A technical SNAFU led to last week’s We Can Fix It being postponed, but it’s okay because we’ve got something even better than Batman Forever to cover now. (We’ll get to that though.) Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson recently gave an interview to MCV about his adaptations of that popular video game franchise, and presented the reasoning for his creative decisions in adapting them to film. While the Resident Evil movies have been of mixed quality at best, there’s no denying that they’re the face of successful video game adaptations in Hollywood. They make money, they’re reasonably popular, and they’re arguably the best video game adaptations we’ve had to date (although personally we’d be on the other side of that debate). But are they good enough?
Hell no. That’s why this week We Can Fix It takes a look at how to do a video game movie right. The history of video game-to-movie adaptations is filled with such disappointing releases as The Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter: The Movie, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and Bloodrayne, to name but a few. Even the better adaptations, like Silent Hill or Prince of Persia, rarely rise very far above mediocrity. How can we fix that?
Let’s take a moment to examine why this matters, or if it even should. Video games are an art form. That’s been the subject of some debate lately, but for the sake of this article we’re committing to our own take on the subject, that video games are art. If you disagree, then we agree to disagree with you. Now, if video games are an art form then they don’t need to be validated with an adaptation to another, different (if somewhat related) medium, like film. Which is true. The spate of awful video game movies has brought a lot of negative attention from non-gamers. When your only knowledge of video games comes from such awful movies as House of the Dead or Tomb Raider you’re bound to have a low opinion of the art form. This is why many of the A-list video games and video game franchises are now avoiding Hollywood altogether. You may have noticed that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has never been seriously discussed as a Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why. A bad movie negatively affects the perception of video games, the video game industry and even a hit franchise.
And of course this is why making a great video game movie is worth the trouble. Gamers know that video games can be art, and often cite such exceptional games as Shadow of the Colossus, Braid or Silent Hill 2 as examples. Video game movies have caused serious harm to the medium’s cause in the public eye, which is why it’s (at least partly) the responsibility of video game movies to pay up. As a parallel, look at the negative impact Super Friends or the Adam West Batman series had on the public perception of comic books. To this day, mainstream articles about comics still rip on Aquaman or reference those silly “BAM!” title cards, because during the period when comics were ghettoized those series were The Average Joe’s primary experience with comic book characters. No matter how many Alan Moores or Robert Crumbs the comic book medium produced, it was a movie – Tim Burton’s Batman initially, and later Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – that significantly helped legitimize the medium in the public eye, as wrong as that is on principle.
So this week on We Can Fix It we’ll take a look at how to make that video game movie. The one that can make up for all the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Withins and the Wing Commanders. It’s possible, but it’s not easy, but who cares? It’s worth it, and in addition to bringing positive attention to video games as a medium it will also open up a new world to movie producers, who will learn how to do it right and finally make some real video game blockbusters in the process.
NEXT: How to adapt a video game properly in four easy steps…
1. PICK THE RIGHT VIDEO GAME
You know why there’s never been a successful Punisher movie? The character was a big hit when he premiered in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974, because a character who just blew bad guys away with guns was genuinely novel in the colorful, oppressively moral world of comic book superheroes. He’s been adapted into three different movies since then, and they’ve each been of mixed quality at best (if we’re being nice), and none of them were a big financial success. That’s because The Punisher is a great comic book character, but a lame movie character. Vigilantes with guns were nothing new in movies when The Punisher first premiered. Why did anyone think that a movie based on a character based on movies would be a hit?
Hollywood keeps doing this with video game movies too. They take video games that play like photocopies of hit movies (Tomb Raider being the most obvious example, which owes a huge debt to Indiana Jones albeit with a female lead), and then make movies that then feel like photocopies of photocopies. It’s easy to see why filmmakers would do this: because it’s obvious. It’s the easiest kind of adaptation. But the ease (if not laziness) of this kind of adaptation leads to B-Movies at best, and absolute crap at worst. Many of these games have little interest in characters beyond stock archetypes, so the only thing that’s really being adapted is a genre, not the video game itself. What’s the point of that? (Beyond a quick buck, obviously.)
What filmmakers need to do is pick a video game, preferably a good one, with a clever hook and at least one or two interesting characters. Tomb Raider = Raiding tombs, with a female lead. That’s hardly even a bullet point. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of the right kind of movie to adapt. Great hook (a man gets a letter from his dead wife to meet in the town where they fell in love, which is mysteriously haunted), great characters (the protagonist is wracked with impotent guilt, and the supporting players play off of those frailties). What isn’t a great hook is an alien invasion being staved off by brawny badasses, like Gears of War. Great games, arguably, but as a movie we’re in Michael Bay territory. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that, in theory, but our goal is to finally make a video game movie that makes up for all the crap we’ve seen thus far, so we need to do better.
