Films based on video games aren’t new. Even before the umpteenth installment of the Resident Evil series, we had Mortal Kombat and Raul Julia hamming it up while performing a psycho crusher. Really, the only thing as old as video game adaptations is how much people have ranted about how much video game adaptations suck.
The above examples, which are much loved by fans despite their narm and their faults, are actually exceptions to the rule (in Resident Evil’s case, for the first third of the series at least). Look at the highly-hyped Assassin’s Creed, for example, whose reception veered into the dreaded areas the likes of Prince of Persia. True, not everything is Silent Hill: Revelation or Bloodrayne. But if your highest aspiration for your film is a 6/10 on IMDB, then you have to question the form — and I’m not just talking about racebending your cast.
This article by the Geek Twins argues that one reason for the constant suckage is that films have weak plots and weak characters, because video games have weak plots and weak characters. Venturebeat hazards the same, saying that games just don’t structure themselves in a way that inspires good storytelling. I’m inclined to strongly disagree — because after all, there are all sorts of game-play and genres. While open-worlds and augmented reality are one appeal, role-playing games can also have very rigid structures to them in which implied mythologies lie. As for characters, while their development may play out straightforwardly depending on the game, there is argument for the rich ambiguity that may be behind their motivations. Lara Croft, especially in her treatment in her origin game, is a good example of that. Meanwhile, for games with no plots at all such as Angry Birds, the world is so ambiguous that a talented scriptwriter should be able to put anything they want while sticking to the barest details, and it should work.
I believe the failure is not the weakness of an original concept or plot, but of Hollywood’s ham-handed method of trying to impose it and as much *nudge-nudge* *wink-wink* references onscreen as possible. Like I said, a scriptwriter can make games work, but they have to be TALENTED.
To illuminate why the video game narrative never survives the Hollywood machine, we look at Gizmodo’s feature on different filmmakers commenting on the subject. Duncan Jones, director of Warcraft, seems to hit the nail on the head when he says “I think a lot of people, who are kind of brought into these [movie projects] who don’t really know about the game, try too hard to bring in what they think the game is”. Robert Kazinsky, who starred in the film, also said that Hollywood’s failure is trying to cram hours of mythology and story-building into two hours. Both men imply a failure of understanding of the source material, and how to condense it. Errol Teichert summarizes it in his point of how scriptwriters who don’t know what they’re doing just hamfist all sorts of gratuitous elements together. The result is there’s either too little and the film feels dumb, or too much and the film feels like it fall short of what it wants to achieve.
But is that approach Hollywood’s fault, or are they just reacting to the ever-unpredictable monster that is fandom? In the same article, filmmaker John Wells proposes that that there is always danger in disappointing the fans. Director John Moore says the same: if you have to balance the concerns of millions of fans and a general bankable audience, it’s better to shelf the project. Are fans the problem? Are they just impossible to satisfy? Again, I’m inclined to disagree. Every source material will have a number of fans. It’s in the quality of the film. Yes, balancing the reverence to the source material and making a new audience is difficult. But Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and comic book franchises have all done so successfully — what is preventing filmmakers who make video-game films from achieving the same?
It’s really down to greed. Echoing Jones’s statement, Den of Geek says producers obtain franchises to churn money out of them, but with their hands on the wheel, they don’t have a clear handle on why a game was successful or how to get the best out of its premise. Then, left to a floudering scriptwriter or director of equal blindness, as elaborated, it falls to pieces.
Moore’s other quote is more insightful: “You’re taking that play station controller out of the hands [of the player] so you better make sure that you’re putting something of value back into their hands”. In the same way some book adaptations have to question how to bring a first-person POV to the big screen, if at all, video-game adaptations need to find a way to replace the charm of playability and self-discovery with something just as entertaining and substantial. Vogt-Roberts, who is set to direct the Metal Gear Solid adaptation, says something similar: “[Directors of bad video-game films] fundamentally don’t understand the difference between an active experience and a passive experience and how you translate a active experience into a compelling, passive experience.” Gamers have agency over their characters and the world that they explore. It is not in taking away that agency that the film falls flat, but in reducing compelling elements into a bunch of neat visuals or cool quips or pretty faces. As the “how to get it right” portion of this JoBlo article elaborates, you have to capture the feel of the game and the characters, first and foremost, not just copy-paste hollywood tropes onto them and hope it sticks. Yes, there are risks to so elaborately sticking to source material — Warcraft for example didn’t make it big with general audiences despite thoroughly entertaining fans — but the risk of deviating from it in the case of video game film adaptations has seemed to prove greater each and every single time.
Take Street Fighter 2, versus the travesty that was The Legend of Chun Li. One could argue that it is because the comical and animated nature of video games would, of course, translate better to an animated medium. But anyone with any knowledge of the franchise can immediately pinpoint all the failings of the latter having nothing to do with the live-action medium: different character origins, different looks, different fight moves, and a weird, misplaced sense of gravitas. Combine this with stilted acting (I mean Taboo as Vega was an … interesting choice) and a truly horrible script, and one is baffled that they ever thought they could make this an actual film franchise. Really, only Michael Clarke Duncan seemed to understand that it should a fun film based on a cool video game. In a strange way, the least serious guy on the cast is the one that gave the known franchise the reverence it deserved.
(I was going to say the Tekken film suffers from the same faults, but then I’d have to discuss the Tekken film, and really, I don’t ever ever ever want to go back there)
As we speak, the first images of the new Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander have just been released, and Den of Geek reports over 50 video game films in development. It is possible that we are approaching the days of more passionate filmmaking, as ushered in by the comic book film resurgence. Either way, this train isn’t going to stop any time stop. We can hope we’re chugging along to better films, or if that if it’s going to crash, it does so mercifully before all our favorite games get caught in the explosion.