It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one has ever made a good movie based on a video game, since the genre came into being with 1993’s Super Mario Bros. I don’t usually care for such truths, but that’s one I’m happy to accept, by and large. I would possibly carve out an exception for some of the Pokémon movies, though I haven’t watched any of them in a long time, and there are, of course, some good movies about video games or inspired by their aesthetic: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wreck-It Ralph, Tron, etc. But as far as film adaptations of video games, it’s been one failure after another, with only occasional spells of mediocrity to shake things up.
Plenty of people have offered plenty of explanations for why video game movies have been so bad, and some have even suggested it’s impossible for a video game movie to ever be good. Some of their reasons seem valid enough. For example, video game IP is almost entirely owned by giant corporations, so it’s essentially impossible to make a video game movie without getting into bed with corporations on both ends of a rights deal. Only a giant film corporation can afford to buy rights from a giant gaming corporation. You can make an indie movie based on a book or play because not all books and plays are owned by giant publishers. But especially since the millennium, video game movies are made by big production companies (BBC, Toho, Dune, DreamWorks, Bruckheimer) and distributed by big distributors (Universal, Fox, Tristar, Disney, Lionsgate). The upcoming adaptations of Tomb Raider, Rampage and Minecraft are backed by, among others, Warner Bros., MGM and New Line.
I’m more than sceptical enough of corporations to lay the lion’s share of the blame at their feet. Film corporations haven’t exactly done a great job as stewards of the movie as an art form, but gaming corporations have even less relevant understanding and experience, yet insist on getting involved with production. Even more than most films made in the corporate age of Hollywood, video game movies aspire to be no more than passable, middle-of-the-road, impersonal products, but can’t even rise to that bare minimum standard because the companies behind them are even less competent at filmmaking and even more focused on the bottom line over any kind of prestige or artistic ideals. Moreover, the only video games that are adapted into movies are the successful and popular ones, whose rights cost more, and therefore have to make a shit ton of money. Hollywood remains convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that only blockbusters can make a shit ton of money, so the already narrow pool of successful and popular games becomes narrowed even further to successful and popular games that could conceivably be adapted into a blockbuster. This is obviously untrue of other kinds of adaptations: people make successful and/or well-received movies out of books and plays that no one cares about all the time.
I think the toxic influence of corporations is a more than sufficient explanation for the crappiness of video game movies to date – every video game movie was made in the corporate age of Hollywood. But there are dozens of other explanations in dozens of other thinkpieces. Some of them are sound, most of them are silly. I’d like to consider a couple of the most common explanations to draw out the flaws in how we think about video game movies and maybe point towards a better conception of the adaptation process.
#1. “Video Game Movies Aren’t That Bad!”
Technically, this is an objection, not an explanation, and not one you see often in professional pieces on the topic. But it’s so endemic in the comments sections underneath professional pieces, I thought it was worth briefly considering, even though it’s the least fair or accurate response to the question.
I admit I haven’t seen every video game movie ever, but I’ve seen quite a few, and they’re all bad. I don’t mean to suggest there’s nothing enjoyable about them, because that’s not true. Lots of video game movies have their strong points. Raul Júlia’s demented performance in Street Fighter, the neat visuals in Silent Hill, even some of the action sequences in some of the Resident Evil movies, provided you consume them as pure spectacle isolated from meaning or context.
I just watched Super Mario Bros. for the first time last night and it was a lot of fun. I generally don’t traffic in the notion of “switching your brain off”, but about thirty seconds into the opening narration of Super Mario Bros., I made a conscious decision to just accept the movie’s astonishingly dumb premise as if it wasn’t just the worst thing anyone has ever written, and once I did that, I found a lot to like. There was some great production design and effects. Everything in the first act that involved the human characters just living their ordinary lives was nice and good. Fiona Shaw was bizarrely compelling as the secondary villain, Lena. I enjoyed the experience of Super Mario Bros., but it was a terrible film and I would not recommend it to anyone else, even though it’s far and away the best film based on a video game I’ve seen yet.
I’m sure there’s lots of people who think film critics don’t approach reviews of video games movies in good faith because they expect them to be bad and don’t give them enough credit for what they do well. I’m sure that’s probably true for a lot of film critics, and if there’s ever a good video game movie, I’m sure lots of film critics will prejudge it and give it bad reviews it doesn’t deserve. But so far, no one has made a good video game movie and the critic’s assumption that video game movies suck has been proven right every time.
#2. “Video Game Movies Just Have Bad Luck!”