To that end we support video game movies of such smartly conceived (and mostly excellent) video games as Psychonauts (about a boy who runs away from the circus to go to a school… for psychics), Saint’s Row (a guy witnesses a gang war and is forced to join one of the gangs to stay alive), or Fallout 3 (a young man – or woman, depending on your preference – raised in a fallout shelter after a Nuclear War ventures out in the wasteland to find his/her missing father), to cite three examples of many. Great hooks, lots of potential for drama, interesting characters and creative concepts all. If you’re looking into adapting a video game movie about a fighting tournament or zombies, you’re going for the easy buck. We don’t blame you, but you’re not doing the cause any good.
Just because it’s a hit video game doesn’t mean it’ll translate to a hit movie, because video games aren’t just about story. They’re about placing the audience in the middle of an experience, and if that experience is interesting we don’t mind that the story is familiar, like Dead Space. They say some books are “unfilmable,” like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bonkers stuff like Super Mario Bros. or Katamari Damacy work as an experience, not a story, and as such are probably unfilmable too, at least in the interest of making a “great” video game movie. We need to acknowledge that some video games either won’t translate or are just too much like the movies we already have to be truly viable adaptations, no matter how successful they are, and focus instead on the video games that can be adapted fluidly between mediums.
2. PICK THE RIGHT DIRECTOR
A list of some of the greatest directors who have made a comic book movie: Tim Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Sam Mendes, David Cronenberg (to name a few). A list of some of the greatest directors who have made a comic book movie: Paul W.S. Anderson, Simon West, Jan De Bont, Christophe Gans, Andrzej Bartkowiak and Mike Newell. Notice a difference between those lists? Besides Mike Newell, the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, there aren’t a lot of A-listers lining up to direct a video game adaptation (and Newell’s movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, wasn’t very good anyway). We need to fix that.
We took a stab at this at CRAVE Online back in February with our list of the Top Ten Directors Who SHOULD Direct a Video Game Movie. The fact is that some directors are simply more ambitious than others. Budget may be a factor here, but Tim Burton’s original Batman only cost $35 million to produceand raked in over $250 million domestically. You don’t need money, necessarily (at least, depending on the project), you need a filmmaker in charge of the project who wants to make the best movie that they can, and has the talent – and hopefully studio support – to actually make that happen.
It’s almost happened: Peter Jackson, Neill Blomkamp and Guillermo Del Torohave all flirted with an adaptation of Halo, for example, but were shut down because they wanted too much (read: enough) money to do the original video game series justice. That’s why we need to follow Rule #1 here, and focus more on the right video game than the most popular ones. Psychonauts, Saint’s Row and Fallout 3 (just to reuse our previous examples) would all be feasible as mid-level action movies if adapted with care, although Fallout 3 would certainly need to cut back a bit. We just need the right director to actually do that.
We urge you to take a look at our list of the Top Ten Directors Who SHOULD Direct a Video Game Movie for some examples of who we think actually has the chops to do this right, because really even the best director in the world can’t do their best work if they’re wrong for the project. (David Lynch couldn’t work miracles with Dune, if you’ll recall.) But let’s just say that if your short list for an Assassin’s Creed movie includes such names as Brett Ratner, Len Wiseman or Marcus Nispel (not to pick on them), you’re selling your movie short before it even begins.
3. ADAPT THE DAMNED GAME
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Boy, is Hollywood bad at that. There’s a really pervasive, demeaning attitude towards video games in the movie industry, like they’re the work of mildly precocious children who need to be taught how to do it “right.” But of course as soon as the “adults” come in to clean everything up we wind up with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. Why is it that we’ve had two live-action Street Fighter movies and neither of them have been about a fighting tournament? Not that Street Fighter is a great shining example of video game storytelling, but it’s clean and fully functional. A bad guy sets up a fighting tournament, in part to get all of his enemies out in the open and then take them out. A bunch of interesting characters with their own grudges and conflicts get together and fight each other for a chance to take on the champ and settle their scores. Sure, it’s basically Enter the Dragon, but Enter the Dragon actually works and Street Fighter: The Movie does not, so who are you to judge?
In short, if you’ve picked the right source material then you shouldn’t ignore it. Doom has an obvious example of this. Both the game and the movie have space marines fighting monsters on Mars. The difference is that in the game, the monsters have spewed forth from a gate to Hell, and in the movie they had something to do with finally cataloguing the last of the human genome many decades into the future. The absurd thing is that we had already catalogued the human genome before the movie came out. It wasn’t broken, you tried to fix it, and the movie is stupider for it (and that’s before we get into the complaints about characterization, plot and so forth).
