Opinion: Four Reasons Why There Are No Good Movies Based On Games
On paper, the forthcoming big-screen outings of Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed look to have everything going for them.
Not only has the Mass Effect movie been scripted by the Spielberg-approved writer of Jurassic Park IV and I Am Legend, but it also has Marvel blockbuster-king Avi Arad firmly behind it. Likewise, the cinematic version of Assassin’s Creed can boast of having acting genius and man-of-the-moment Micheal Fassbender on board.
However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that both films are likely to end up being complete and utter bollocks. Because as we all know, decent films based on games are about as rare as an expletive-free Xbox Live session.
It’s fair to say that movie adaptations of video games have a troubled past. Back in the ‘90s audiences suffered through the God-awful likes of Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros. (which starred a visibly embarrassed Bob Hoskins as the titular princess-saving plumber), while the last decade threw up countless critically-panned abominations. Hitman, Dead Or Alive, Max Payne – a mere glance down the list of entries in the ever-expanding genre reveals a roll-call of films that are often mediocre and frequently downright awful.
There have been a few minor successes. Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill was flawed but visually arresting and atmospheric, while it’s arguable that the first Tomb Raider provided moderately diverting entertainment.
Sadly however, these are rare exceptions. And you’d struggle to say that even these better adaptations are actually ‘good’.
It may be tempting to blame inadequate source material, but this would be unfair. Over the last ten or fifteen years the best video games have developed increasingly immersive atmospheres, sophisticated plots and in-depth characterisation. Many films based on video games have perfectly good stories and protagonists at their disposal, and should be seen as missed-opportunities.
So what is it that renders virtually every movie based on a video game a complete and utter failure?
1) They Are Made By Hacks
One obvious answer is that few are made with any great level of writing, acting and directorial talent. A great number cast D-list actors in the lead roles, and find their way into the hands of decidedly unimpressive filmmakers.
Paul WS Anderson – director of the Resident Evil movies as well as the first Mortal Kombat – is a dab hand at vomiting out goofy, schlocky action trash. The terrific Event Horizon aside, his films have all the substance and charm of a wet fart, and he often manages to distil little of his source material’s crucial personality (hence the almost total-lack of mystery, suspense, brooding atmosphere and B-Movie humour in the first Resident Evil).
But Anderson is just the tip of the iceberg. One particularly dubious director, Uwe Boll, has made no less than eight video game adaptations, with all receiving near universal condemnation from fans and critics alike. A number of these have featured in the Internet Movie Database’s list of the 100 Worst Films of All-Time, and there is now an online petition, on behalf of the video game and film-going communities, demanding that Boll retire from film-making altogether. To date, it has more than 350,000 signatories.
Boll is no doubt an extreme example of this (and you can read this eyebrow-raising article for a first-person insight into his ‘creative process’), but it’s fair to say that few video game adaptations are brought to the big screen by the cream of the cinematic crop. And that’s because…
2) They Are Short-Changed And Disrespected
More often than not, the money-men who back these movies want to bring them out as cheaply as possible, and see the market for these films as entirely dependent on kids and teenage boys.
Just look at the long-mooted film adaptation of lauded videogaming masterpiece BioShock – widely considered to be one of the greatest games ever made, and hailed by leading cultural commentators as a landmark in the acceptance of video games as genuine art, largely because of its beautiful visual design and compelling ideas.
In stark contrast to the game’s enviable reputation, BioShock’s transition to the big screen has been notoriously stuck in development hell for years now, and that’s really no surprise given the lack of respect afforded it by studios from the very beginning. Pirates Of The Caribbean filmmaker Gore Verbinski was originally attached to direct, but concerns over the proposed budget led to Verbinski making way for promising but little-known Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, with Prison Break actor and Hollywood nobody Wentworth Miller then rumoured to be playing the lead. With Verbinski, now acting as producer, rightly set on making an appropriately complex and violent, R-rated movie, the project ultimately sank because no studio was willing to go near a video game adaptation aimed at adults.
It’s not hard to see why. In the view of those bankrolling the movies, video game adaptations will have a ready-made, enthusiastic audience waiting to fill cinema screens in the shape of the game’s fanbase, but there’s always a risk that those who have little interest in the game will stay away. So for most studios (or independent filmmakers like Boll) the emphasis will be on keeping the budget tight in order to try and spin a profit, while aiming it at teenage boys to ensure a sizable ‘fun-but-dumb’ action audience. Why spend a huge sum of money on a top cast, crew and director when you can bring it out on a modest budget and get bums on seats before the bad reviews hit home?