I think it’s fair to say that video game movies just haven’t had the best of luck, and there’s probably nothing inherent to the concept of a video game movie that means it can’t be good. After all, it’s a young genre, just twenty-four years old. There’s only been thirty-three wide-release films based on video games to date, and six were directed by Uwe Boll, one of the worst directors in the history of filmmaking. Six more are Resident Evil movies, all of them produced and written, and four directed, by Paul W. S. Anderson, one of the industry’s most talentless hacks. He also directed Mortal Kombat and produced DOA: Dead or Alive. Meanwhile, Doom and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li were directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, a skilled cinematographer and terrible director. Taken together, just under half of all the video game movies ever were the products of these men, and by shitty luck, all three of them are extremely bad at making movies.
How could that possibly be a product of some inherent flaw in the concept of video game movies?
Super Mario Bros. is instructive here too, because even its good qualities come from luck. Fiona Shaw is the MVP of the cast, but she had nothing to work with whatsoever. Most of her screentime is just a series of info dumps, but she inflects every scene of clunky exposition with a thousand shades of feeling. “Your mother was an inspiration…to some,” Lena tells Peach, and there’s a sadness to it, at once bitter and brittle. Shaw’s performance gives layers and dimensions to Lena that do not exist in the script. Here’s a list of every crew member on Super Mario Bros. who was either previously or subsequently nominated for an Oscar: composer Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), cinematographer Dean Selmer (Dances with Wolves), editor Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day), production designer David L. Snyder (Blade Runner) and set decorator Beth A. Rubino (The Cider House Rules, American Gangster). You can’t fault either the cast or the crew for talent.
But it’s still a terrible script, and its directors were still inexperienced, and the studio still pushed them around and meddled incessantly and possibly replaced them as directors halfway through the movie. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo still fucked up the production from the start by writing the movie off and spending the whole shoot drunk. Dennis Hopper still had no idea what was going on the whole time. The film still didn’t hang together in the slightest by the time it was done. Super Mario Bros. probably had the best chance to be a good movie ever given to a video game movie, but it also never had a chance. Its production was an infamous disaster and it flopped catastrophically with critics and audiences alike.
The whole debacle put off anyone in Hollywood with any filmmaking acumen from signing onto video game movies, with the very recent exceptions of Duncan Jones (Warcraft), Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) and Rob McElhenney (Minecraft). Now and then, an actor who wants to make a brickload of money with minimal time and effort will make a video game movie, probably aware it’ll flop and they won’t be locked into any sequels. Otherwise, it’s a wasteland of talent, and a wasteland that only grows more arid with time, because it’s poisoned with the original misfortune of Super Mario Bros. The sequence of events in which a skilled filmmaker signs up to make a video game movie, enjoys the process and makes a product that is either profitable or satisfying has never happened, and that discourages it from ever happening, because what reason would a skilled filmmaker have to believe it’s even possible for them to sign up to make a video game movie, enjoy the process and make a product that’s either profitable or satisfying?
Video game movies have been trapped for almost a quarter of a century in an endless cycle of shit that can only be broken if, somehow, a skilled filmmaker is willing to sign up to make a video game movie, and permitted by the studio to enjoy the process and make a product that’s either profitable or satisfying, and ideally both. But the cycle itself discourages that from happening. I know the sun rises and sets because I have seen the sun rise and set before, and one day the sun may not rise or set, but until that day comes, I treat it as a fact of life.
I have never seen a video game movie go well. One day, it might. But if you’re asking me to pick a job, as a director or an editor or a cinematographer, and I have to make a decision between a job on a video game movie and a job on another movie based on my understanding of how the world works?
I will not sign up for a fucking video game movie.
Video game movies therefore remain bad.
#3. “Video Games and Movies Are Incompatible Mediums!”
Many people have put forth variations on the idea that video games and films are just not capable of being translated into one another. I think it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. I’m tempted to just dismiss it out of hand because it doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for five seconds, but that’s probably unfair given I considered the possibility that bad films are good.
One academic consulted by USA Today for an article on the (relative) failure of Need for Speed gave some really good distillations of how these arguments usually go, saying: “Translating a non-linear narrative into a linear three-act structure is like making a song out of a painting or a sculpture.”
But, of course, people have made lots of songs based on paintings, so I’m not sure why that would make video game movies super hard. Novels and films are very different – novels involve you reading words and generating imaginary vision and sound to simulate what you’re reading, while films are words already interpreted into concrete vision and sound – but people don’t seriously think it’s all but impossible to adapt a novel into a movie.
