Why has Grand Theft Auto shunned Hollywood?

Feature Aaron Birch 13 Dec 2013 - 07:24

As one of the most successful and high profile franchises around, why hasn't Hollywood snapped up Rockstar's GTA?

Regardless of which side of the controversial fence you sit when it comes to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, there's one undeniable fact - it's hugely successful. Even before the record-shattering sales of latest entry, Grand Theft Auto V, which is reportedly the fastest-selling entertainment title ever, generating over $1 billion in only three days, the series always managed to make its owners a mint. GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas and GTA IV have all sold impressive numbers, and with each iteration Rockstar pushes the boundaries, expanding and improving on the sandbox title.

Grand Theft Auto V is arguably the pinnacle of the series, and with such a hefty fan base and massive sales figures, not to mention a firm place in popular culture and movie stars already lending their vocal talents to it, why has there never been a GTA movie? And, more to the point, do we want one?

Rockstar Refusal

Before we get into too much detail with the why and why nots, it's simply worth getting this out of the way first. Rockstar's Dan Houser, talking to The Guardian about possible movie adaptations of GTA back in September, clearly stated that he has no interest in a movie, despite being approached several times already.

"We've been offered, many times, and it's never appealed," Houser said.

"The money's never been close to be worth risking one's crown jewels. Our small dabblings with Hollywood have always left us running back to games. The freedom we have to do what we want creatively is of enormous value. The second you go near Hollywood, people seem willing, or have been forced, to lose a lot of that control. That sort of amorphous 'that won't test well' attitude is exactly how we don't work. We've always tried to think of stuff that's innovative and new, and to go into a world where that's not encouraged would be horrible."

It's easy to understand where Houser is coming from. GTA is not just Rockstar's go-to cash cow, guaranteed to bring home the proverbial bacon, it's also its baby. A game like GTA doesn't grow to be of such immense quality without plenty of love applied during development, and the team at Rockstar North clearly have their lives invested in the title. Handing off the series to a Hollywood committee in order to draw up what would most likely be a horrible, drab plot would be like giving away your own child.

Creative freedom is a rare thing, and Rockstar revels in it. With games as the medium, the team is able to explore anything it likes, and deliver the kind of characters, story and mechanics it wants without too much interference. You just know that a movie wouldn't get that same treatment, and what we'd end up with would probably be little more than a by the numbers crime drama, probably in the style of Fast And Furious mixed with Michael Mann grit. In essence, it'd be a generic movie with the GTA name slapped on it, and quite probably little else.

Claude, Tommy, CJ...

Let's just say that Mr Houser changed his mind, though, and GTA got a greenlight for a motion picture, what would it be about? As good as the games are, and as well acted and written as they may be, lets face it, they're hardly Oscar winning when it comes to story. What's there works perfectly for a game, but many of the characters aren't exactly all that likeable, and the stories that are told are rarely original, often ripped from the Hollywood movies Houser wants to avoid becoming.

There's no real instalment of GTA that you'd pick out and say “That one! That should be a movie.” They're all fairly similar in terms of overall story content, with perhaps the exception of Vice City, which has the whole 80s Scarface vibe to play on. A lot of the story content featured in the series has already been done in Hollywood many times before (hence GTA's lifting of ideas). GTA: San Andreas, for example, is a veritable tour of movies such as Training Day, Colors, Boyz 'N The Hood and Menace II Society.

Plus, there's the length of a story. GTA games take hours to play through, with a slow-burning plot and character development. Cramming a story that would do the series justice into a two hour movie wouldn't be impossible, but it'd probably be bad. Houser, in the interview we mentioned at the start also said that he instead sees GTA as a TV series, and you can see his point. Series like Breaking Bad and The Wire have managed to create excellent crime dramas, and a GTA series could work.

Still, the same dilemma presents itself, what part of the GTA universe would you pick?

As GTA is based on an exaggerated and heavily satirised version of the real world, with stories that often don't emphasise massive, epic moments, preferring a more low key, drawn-out approach, there's no real stand out moment or story thread to base a movie around. GTA V's Michael and Trevor story could be interesting, but again, similar stories have been told (although that's not stopped movies and TV shows in the past).

Past game-to-movie adaptations have been able to pick major series entries as their basis. Mortal Kombat for example (arguably one of the only good game movies) focused on the origin events of the first game. Silent Hill, although it re-jigged people and events a little, was also based on the first game in that series.