That said, the involvement of big names and big budgets is no guarantee of success either. Two of the greatest filmmakers working today, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, tried and failed to bring a film version of Halo to the big screen, while $200m blockbuster Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time had a capable director in Mike Newell, a talented lead star in the shape of Jake Gyllenhaal, and even boasted bona fide acting legend Sir Ben Kingsley. Yet it still ended up being decidedly naff.
But when you consider that the brilliant Sir Ben also featured in Uwe Boll’s dismal Bloodrayne (a film that was even lambasted by its star Michael Madsen as a “horrifying and preposterous movie”) you begin to realise that there are other forces at work here.
3) Movies And Games Tell Stories In Completely Different Ways
Adapting video games into films is often no easy task. Some games have very minimal or even non-existent storylines to work with – relying instead on highly simplistic set-ups or scenarios – while at the other end of the spectrum games can spin out highly complex and involving plots over dozens of hours of gameplay.
With games that barely even have a story, there are far too many gaps to fill in when producing a screenplay – usually resulting in eyebrow-raising levels of bullshit as the hapless writer struggles to conjure backstory and characterization out of thin air.
By contrast, with games that have an abundance of story the sheer overload of events, places and characters inevitably causes a real headache for screenwriters, who have to somehow cram this endless amount of content into the confines of a movie-length framework.
Even more importantly, story development often works very differently in video games than it does in films. In games, narratives are usually broken up by long stretches of gameplay, with occasional cut-scenes, conversations or audio diaries springing-up to move the plot along, provide interesting backstory and develop the characters. Movies rely on momentum and pacing, and are usually about far more than just action and incident, so deciding exactly how to get from A to B on screen, when all you’ve got to go on is occasional cut-scenes, is far from an easy process.
In addition, with games the central protagonist often spends a great deal of time by his or herself, and very few films work with just a single character on-screen for the majority of the saga. This is the reason why films like Doom and Resident Evil introduce legions of dull new characters to the action, to prevent the proceedings from simply being a one-man (or one-woman) show.
Character translation can also be problematic. With Halo, it proved near impossible to devise how to bring the games’ faceless super-soldier Masterchief to the cinema screen without compromising his iconic quality. If you remove his helmet and show his face, you piss off the fanbase and destroy that classic image. But if you don’t show his face at all, how do you expect an audience to properly empathise with him? Ultimately Avi Arad – who is producing Mass Effect – passed on Halo because the lack of ‘faces’ made it impossible for the audience to have someone to relate to.
4) They Lose The Plot – Literally
As a result of these translation issues, many video game adaptations end up diverting wildly from their source material, with frequently disastrous results. Characters are altered and plots are often changed completely, which leads to inevitable discontent in the core target-audience and bemusement in newcomers to boot.
In the lackluster Doom, the game’s simple but chilling premise (scientific experiments gone-wrong open a portal to hell) was replaced by a confusing and far less gripping one (humans altered by genetic addition of an ‘alien chromosome’ turn into violent, mutated creatures). With Silent Hill the screenwriters changed the lead character to a woman, and when the studio then voiced concerns about the lack of a major male role they were forced to add-in Sean Bean’s tiresome, suspense-crushing sub-plot – which led to frequent dull diversions from what should have been a sustained, inescapable nightmare.
Perhaps most notoriously, Super Mario Bros. featured a ludicrously crazy storyline in which two New York plumbers travel to a parallel world where people evolved from dinosaurs instead of primates. Not even Dennis Hopper could save that woeful bag of shite.
Ultimately, many of these films have absolutely nothing in common with the games on which they are based, save for the title itself. And turning your back on what made the game so successful in the first place is usually a recipe for disaster. Empire Magazine noted that Prince of Persia was at its best when referencing the games directly, yet filmmakers and studios rarely respect the source material at their disposal.
As well as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed, film adaptations are pending for sci-fi horror Dead Space, action-adventure Uncharted and even Pac-Man (no, really). But unless something drastically alters in the way the film industry handles the video games at its disposal, it looks likely that we’ll see numerous more disasters, disappointments and missed-opportunities in the future.