Unsaved Progress: The failure of video game adaptations in film

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It should be a slam dunk – a known property with recognizable characters, an established story and plenty of excuse for spectacle. So why has it been so hard for Hollywood to successfully adapt a video game into a good film? Since 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.,” movie studios have tried to capitalize on the billions of dollars of success of video games by bringing them to the big screen. Yet time and again, what lands is a loud thud of a movie, boring to major audiences and befuddling to the devoted fanbase.

Despite the constant critical and/or financial drubbings the films take upon release, producers continue to attempt to adapt video games into successful franchises. “The Angry Birds” movie opened well, but was generally despised by critics, and soon there will be movie versions of “World of Warcraft,” “Assassin’s Creed” and a revamping of “Tomb Raider” franchise. It makes sense why filmmakers and companies are chasing these properties, for all the reasons stated above, but why have they always been such terrible dreck with only occasional flashes of innovation?

The first issue is that video games are immersive properties. Gamers are actively participating in these adventures, instead of watching them unfold passively on the screen. That creates the first hurdle for these films to overcome: how do you create something engrossing enough that it wraps people up in the events and makes it feel like it’s happening to them? Even the best blockbusters struggle with this ability to get audiences to identify and empathize with what’s happening on screen, let alone those made simply for cash-in purposes. Therefore, in order to do justice to these video game properties, filmmakers are already facing an uphill climb.

Paper-thin characterization can work in video games (though it’s becoming less common) because players invest in the protagonist; these actions are happening to them, so they bring their own emotions and backstories into the situation. Similarly, the antagonists in games are simply obstacles to scoring points or completing missions; they are vexing because they stand in the way of “us,” the players, creating a natural feeling of animosity towards them. Without that immersive element, it’s up to the filmmakers to imbue something into these characters that make the protagonists identifiable and likeable while making the enemies formidable and worthy of audiences’ scorn.

This leads to another issue that plagues most adaptations: convoluted and overstuffed plotting paired with weak characterization. In an effort to overcome that need to engage audiences, many adaptations make the plots needlessly complex and overwrought, as if to overcompensate for it being “based on a video game.” Take 1994’s “Double Dragon,” which should have been a straightforward action film about two brothers fighting through gangs and assorted bad guys to get back a girl – think “The Warriors” meets “Streets of Fire.” But instead, it delivered a hacky story of a post-apocalyptic world, mystical mumbo jumbo about a magic medallion, and god knows what else.

This is a problem that has befallen many adaptations like the “Resident Evil” series, “Super Mario Bros.” and “Street Fighter.” That last one should have just been “Enter the Dragon” but with freaks and monsters entering into a worldwide fighting tournament to see which style is the best; instead, it’s a barely recognizable tale of commandos taking on a megalomaniacal villain with very little (if any!) street fighting involved. That film had a real budget, with actual stars, and was directed by the writer of “Die Hard,” yet it couldn’t get out of its own way to tell a recognizable story with real characters (or at least easy to root for caricatures). All too often the films based on video games stray from the source material and beef up their plots with nonsense that no one asked for and end up delivering a terrible story that no one can follow, let alone care about. Even big budget films with great pedigrees onscreen and behind the scenes, like “Prince of Persia,” run afoul of this problem, and it ends up creating a boring film that alienates fans and general audiences alike.

The fact is that when adapting a video game (or any game, be it “Dungeons & Dragons” or “Battleship”), the filmmakers need to take the source material seriously. That doesn’t mean it needs to be 100% faithful to the games that players love; most times, such things wouldn’t translate to the silver screen. And it doesn’t mean that the story has to be so grim and gritty and grounded for fear of being laughed at. That desire to be taken seriously leads to horrible films like “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” which is so poorly written but earnest in its stupid mythos that it becomes camp.

No, filmmakers need to take the source material seriously by figuring out what is appealing about it to fans. That’s the secret to all successful adaptations: taking the source at face value and figuring out what was essential to its initial success, where its weaknesses lie, and how to make these things work in a film medium. 2006’s “Silent Hill” is an okay film that is pretty weak on characterization but delivers fairly well on the creepy imagery that fans of the franchise had grown to love. For five minutes, the otherwise interminable and boring “Doom” film actually felt alive, not just because it adopted the first person POV, but because viewers could actually see the monsters, there was a frenetic pace, and the action was well-delivered – the complete opposite of the rest of that two hour slogfest.

Video games have come a long way from the days of “Pong” and “Nibbler.” There’s now a wide range of different types of gaming experiences out there, from side-scrollers, to puzzlers, to RPGs and everything in between. Many have also adopted a lot of the language of film, building up actual characters and motivations and putting in cut scenes to help underscore the pathos the gamer feels at certain moments. With series like “Mass Effect,” “Uncharted,” the revamped “Tomb Raider” and “Fallout” (among many others) using this cinematic approach, it should be easier than ever to move the intellectual property from one medium to another. And yet, that may still not be the case. Not as long as filmmakers feel the need to stray away from what made the games resonate in the first place and forget the need to include riveting sequences, interesting characters and plots that make sense. Until filmmakers approach the games on those terms and see what kind of story should organically be told, it appears video game fans are in for more forgettable adaptations of their beloved franchises.

  

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