You’d also think that if it’s super hard to adapt a video game into a film, it should also be super hard to adapt a film into a video game. I haven’t played every video game based on a movie any more than I’ve seen every movie based on a video game, but I have played the video game adaptations of Spider-Man 2, The Godfather and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and they’re all excellent. King Kong is one of my favourite games ever, with level design that tells you a story without saying a word, the scarcity of its in-game resources giving you a taste of your character’s desperation and controls that make you feel the strain of carrying a gun instead of the ease of killing you find in most games. I still think about original material from The Godfather video game, like Aldo’s relationships with Frankie and Monk Malone, as if I’d played it yesterday. Spider-Man 2 is both unbelievably fun and hugely influential. I’ve never played Sweet Home, based on the Japanese horror film of the same name, but it’s often listed among the greatest video games ever made. Video game adaptations of the Lord of the Rings movies, The Warriors, Scarface, Ghostbusters and Mad Max have received high praise from reputable game critics.
But more than that, there’s honestly just very few truly atrocious video games based on movies. The vast majority of bad video games based on movies are bad in the sense that they rise to the level of merely serviceable, whereas bad movies based on video games would be unprecedented successes if they approached something resembling “okay”. So, if there are compatibility issues between video games and movies, they’re one-way.
What are some of the compatibility issues often cited? The most reasonable one is that video games are much longer than movies – the main campaign or story of a moderately-budgeted video game is generally between ten and twenty hours, whereas a film is seriously testing the patience of its audience anywhere beyond three hours. Some people have suggested video games would be better suited to TV shows, and history suggests they might have a point, at least as far as animation is concerned. There are three excellent children’s cartoons that take significant inspiration from video games: Adventure Time, Steven Universe and Star vs. the Forces of Evil. Pokémon isn’t the greatest show in the world, but I still think about dozens of standout dramatic and emotional moments from its original run (as well as some plain weird shit), even though I haven’t seen it since it first aired. Earthworm Jim is a classic show, Netflix’s Castlevania animated series was well-received, and though its art style makes me want to punch myself in the face, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is shockingly well-written for a show called Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures.
But almost all those series have something in common other than being animated: they bear little to no resemblance to their source material. The bare bones of the games are just scaffolding for a new piece of art that stands on its own. I doubt most people even know Earthworm Jim is a show based on a video game – it’s just a cartoon we watched when we were kids. Given that’s the case, there’s no reason you couldn’t take the bare bones of a very long video game and repurpose them for a film of average length, especially since novels are also much longer than films and, again, no one thinks you can’t turn a novel into a movie.
Of course, video games are a different form of art from other forms of art, but there’s no difference that should be an obstacle to adaptation from video games to movies. Many people have insisted on beating the dead horse of “interactivity” as a reason we can never have a good video game movie. Another academic quoted in that USA Today article had this to say:
“‘There’s a very simple reason that nearly all video game movies fail; they’re not interactive,’ Dixon says.
‘With video games, the player is really the star of the movie, directing the actors, deciding what plotline to follow — and most importantly for most games, whom to shoot down to get to the next level. When this aspect of the game is missing, viewers no longer feel like part of the action.’
Dixon says the day ‘may soon come when video games are played by audiences in movie theaters. But until that time, movies will never be able to replicate the gaming experience.’”
But, obviously, the point of a movie based on a video game isn’t to replicate the experience of a video game, it’s to create the experience of a movie, and it’s crazy that “Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln” would say any different. But, apart from that, the notion that a video game movie can never work because it wouldn’t be as interactive as a video game is based on outdated and narrow understandings of video games and art generally. To quote my favourite video game critic, Brendan Keogh:
“Focusing on what differentiates videogames from other media while denying the similarities was, originally, a necessity if skeptical university departments were going to pay attention. Its lingering legacy, however, is a pervasive notion that videogames are different due to their interactive nature: The player’s active role in the game supposedly renders traditional modes of analysis useless. However, as various phenomenologists and cultural theorists…have shown, every medium demands an active bodily engagement from the audience—a book needs a reader willing to turn pages in the right order no less than a videogame requires a player to press buttons at the right time.”
People make movies out of words on pages and words in song, out of images that don’t move and ideas that don’t exist. We’ve done it for over a hundred years and produced hundreds of thousands of feature-length films, more than we could ever watch. The idea that just thirty-three films made in just the last twenty-four years could possibly suck enough to discredit the possibility of their genre is completely ludicrous, yet also a commonly-held belief among well-educated professionals whose job is to know and write about art. How we reached a point where video games of all things are held up as an immoveable object is beyond me – they’re both moving images on a screen, accompanied by sound, how hard can it be to imagine how one might be adapted into the other?
