Video games and movies have long shared a strained relationship, despite being two of the largest staples of modern pop culture.
Video game adaptations are often rushed and messy products, like the god-awful control systems that made the Iron Man and Superman Returns tie-ins practically unplayable.
Movie adaptations don’t fare much better with a long list of flops like the ill-fated 2005 film version of Alone in the Dark which only grossed $5 million in the domestic box office. With each passing year though comes a new hope of a movie that can break the trend, with one of the recent examples this year’s Tomb Raider reboot.
The film wasn’t all bad and did receive some positive reviews for the aspects that it did get right.
“Lara may be the most grounded and believable cinematic video-game protagonist I’ve seen,” – Owen Gleiberman, Variety film critic on Alicia Vikander’s performance.
However, it was also a film that once again failed to impress the fans of the franchise, with many criticising it for sticking too closely to the source material. The experience was comparative to watching a friend play through the first two games in the new series, at a quick-fire pace.
As another big budget movie falls short, it ponders the questions: Is it possible to make a good video game movie?
What Are The Pitfalls?
No not the 1982 Atari classic, but rather a look at the mistakes film producers often fall into when developing a video game movie. Sticking too closely or straying too far from the source material are a big no, but more important than that is understanding the source material.
If a studio hopes to sell a product to fans of an established franchise then it’s crucial to understand their target demographic just like any other movie. Having a director on board who is familiar with the franchise would be the first relevant step, or so you might think.
As Assassin’s Creed director Justin Kurzel admitted, not only was he not familiar with the franchise he was not familiar with gaming at all. Speaking to The Guardian ahead of the film’s release Kurzel said:
“The last video game I played was Double Dragon as a kid, in an arcade, trying to pick up a girl.”
If you’re unfamiliar with a franchise it’s probably wise to have someone on board that is, like a developer of the games’ series. Which brings us to our next pitfall, alienating the team behind the initial game, as Tekken series director Katsuhiro Harada bemoaned on Twitter after the release of the 2009 film adaptation.
Harada tweeted – “That Hollywood movie is terrible. We were not able to supervise that movie; it was a cruel contract. I’m not interested in that movie.”
No, You Can’t
Compelling narrative is more relevant than ever in modern gaming, with many studios employing professional screenwriters and cinematic cutscenes in the development of their games.
Games like ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’ have already been widely praised for the cinematic experiences and heart-wrenching plotlines. Developing those narratives into a film will add nothing to the story, meaning film producers will have to fall into at least one of the aforementioned pitfalls.
Controversial movie director Uwe Boll has a lot of experience in video game adaptations yet he believes pleasing the fans is ‘impossible’.
“You go for it, to please the game fans, but on the other hand, if you have the hardcore gamers, they live in their own world. And you cannot fulfil their ideas from a video game based movie, it’s impossible,” – Boll told MTV News.
Modern games feature hours of narrative and an expanding universe via the medium of DLC that can’t be condensed into a two-hour movie. Boll tried to acquire the rights to Warcraft before Duncan Jones but Blizzard studios denied him because they feared a poor movie could hurt the already established world.
“We will not sell the movie rights, not to you…especially not to you,'” Blizzard allegedly told Boll. “Because it’s such a big online game success, maybe a bad movie would destroy that ongoing income.”
Yes, You Can
Although maybe the problem doesn’t lie in the games themselves but rather the formulaic approach adopted by Hollywood studios. Some of the most promising projects are often cancelled such as Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock, which some industry professionals believe could well have bucked the trend.
Video game narrative designer Cara Ellison very much believes a good video game movie can be done.
“The least terrible game movies lean into the core mood of the source material, and abandon the requirement of fitting in references,” Ellison told The Guardian. “Leaning in to a few key tonal notes with very considered character-building is the way to making a good video game adaptation.”
Film critic Dominick Suzanne-Mayer also believes a good video game movie can exist if film studios are willing to adopt a different approach with some more artistic source material.
“By embracing the emerging artistry and weirdness of so many modern games, Hollywood could spend some cash on some really interesting projects – Bioshock Infinite has more plot in one game than some great works of literature and could actually improve as a series-length tale of time travel, American imperialism, and ragtime Beach Boys tunes.”
So Can You Make a Good Video Game Movie?
According to Rotten Tomatoes, five of the top six video game movies ever made came out in the last two years. Still, the highest of those approval ratings is just 51% for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s latest action romp based on the 1986 arcade game Rampage.
There’s still some way to go to make what could be considered a good movie. Those numbers at least suggest movie producers are closer than ever to bridging the gap between die-hard gamers and movie adaptations of the games they love.