Films that create their own stories, ignoring the original subject matter's outings, usually end up on the wrong side of terrible. Examples? Street Fighter (the pain, the pain), Tomb Raider, Doom, and let's not even go near Uwe Boll's efforts. They all have one thing in common: they're bad. They each offer varying quantities of poor directoon and/or acting, bad storytelling. That or they're so badly produced and bear little to no resemblance to the game they're attempting to portray, that there's simply little point. Movie fans don't like them as they're just plain bad, and game fans only criticise them, as they do the games no justice. It would be some achievement for GTA to be different.

Rated R Rockstar

The age rating would be another potential pitfall for any GTA film. We're all too familiar with should-be violent movies getting neutered and given a 12A-rating, and in this age of movie studios simply wanting to cram as many bums on seats as possible, regardless of their age, adult-only movies are few and far between, certainly from the bigger movie studios (the Bioshock movie fell apart because it wasn't possible to get the material feeling authentic under a PG-13/12A banner). This would mean a lower budget title, which comes with its own downsides, not least a more difficult task when it comes to getting the right actors.

A GTA movie, unlike the games, couldn't simply rely on fast car chases and shootouts, it'd need a decent cast to keep our attention. Granted, films like Fast & Furious manage to fill their running time with lots of car chases, but for GTA,  the requirements go deeper. A good cast is a must.

GTA hasn't struggled in the past with some sterling voice actors, and those same actors would likely give a movie a go. It might be a Marvel-esque working for comparably low money though (Robert Downey Jr aside), or working for scale. And in truth, it could probably be worked out. But that R rating would be absolutely crucial to the film being done right.

Satirical Screener

The fact that GTA is one big satire is another barrier that would cause problems for a movie. Just as comic book heroes can get away with wearing ridiculous bright spandex costumes on paper whilst movie counterparts would look ridiculous in the same garb, GTA's almost cartoon violence and sometimes schoolboy humour wouldn't necessarily translate well from game - where it works, to a movie - where it could be awkward. Although full of black humour, GTA isn't inherently a comedy as such, and a movie certainly wouldn't be easy to pen correctly to get he balance right in order to attract big ratings.

It's not difficult to forsee that any movie would probably shun the humour element, and the satirical take on society, media and other topics the game thrives on would be lost in favour of a far too serious crime drama that would likely lose all of the series' identity.

Alternatively, the opposite could be true, and a movie would go to the opposite extreme, missing the point and focusing solely on the brutal, adult and controversial side of the franchise, with a pointless excuse for violence for the sake of it. Again, there may be no fine balance, something the games manage well.

It's Been Done!

So there hasn't actually been a GTA film as such, but we've had a very close approximation, without the baggage an actual GTA film would be forced to carry. Drive, starring Ryan Gosling was every bit a GTA-style heist flick, replete with car chases, style and great music. The cars, the characters and the story could all feasibly find their way into a GTA title, and vice versa, and Gosling's unnamed driver could well be a fine GTA protagonist himself.

So why did Drive work, but an actual GTA movie may not? Lots of reasons, but notably Drive had no preconceptions to live up to, and no rules to follow. It wasn't limited by what we as fans, property owner Rockstar, and a film committee would expect. And, even Drive, if it sported the GTA name, wouldn't be a good GTA movie as it didn't feature the series' satirical bent. It was a serious crime drama, and a damn good one at that, but for GTA, that seriousness has to be tempered with humour and satire for it to work.

Buy That For A Dollar?

So, in the end would we like to see a GTA movie? Perhaps not, at least not a flippantly planned one. We're quite confident that, with the perfect mix of writer, director, Rockstar input and focus on the game series' strengths, a good movie could happen, but that mix is so unlikely, it's too remote a possibility. Add to that an increasingly play-it-safe Hollywood mentality, and you've got the perfect recipe for a money-making outing that capitalises on the GTA name, and little else.

That said, we'd love to be proven wrong. GTA is, despite our reservations, one of the few games series that fits the movie mould it constantly apes, We'd just want the products of that mould to be spectacular, something that, given game-to-movie adaptation history, isn't all that likely. Plus, for all the revenues of GTA to date, can you see a Hollywood studio paying $100m+ for a film that's going to have an R rating stamped through the heart of it?

Leave your own thoughts in the comments...

The Guardian

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