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How To Adapt Video Games To Movies Successfully: Tell An Untold Story In A Familiar World
Most people tend to agree that there is a lack of quality in video game adaptations. Some would say there has yet to be a successful adaptation at all. Success, not in terms of profit, but success as in a general consensus amongst gamers and fans of particular franchises.
You know things are bad when Mortal Kombat is often hailed as the pinnacle, the towering achievement of realising a video game as motion picture. Which is sad because it’s ultimately a B-movie featuring a grey-haired Christopher Lambert cackling maniacally while people fight each other amidst bad 90s CGI. Ok, actually that sounds awesome. B-movies can be fun, but MK is ultimately Enter The Dragon without Bruce Lee. It features characters from the game, but feels very obligatory, tame and does not capture the ridiculously gory spirit of the original game. Gore is not exactly a requirement for a good film, but MK was always the grittier alternative to Street Fighter, so any adaptation should capture that nihilistic vibe. But you have to love the trailer though, with that awesome music.
But let’s not even talk about Street Fighter. Or Super Mario Brothers. Resident Evil, Hitman, Far Cry, Max Payne. Please, let’s just quickly move on and try to figure out how to make good adaptations.
So video game adaptations suck for the most part, barring occasional inconsistent exceptions. Here’s what usually happens:
The film has nothing to do with the game
Adaptations are not really meant to replicate a story from another medium. The point of a film adaptation is to take the spirit of the source material and make it fit into the cinematic medium; a different kind of visual language. However, in doing so there is the risk that you lose the qualities that made the source material special in the first place. Or more to the point, gamers are a fickle bunch.
But can you blame them, when their favourite games are disfigured and massacred on the big screen? David O. Russell’s aborted take on Uncharted may or may not have ultimately ended up being about a family of treasure hunters, starring Mark Wahlberg, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Now granted, that sounds fascinating, but it doesn’t sound like Uncharted. The 2005 adaptation of Doom lacked the demonic spawn that the game is recognised for, opting mostly for rampaging zombies instead. There is this tendency by Hollywood to filter a video game of its weirder elements, but ultimately we end up with something diluted and generic.
The film attempts to recreate the game and fails
Silent Hill seemed like it was going to be the one to topple Mortal Kombat from its blood-soaked throne, but ultimately fell flat for many. It had the right look, but something was missing.
Here’s my suggestion: Tell an untold story in the same universe of the game you’re trying to adapt.
Here’s two ways to do this:
A stand-alone adventure featuring the main character in an existing game-world
Why watch a story you’ve already played repeat itself on the big screen? How could it possibly satisfy you, after you’ve personally accomplished what the main character goes through? Is watching an actor play Solid Snake take down a chopper in Metal Gear Solid (arguably one of the first games to fully capture a cinematic spirit) ever going to rival the experience you had doing the exact same thing yourself? I think the answer is a big fat: No. No, it isn’t. So why bother? Its as futile as that ridiculous shot-for-shot remake of Psycho from 1998.
I think the way to success is a film featuring the character from the games, in a story that we’ve not played. Here’s the key element though: The film has to take place in a world where the storylines of the games exists. This ensures consistency. It shows faith in the franchise itself.
We could watch a film about Solid Snake set between Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4, and it would feel new to gamers. If it sucks, then no problem, because it doesn’t taint the stories we know and love. If it’s awesome, then it deepens the mythology of the series and may even make us look at the games in a new light.
I think the problem with adaptations, like Tomb Raider for example, is that the screenwriter has taken the core premise of the games and then transferred it out of the game universe, infused their own voice and sensibilities onto the work, but in doing so have filtered out what made the premise a hit with gamers in the first place.
By taking a character from the game universe and crafting a standalone story set within it, the writer’s job becomes much easier. You don’t have to write a new backstory, it’s all there in the games. The protagonist’s personality, their history with other characters, their strengths and weaknesses. All the things the gamers love about the character can be utilised in a story we haven’t seen before.
This way you don’t incur the wrath of purists who hold a game to their heart. You don’t desecrate an existing story. You don’t retcon cannon. As long as the writer understands what makes the character tick, then a new story should be a new pleasant experience for gamers.
To fix the problem with the Uncharted adaptation attempt mentioned above, why not simply tell a story set before or between one of the existing games? You could have small references to the games, but simply not intrude on them. A film set after Uncharted 3, could also subtly set up the story for Uncharted 4. We live in a culture obsessed with multi-format experiences, I’m surprised this hasn’t been done yet. (or has it? Correct me if I’m wrong folks)
A film about new characters in an existing world, with a possible cameo of the main character
This is the least likely, but possibly more interesting suggestion. Imagine a story set in the world of Half-Life but not about Gordon. Half-Life was a hit because of the world it created, not because of the main character’s personality. You’re just playing a voiceless cipher, and any film-makers attempt at re-creating Gordon will ultimately be met with an unsatisfied audience who all had their own idea of what he looks, sounds and acted like in the game.
With a new tale, you get the benefit of using the world, without ruining an iconic character in the process. The same thing could be done with the likes of other FPS like Halo, etc. Maybe in a Half-Life adaptation, we follow a resistance member fighting the alien threat in his own way, also crossing paths with the G-Man.
So those are my suggestions on tackling video game adaptations. I see gamers complaining all the time about films, and it’s because the films are divorced from the worlds the games have built. So why not make films set in those worlds? Make films part of the narrative. You could have a franchise telling stories from one medium to another. Characters from one game make obscure references to things that happened in a previous film. A film can contain clues to incidents that occurred in another game. Can’t hurt to try, right?
The future is looking brighter though, game studios are becoming more savvy and conscious of fan demands, and with more and more respected film-makers and actors willing to tackle video game adaptations, it’s just a matter of time until the quality rises. Duncan Jones is almost finished with his take on World of Warcraft. Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed, Need for Speed are all in various stages of production, being tackled by very talented people such as Michael Fassbender, and Aaron Paul.
At the end of the day, tastes are subjective, so though we may not reach a consensus, we all have certain movies that we like even if the people around us don’t. 2010’s Prince of Persia has a quiet following that praises it at every opportunity. I have to admit that I have a fondness for Corey Yuen’s Dead or Alive, which knows exactly how silly it is and under no pretensions just has a bunch of strong women beat the crap out of everyone. It’s my guilty pleasure, we’ve all got them.
But here’s hoping future adaptations can aspire to be more than that.