Maybe it’s just me, but the possibility of bad luck or shitty corporate practices seems more likely. I’m even willing to get more specific on the latter.
#4. “Video Games Are Victims of Movie Marketing Madness!”
You’d think the point of marketing would be to sell a product once it exists. You’d be wrong.
Marketing practices are now built into the “creative” process at major film studios – movies are often conceived primarily as ways to target various demographics, from the hopelessly broad system of quadrants (males and females, over and under 25) to the stupidly specific and niche, like trying to make a movie to appeal to video game fans.
I don’t have a problem with mass appeal. I think every month should have at least one or two films that are meant for everyone. Hollywood thinks it’s trying to make films that appeal to everyone, but it’s not. They make films that are intended to attract people from all four quadrants and because, in theory, the four quadrants combined contain all people in existence, Hollywood thinks a movie that hits all four quadrants is a movie for everybody.
But the four quadrants are broad, abstracted, stereotypical models, so they don’t contain everyone. I’m a male under 25, so I should love superhero movies, but actually I wish I had the power to impose a legal moratorium on making superhero movies for at least ten years, preferably twenty or thirty, just to be safe. Even if the four quadrants did contain everyone, the Hollywood approach to putting together a movie that hits all four quadrants is to make up a list of things that each quadrant likes and put a mix of them in the film, rather than make a list of things that everyone likes and put those in the film instead, which seems like a way better approach to making a film that everyone like, just intuitively.
Imagine you’re trying to make dinner for four friends. One likes eggs, one likes mint sauce, one like grapes and one like corn flakes, but they all like hot dogs. Hollywood’s approach to making films is to make a corn flake and grape omelette with mint sauce, when it should be to make hot dogs.
You can see the same logic applied beyond the quadrant system. People talk about making movies based on video games that will appeal to both mainstream audiences and fans of the games, but treat those groups as non-overlapping groups with completely distinct interests. But the group called “mainstream audiences” is just the group of all people willing to pay to see at least some movies in the cinema at least some of the time. If you’re not a space alien or a marketing executive, you will recognise the group of all people willing to pay to see at least some movies in the cinema at least some of the time is just a long way of saying “almost everyone”. There are very few people who don’t like going to the cinema at least some of the time.
This group of people isn’t separate from the group called “fans of the games” – fans of the games are obviously a subset of “almost everyone”. So, if you make a movie that appeals to almost everyone, you will presumably capture a significant number of fans of the games just because they’re also part of “almost everyone”. But even if you didn’t, they’re such a tiny part of the group called “almost everyone” that it would be no major loss to not win them over. This makes obvious sense if you think about it – anyone who went into a marketing meeting and said upfront that their whole plan is based on the assumption that people who like Assassin’s Creed don’t also like movies and must be persuaded to go to a movie because it’s based on Assassin’s Creed would sound like a crazy person, but as long as that assumption is left implicit, as it is implicit in the entire marketing philosophy of the entire film industry, that person is probably at least a perfectly adequate worker in the eyes of Hollywood, if not a genius.
I paid money that I can never get back to see the film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed in the cinema and it was a choice I regret every day. Assassin’s Creed is the most broad, dull, assembly-line shite in the world, except for one scene. The main character, played by Michael Fassbender, is going through a mental breakdown from repeated exposure to a machine that lets him relive the memories of his ancestors. He’s dragged out of his cell to be put back in the machine when he starts laughing out loud and screaming “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. I don’t remember anything else that happens in the entire movie, but that scene stuck with me because it’s the only scene that felt like it was made by a person. You couldn’t come up with a scene that strange and specific by committee, and it made me feel for one fleeting moment like I was watching a movie and not an ad for the next Assassin’s Creed movie. The best moments in Super Mario Bros. stand out because they too feel like there was a real human being behind them.
So, here’s my crazy idea:
Movies for real people, made by real people.
Now add “video games”:
Video game movies for real people, made by real people.
There’s only been thirty-three wide-release films based on video games, fewer than the number of wide-release films based on the works of Stephen King. If your genre is smaller than the genre of films based on any author but William Shakespeare and the Evangelists, it’s too small to draw conclusions from, and you should probably stop trying. There’s only been thirty-three wide-release films based on video games, and they’re all terrible. But the reason they’re terrible isn’t anything common to them all as films, but something common to films in general. The reason they’re terrible is because each is terrible in its own way due to a combination of the material conditions in which it was created and blind luck. You can’t control for luck, but you can change the conditions in which films are made, and right now, they’re made in the broken, fucked-up stomach of Hollywood and then shit into our eyes.
Change that, and they’ll get better.
It’s really that simple.