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Why Can’t We Get A Truly Great Video Game Film?

by : Ewan Moore on : 27 Jan 2017 11:42

I’m hardly the first person to make this observation, but it’s a well documented fact that films based on video games are just not very good

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The quality of a video game film ranges from absolute kack (Super Mario Bros, Resident Evil, House of the Dead) to kind of okay (Ratchet and Clank, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider), but never has such a project risen beyond serviceable to join the ranks of the truly great – why?

There are loads of different arguments as to why we can’t get a cracking video game film, from incorrect interpretations of specific elements, to the talent involved.

So let’s go back to the earliest examples – films like Super Mario Bros (1993) and Street Fighter (1995) – the immediate problem is fairly clear: There was never an engaging narrative to be told in the source material, so how could anyone expect to tell a decent story over the course of a feature-length flick?

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Obviously, they can’t. Super Mario Bros and Street Fighter doubtless have their fans, but they really are bad films, whichever way you care to look at them. Sorry.

One of the problems (in the case of Mario especially) is that the source material is so light on story that the filmmakers had to take a whole bunch of ridiculous liberties with it, to the point where the 1993 film barely resembled the 8-bit plumber’s digital adventures.

That, of course, is to be expected. All Mario really does is collect coins, jump on things, explore pipes and fight Bowser to rescue the princess – great fun to play, and even to watch on Twitch or YouTube, but not what you want if you settle down for a movie night with the family.

That’s why we got things like Bowser being normal dude rather than an awesome spiky lizard, Goombas being weird freaks in long coats, and Luigi not having a damn ‘tache – the fucking nerve of ’em.

My point is that it’s almost a given that a crew faced with adapting a video game are always going to have to make changes by necessity.

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This was, at least in the early days, a problem because (based on the changes made) the filmmakers clearly never understood what they were adapting- or worse still, never cared enough to try.

This brings me to point number two: Namely, that video game films were naff (at least back in the day) because the medium of gaming as a whole just wasn’t understood – or respected – in the mainstream.

As a result of the (ridiculous and baffling) consensus that games aren’t ‘cool’, it almost seems to me as if many of the filmmakers involved with adapting a game were ashamed of the source material, but couldn’t quite deny the popularity of a franchise such as Resident Evil (2002).

What this seemed to lead to was the acknowledgement that the franchise was popular enough to turn into a movie, yet somehow not ‘cool’ enough to deliver a straight adaptation of the source material – something that, unlike Mario, might have worked.

Example: did you know George A. Romero – the father of the modern zombie flick – was actually originally attached to bring us a Resident Evil movie? By all accounts, his effort sounds like it would have been based on the original game, in that was to be an intense and claustrophobic movie about surviving a mansion full of undead horrors.

Of course, we’ll never know how that would’ve turned out, as it was shot down and cast to development hell in favour of the more action-oriented title that did end up on the big screen – a film that’s about as close to being proper Resident Evil as I am to being Milla Jovovich’s left foot.

Romero later revealed in 2000 that he didn’t think the studio were ‘into the spirit of the video game’ and that they wanted to make it more of a war movie.

Pretty damning evidence, I think, that a studio wanted to use the brand recognition of the Resi name, but didn’t respect the games or the people who played them enough to think it mattered when it came to adapting the source material. Because really, how much does Resident Evil the movie have in common with Resident Evil the game?

The answer is not a lot, and you can say exactly the same of Super Mario Bros – but what of the video game films that really made an effort to stick to source material as closely as possible?

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Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) was perhaps the first video game film to really try and accurately incorporate the mythology and world of its source material, and had the immensely talented Angelina Jolie on board, to boot.

The result was a decent enough film, but a relatively messy plot and inconsistent style held it back from any glowing critical acclaim, which leads me to the real problem with bringing games to the big screen.

It seems that attempting to cram in the varying tones, styles, characters and ambitious story that can only be told over a 15-20 hour game will result in a something of muddled final project that isn’t sure what it wants (or needs to be), and really, you can say exactly the same about Prince of Persia (2010), Silent Hill (2006),  Warcraft (2016), or even Assassin’s Creed (2016).

All are films with strong talent involved who clearly had a respect (or at least an understanding) for the source material – most recently, Michael Fassbender had really been busy talking up just how much it meant to everyone involved with Assassin’s Creed to get the feel of the games just right. I honestly think they did, but forgot to tell an interesting story in the process.

What we’re left with then, is a near-impossible situation in which sticking too closely to the material presents something muddled and/or boring.

Meanwhile, taking liberties – if you really don’t understand what makes the franchise tick in the first place – will produce frustratingly similar results.

I think the reason we’ve never had a truly great video game movie is a simple one: We’ve never had quite the right combination of talent – and that’s not a slight against some of the wonderful directors and actors who have worked on perfectly fine adaptions in the past.

No, I think to produce a video game film that can be considered truly ‘great’, a real critically-acclaimed hit requires a director/screenwriter/producer to walk a razor thin line, and one that might just be impossible to walk. Certainly, we’ve yet to see it done.

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In essence, anyone hoping to produce a critically acclaimed adaptation needs to be immersed in the source material, but not so beholden to it that they can’t see with real clarity what works and what doesn’t on the big-screen, and to know what elements to lose and what to add without diluting the initial magic of the franchise.

Since we’re automatically not going to be engaged with the narrative in an interactive capacity, the directors of the world need to find a way to flesh out characters that might be entirely one-dimensional in a video game, while simultaneously finding a way to remain true to the way that fans and critics have interpreted that character over the years.

Video game heroes are so often – by design – as plain as possible so that the player can imprint onto them and forge a connection.

Example: The Legend of Zelda’s Link is one of the most respected and popular gaming heroes around – but what is there to him besides ‘heroic’? How would you make him work in a film that would require him to be engaging enough a character to drive a plot for an entire audience?

More recent videogames, like the rebooted Tomb Raider and Uncharted or The Last of Us make an effort to create fully realised characters with complex motivations, so it’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming adaptations of these games turn out.

All in all, I really don’t think it’s impossible to create a ‘classic’ video game film, even if we haven’t had one in the past 30 years. It is undeniably an immense challenge – one that requires a very, very specific touch.

However, somewhere out there, there’s the right director with just the right screenplay, and they have the perfect combination of respect, knowledge, and cynicism for your favourite game, and they’ll make an absolute gem of a movie out of it.

Until that day comes, we’ll just have to settle for ‘not bad’.

Ewan Moore

Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn't gotten out of his mid 00's emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.

Topics: Film and TV