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Adapting Video Games To Film

May 2, 2013

Humorously, it wasn’t that long ago that I was just deriding what I’ve dubbed the ‘Fog of Reimagination,’ that plagues our current field of creative endeavors. Afriend of mine after seeing a trailer for Cowboys and Aliens, and me commenting that it was based off of a comic book, once said, “Everything’s a comic these days. Or a tv show. Or a movie. Or whatever.” He was deriding the fact that everything seems to be an adaptation of something, even if it’s in the exact same medium (ie movies based on movies). Of course, there’s one medium that, while it helped inspire the entire conversation on Reimaginings, still seems fairly impervious to being adapted to other media.

I’m talking about video games, and film adaptations of them in particular.

My mind got on this track a few weeks ago while reading a very engaging retrospective on the Super Mario Bros movie. For those who don’t remember, or have never seen this glorious film, twenty years ago in the summer of 1993, a film adaptation starring Bob Hoskins as Mario Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi Mario, and Dennis Hopper as Bowser was released to… box office and critical failure. They took this brightly colored game for all ages and turned it into a strange science fiction dystopia where man evolved from mushrooms or dinosaurs… or both? It’s really not clear.

The retrospective is great because it really digs into the way this film was made, and how even articles at the time didn’t know what to make of it. Of course, in 1993, video games were even more of a fledgling medium than they are today, and they had only just broken into the home market. Riding atop the wave of this new found home video game market was the Super Mario Bros. Mario became an overnight world wide sensation. They couldn’t make enough media to fuel the beast that was every child’s desire for Mario related products.

Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with the chance to make a Mario movie. In their minds, it didn’t matter how good it was, because kids loved Mario and their parents would be forced to take them to the theater. Obviously though, quality did matter and the fact that the actors were often drunk and the producers and directors weren’t speaking half the time really shined through in the final product. Even after watching it several times, it’s strange to think that someone sat down, played Super Mario for any length of time and said, “Yeah, dystopic science fiction is the route to go with this.” All of this is why this summer people are flocking to see a 3D version that other movie that just so happens to involve dinosaurs from 1993 rather than the Super Mario Bros movie.

Yet, despite being entirely driven by an attempt to just latch on to a passing fad, that film persists almost as a cult classic. People still share it with friends on the grounds that it’s just such a unique piece of our culture. If you’re a video gamer you will just be mystified as you untangle this web of insanity and connect the threads back to the games you grew up with. If you’re anyone else, you might find a simple charm in its sincere goofiness. While it’s clear that the actors are happily hamming this up, they’re still all great actors and the screenplay takes itself with a surprising degree of seriousness. Somehow it flows together to make something far more memorable than any other video game films.

Not that there’s much to really compare it too.

Uwe Boll’s films are, to my knowledge, basically made because he somehow has found a way to make the plot of Mel Brooks’ The Producers work in real life. I’m serious, I really don’t know of any other reason why he continues to make such bad movies, or explicitly adapt them from video games. I also don’t know how he still gets funding if he’s not fucking a horde of senile old rich women.

On the other hand you have the Resident Evil films which jumped the shark basically after the first one. Connections to the original franchise are somewhat stronger than they were in the Super Mario Bros but… not much. The Umbrella Corporation is evil, some zombie-like things… that’s about it. If you have no idea what goes on in those films, I will leave this link to the gentlemen over at Red Letter Media who recently sat down and watched all of them.

So what’s the deal? Why can the Guardians of the Galaxy get a flick but some of video games most iconic characters are left by the wayside? What’s the problem here?

Well, I think, in many ways the answer is very simple.

Video games are an inherently interactive medium. You don’t play video games for the same reasons you watch a television show or read a book. Sure, you are doing it to be entertained, but playing a video game requires far much more of your own input to enjoy. You can’t merely be a consumer, you are part of what constructs the text. Video games demand not just your presence, but your attention and engagement.

Remove that element from a lot of these stories and they start to become hard to deal with.

When I think of this dilemma, I’m reminded of the Halo franchise.

Halo is a massive multimedia franchise for those who are unaware. There have been short films, comics, and even novels. The thing about all of them though is that they rarely if ever tell the story of the main character John-117 (aka Master Chief). Most of them detail the world of Halo, rather than retell the main storyline. Regardless of the presence of Master Chief in them or not, the action is often different, ultimately because the action must be different.

I say this because the concept of a Halo film series has come up a lot. Many people believe in the idea that this is a game that needs to be committed to the silver screen. Meanwhile, I really think this is a very bad idea.

Why?

While Halo: Combat Evolved has a great storyline, and is a really fun game to play, when I imagine adapting it into film there are several things that start to go wrong. The game is largely a series of cool set pieces where exposition is fed to you while you mow down hordes of enemies.

Which is the problem.

As many people have continuously pointed out, Master Chief isn’t really the hero of his own franchise. He’s a passive knight-errant being ordered around by his fairy godmother… or well, an AI that is a clone of the intelligence of the woman who raised him. You know what, fairy godmother. Master Chief is doing what his fairy godmother tells him to. While he might be the skin suit we put on, he’s not very proactive. Powerful but passive. If he were to be the main character in a film, he would have to be drastically rewritten, as would Cortana.

Furthermore, when we play Halo, there is a certain sense of power and fun that we derive from spewing bullets into wave after wave of enemies. Master Chief’s badassitude is derived not from the fact that he is a super-soldier, or called ‘demon,’ by his foes but from the fact that we blow those enemies away with guns that shoot carbon rods that explode. Master Chief can punch alien ape-men in the face, take their science hammers and send them flying off of cliffs.

