, which already has Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams attached to star.
This isn’t as simple as adapting a book or a comic, of course. These mediums, similar to film, exist to tell a singular story envisioned by either a single author or a team of writers. In contrast, games are interactive mediums, where the narrative can be shaped by the player, and the quality more often derives from gameplay than the story being told. For example, many of the best moments in Portal stem from the puzzles forcing you to think in insanely complex, fourth-dimensional ways to achieve your goal. That feeling of personal achievement when you complete a section of a game will never truly translate to the passive medium of cinema. However, the other half of what makes Portal so great comes from the excellent writing and larger-than-life characters. Whether you’re listening to a passive-aggressive murderbot, an increasingly unstable scientist, or a moronic personality sphere with a lust for power, the story of the game and the characters that shape it make the entire experience so memorable, and that’s something that absolutely works in any medium. And that’s to say nothing of The Last of Us, another game with such high-quality story telling that it could probably be enjoyed as a film in its current format.
It’s taken far too long in my opinion, but in spite of all the historical evidence to the contrary, I believe we’re on the cusp of video game movies having their “Summer of 2008” moment of critical mass. Maybe it’ll be when the Assassin’s Creed film comes out this Christmas. Maybe it’ll be when Pixar makes their version of The Legend of Zelda. Maybe it’ll be when that Tetris trilogy they just announced redefines story telling and raises the bar for the entire entertainment industry (no, I’m not joking, and also I hope Idris Elba plays the straight block). But it’s coming. A decade from now, Metroid and Uncharted will be as big as Alien and Indiana Jones were, and people will wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.