Of course, sometimes you wind up adapting a game that has absolutely no right to be a real movie, like Super Mario Bros. There are many (like CRAVE Online’s own Witney Seibold) who have genuine affection for the bizarre 1993 adaptation, but it’s usually ironic at best. I actually pity the filmmakers who had to take a story about a plumber saving a princess from a giant turtle by jumping on things and eating mushrooms. Takashi Miike would have problems with that adaptation. I’m not sure why exactly they thought making Super Mario Bros. more like Blade Runner was the solution, but at least they tried. I’m not sure adapting the source material faithfully would have been any better, but if they had, at least at the end of the day they could say “I told you so” to all the complaining fans.
Story may be secondary in many video games, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have them. Some have great stories, like Silent Hill 2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw accurately (and more-or-less repeatedly) pointed out that the movie adaptation of Silent Hill made a mistake by incorporating elements of Silent Hill 2 without the proper context. The buxom, deathly nurses and hyper-masculine Pyramid Head with his egregiously oversized sword represent the psychological hangups of a sexually frustrated widower seeking his dead wife, not a happily married woman searching for her missing adopted child. You didn’t pay attention, and you screwed it up. Silent Hill may be one of the better video game adaptations, but it works on a surface level at best.
Play the damned game and pay attention, because it’s not the work of idiots (at least, not necessarily). If it’s worth adapting to a movie it’s because the original work did something right. Figure out what that is, and if you can’t do it yourself, reread the part of this article labeled “Pick The Right Director.”
4. ADAPT THE GAMEPLAY… CORRECTLY
Every art form has advantages (and by extension disadvantages) over all the others. Even related mediums, like television and film, have differences. Television has the advantage of a serialized narrative, to name but one, while film has the advantage of being succinct. Video games may have characters, storylines and even cinematic cut scenes, but the advantage they really have over film is their ability to immerse audiences in the experiences of the protagonist (at least in narrative video games… this doesn’t quite apply to Tetris). Pretty much all the other differences, like map screens or power-ups, are essentially window dressing for this one key difference, as far as movie adaptations should be concerned.
Here’s an example of gameplay, as opposed to video game story, adapted into a movie: in Street Fighter: The Movie, M. Bison (played by Raul Julia) uses a Street Fighter arcade stick to remote control his defense mechanisms. That’s not a good idea: it’s a distracting attempt at fan service at best. A slightly better but still mistaken example comes from Silent Hill, in which Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) has to memorize a map – not unlike the maps given in the Silent Hill menu screens – in order to find her child. A little bit more incorporated into the story, perhaps, but still a distracting attempt at fan service. If you cut out the whole “memorizing a map” sequence the movie would play exactly the same. Or here’s an idea: take the map with you, Rose.
These are attempts to adapt aspects of gameplay into a video game movie. They are not, however, attempts to adapt actual gameplay itself. Film is an incredibly immersive medium. It can use cinematography, editing, sound design and all manner of special effects to bring an audience completely into a story. The right director (there’s #2 again) can successfully adapt the experience of playing a game – which are largely based on making an audience member live out a dramatic, intense moment as it occurs – using the techniques at their disposal. Fan service needs not apply.
Here are some examples of great video game movies that aren’t even based on video games. They capture the experiences of the characters in an immersive way, in stories reminiscent of video games (taken in part from an article I once co-wrote for The California Literary Review): Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s impeccably edited “You Are There” war story about soldiers in the thick of a firefight; Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer’s platformer in which a protagonist, played by Franke Potente, has to run through a series of obstacles and solve puzzles within a time limit, and returns back to an early checkpoint every time she fails; Richard Donner’s Goonies, about a group of kids essentially point-and-clicking their way through an old Lucas Arts game to find pirate treasure; and of course Pirates of the Caribbean, which is enough like The Secret of Monkey Island that it would make an actual Monkey Island movie redundant.
Movies are more than capable of recreating the effect actual gameplay, so why is it that video game movies haven’t quite managed it yet? Mortal Kombat came reasonably close when it wasn’t just kind of silly (or toned down to a PG-13). Andrzej Bartkowiak had an interesting if distractingly gimmicky idea when he made an entire sequence of Doom play in first-person. But these aren’t slam-dunks. Solid filmmaking is all it takes to recreate why a video game connecting with an audience in the first place.
As always, we could go on. But hopefully these four, fairly general rules will spark discussion and maybe even influence somebody to finally make the perfect video game movie… which will of course be an adaptation of Duck Hunt. No seriously, we have a pitch all worked out. Here’s the twist: the hunter and the dog are the same guy. Blows your mind, right?
We Can Fix It will be back next week with an exciting new adventure in hindsight.