When you’re in the driver’s seat, action like that is exciting and awesome.

When you’re just watching a hero murder hordes of dudes… it starts to get boring. We lose all sense of tension when it seems like the protagonist can just shoot everyone in the face before anything can happen. In a video game, the tension and threat of death comes from our skill (or lack thereof). In a movie, we have to see the hero overcome challenges. Now, in a Halo movie not only does Master Chief need to be more proactive, but he’ll somehow seem weaker because he’s not killing the legions of aliens that we’re used to.

In movie form, Halo just… seems to trip over the elements that make it an awesome game.

Contrast this to the Mario brothers who, being plumbers, had a lot to overcome in Super Mario Bros. They were lost in an alien world, similar yet different to their own, and they’re suddenly on some quest to save the princess when they have no idea what’s going on. Sure, no one on that set had a clue what was going on, but maybe the film was better for it? Probably not. That movie is far from fantastic, it’s merely surprisingly charming.

The question really is then, so we can’t do Mario or Master Chief? Does that mean that we can’t do any video games?

No.

Or at least, I don’t think so.

While interactivity is the prime issue with video game films, it’s not the only aspect that’s been causing problems in video game adaptations. There are a lot of factors. There’s things like time compression (video games last longer, have far more set pieces, etc). Issues like retcons in long running franchise. And then just the general issue that with video games, plenty of veteran actors and directors still have no fucking clue what you’re talking about when you mention Mario or Master Chief.

While Jennifer Lawrence and Jonah Hill might be able to sing the Mario theme song together (get on that Funny or Die, we’ll call it a freebie), most of Hollywood would probably say something like, “Oh yeah, my kids love those games.” Maybe, “Oh yeah, I play video games sometimes, it can be pretty relaxing,” if you’re lucky. “Does Farmville count?” Is probably another strong possibility.

The thing is while there are plenty of nerdy people who are currently the Golden Child of their respective studios right now, they’re from an older generation of nerds. Most of them being of the pre-video game generation. Without that dedication and love for the source material that shines through in some of the recent superhero or sci-fi reboots, a lot is just going to be lost.

However, current reboots and adaptations do give us a really good road map for laying a video game film out. The most important thing is to determine the elements that you must have, and basically distill as much of the character and games as possible. Offer some background nods, but mostly what you need to do is just tell one really good, perhaps simple, story.

You could go the route of just expanding the world of an established franchise. After all, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be an Elder Scrolls film that tells the story of some hero in the past or future of Nirn. That doesn’t mean you adapt the plot of Skyrim though because there’s far too much going on in that game. You could still tell an Elder Scrolls story though, it just probably wouldn’t feel as right as the games because it would inevitably lack the big open world.

Plus, you miss out on the fun and profit of focusing on one particularly popular character.

The character that comes to my mind is actually Link.

And yes, I realize the irony of decrying a Zelda reimagination one week and arguing for an adaptation of Zelda a few weeks later.

The thing is, you don’t want to try to make Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time the film. A straight adaptation is a bad move. Too many places, too much gathering of nonsensical tools that you only need for one dungeon, and sometimes too many characters. There are a lot of elements about Zelda games that could be easily adapted into film however.

First off, the story is generally straight forward across the games. Link is given a quest, the quest brings him into contact with Zelda, something happens, Zelda gets kidnapped by Ganon(dorf), Link must save Zelda and defeat Ganon(dorf). They can be slightly more complicated or slightly less, but the basic plot structure remains the same with the occasional twist thrown in to keep us buying what are basically the same game and story.

This can be streamlined fairly easily so that instead of collecting a bunch of items, Link only needs to retrieve one from a dungeon, and the Ganon plot is introduced before he meets Zelda. The second act is figuring out the whole Ganon plot, giving the mcguffin to Zelda, and ends with him at his low point: Zelda and the artifact are taken, and Ganon’s plot (and perhaps Link’s unwitting role) is fully revealed. Link goes to save the day, and is ultimately triumphant. Hazzuh!

Link is a proactive character, and exploring dungeons filled with pits, puzzles, and monsters, would allow for plenty of fun action sequences with a proper amount of tension. There’s the arc in place as Link goes from a young man who might be a tad cocky to someone who legitimately proves themselves to be a hero. A warrior worthy of wielding a holy weapon like the Master Sword. On top of that, one can offer plenty of little nods to the wider Zelda franchise without getting bogged down in trying to actually repeat specific games.

The benefit here is that as a character who has been reimagined countless times, Link is ripe for a movie treatment. Unlike Master Chief or Mario who have fixed personalities and histories. There are many Links and many Zeldas. It’s ultimately about being able to tell the type of stories that the games do while having the benefit of shedding off the mechanics of gameplay.

A Metroid movie could work with similar ease.

It’s about making careful, and deliberate choices to preserve as much as you can while constructing something new. That is of course, easier said than done.

Anyway, twenty years later and I still don’t know how Super Mario Bros became a science fiction film and not a fantasy adventure. Still, maybe there’s some hope out there for other games. The main thing to remember though is that most games, especially ones that are particularly good and well beloved, will not be able to make it to the silver screen.

Games are good because we interact with them. They don’t just tell us a story, but allow us to create our own. We’re both writer and reader in a video game, and that’s just not something that can be replicated within 90 minutes.

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