The Problem With Video Game Adaptations

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

I have a confession: I love the Resident Evil movies.  Yes, I’m talking about the campy action/horror series starring Milla Jovovich and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.  They’re examples of mindless schlock catering to that childish part of my brain that just wants to see hordes of zombies mowed down by a chick wielding handguns on a motorcycle.  But as much as I enjoy them, these films clearly aren’t high art.

For better or worse, the Resident Evil films represent the most expansive representation of video game to film adaptations to date.  There have been six movies so far, and none of them are considered any good. The highest Rotten Tomato score given to any one of them is a measly 36% (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) and the franchise has become a sort of poster child for why video games don’t make good movies.

But the Resident Evil films are just one example of Hollywood trying to capitalize on the success of video games.  For as long as movies have been around, studios have adapted plays, books, and TV shows into feature length stories on the big screen.  It only makes sense that once video games became popular, filmmakers set to work trying to adapt those as well. But 25 years later Hollywood is still trying to perfect the formula.  Out of the dozens of video game movies released in that time, only a couple are perceived in any real positive light by the general public, yet studios keep trying. This year alone has seen three video game adaptations already (Tomb Raider, Rampage, and It Came from the Desert…what, you didn’t know about the direct to digital movie about giant ants based on a forgotten 80’s video game?) with plenty more on the way.

So why is it so difficult to mine this area of pop culture?  Video games are essentially stories the viewer plays, right? So turning them into movies shouldn’t seem like that difficult of a feat.

Well…yes and no.

By their very nature, video game stories are structured differently than your average movie.  The whole narrative is driven by viewer interaction, something absent in motion pictures. The Uncharted games are basically Indiana Jones-type stories set in modern day.  Our hero, Nathan Drake, is an adventurer who explores unknown regions of the world to find ancient artifacts with mystical properties, often while dodging and fighting enterprising mercenaries.  On paper it’s the ideal story to turn into a movie; after all, swashbuckling adventure films have been a staple in Hollywood even today. But everything about Uncharted’s story is driven towards the gameplay.  Each extended cutscene is in service of getting the player to a new location with scores of faceless goons to gun down and puzzles to solve.  It’s a repetitive formula that works because the player is taking what he learned in the previous section and expounding on it in the next. You can’t do this in a film where things need to change to keep the viewer interested.  

To turn a video game into a movie, you need to find a way to keep the core story intact while reformatting it for a completely different medium.  Why does that seem to be so difficult? If they can trim down six seasons of Leave it to Beaver into an 84 minute movie, they can certainly cut down hours of gameplay into something coherent, right? (Okay, bad example).

But that brings me to what I think is the most common problem filmmakers come up against when trying to adapt video games: overthinking the adaptation.

Quick, what’s the worst video game movie of all time?  You said The Super Mario Brothers movie, didn’t you?  This 1993 adaptation is infamous for being both the first video game to movie adaptation and one of the worst movies of all time.  But have you ever stopped to think about why it doesn’t work?  I mean…the dialogue is terrible, the effects are dated, the cinematography is ugly, and the acting is corny, sure, but think about it as a direct adaptation of those Super Mario Brothers games for the Super Nintendo.

The Super Mario games are nonsensical.  You play a plumber who rides a dinosaur, fighting turtles, to save a princess from a monster in a clown balloon.  The whole thing takes place in a fantasy world of monsters and skeletons and fish and all sorts of imaginative weirdo imagery that shouldn’t fit together but nobody really questions either.  To apply any real logic to it would be as misguided as trying to find rules and logic in Alice in Wonderland.

Super Mario Bros. (the movie) is a dystopian sci-fi film set in the seedy underbelly of a city run by a megalomaniacal president.  The film goes out of its way to try to connect the fantastical elements of the games into some sort of coherent story.  In the game, mushrooms, dinosaurs, and plumbers are all separate elements thrown together for a sort of nonsensical, whimsical charm.  In the movie a machine de-evolves humans into primordial fungus, and our Brooklyn plumber heroes stumble into an alternate timeline where dinosaurs evolved into the dominant life forms on Earth.  The filmmakers ended up overthinking the idea behind the game in an attempt to cram it into a logical narrative.

Overthinking the story is a recurring issue when it comes to adapting video games.  Rampage is a smash-em-up giant monster arcade game; in an attempt to add more meat to the premise, the film adds tons of human characters and tries to logically explain the monsters with science.  Even Uncharted, a game with a screen-ready story built in, seems to be running into this issue.  For the past nine years, Sony Pictures has been trying to get a film version of the adventure game off the ground, and as various writers and directors have joined/left the project, the vision for the movie keeps changing.  As recently year ago Deadline reported that Tom Holland was attached to star as the game’s hero, Nathan Drake, in a prequel movie that would serve as an origin story.  Why would the filmmakers go out of their way to rethink the hero when a perfectly serviceable character and outline already exist in the game?

This all isn’t to say that Hollywood has never done a good video game adaptation.  The Resident Evil series certainly has its fans as schlocky camp.  This year alone, the reboot of Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander was generally well received, something I can’t say for the previous iterations of the character when Angelina Jolie played her.  I credit that film’s small success to a streamlining of the story onto something that propels the narrative forward, and a dedicated performance from Vikander.  The new Tomb Raider wasn’t worried about reworking the source material so much as it was in being a fun action romp.  And this is where I think filmmakers need to focus.

It’s tough to turn a video game into a movie.  Due to the popularity of video games and the potential payoff of mining this fairly untapped piece of media, it’s understandable that studios would continue trying to get it right even if they’ve never had a true success.  I think part of the secret to tapping into that market lies in simplifying the stories. Some games are immersive experiences that could take you days to get through and are repetitive by nature. Some games are simple, silly concepts that don’t require much thought to understand.  Rather than re-thinking the longer games and complicating the shorter games, filmmakers need to focus on finding a simple story that fits the tone of the game. Make an animated Mario movie or make an adventure-filled Uncharted movie.  Fans of the games have been clamoring for their franchises to be brought to the big screen for decades, showing they want to see studios succeed.  As long as filmmakers can find to way to capture that same style, tone, and sense of fun gamers experience when immersed in their games, I think everyone will be happy.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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Image Credit: Solo: A Star Wars Story poster