Why are so many videogame adaptations so bad?

Feature Ryan Lambie 19 Nov 2012 - 07:02

Videogame adaptations are notoriously hit-and-miss affairs. But might we soon see that trend change, Ryan wonders?

The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie was notable for two reasons. One, it was the first attempt to adapt a videogame into a feature film. And two, it was a critically panned, commercial disaster, making back less than half of its lavish $48million budget on its initial release.

In retrospect, the decision to make a movie based on Nintendo's famous plumber was a downright weird one; really, the more straightforwardly fantastical Legend Of Zelda or the sci-fi oriented Metroid would have been easier pegs to hang a movie on. But at the time, the Italian with the moustache was one of the most recognisable characters on Earth, so Super Mario it was.

The selection of people involved in making Super Mario Bros. was stranger still. Producer Roland Joffe was better known for his deeply serious dramas, such as The Killing Fields or The Mission, yet for some reason, he was so possessed with the desire to make a Mario movie, he spent several days courting the higher-ups at Nintendo. Several boxes of expensive teabags and a few meetings later, Joffe walked off with the filming rights.

Apparently directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (Max Headroom, D.O.A.), but possibly ghost directed by Joffe and cinematographer Dean Semler, the movie was a hideous mess. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, who played Mario and Luigi, seldom talk about the experience, other than to say it was the most regrettable in their careers.

Given just how much of a bomb Super Mario was, this first videogame adaptation could easily have been the last. But obviously, it wasn't; just one year after Super Mario Bros., we got Street Fighter, based on Capcom's massively successful series of coin-ops. The reviews were almost as damning as those lined up for Mario, but the movie was something of a hit, earning almost $100 million worldwide.

Movies based on games have appeared sporadically ever since, and most have stuck to the same template established by Mario and Street Fighter; some are financially successful, some are not, and precisely none are singled out for praise by critics.

Super Mario appeared to set a depressing tone for videogame adaptations that has yet to change. For every half-decent adaptation - some will defend the Resident Evil franchise, for example, and I've met people who quite liked Doom - there are at least two abominable efforts like BloodRayne or Max Payne.

So what's going on? Is it really the case that a videogame is more difficult to adapt satisfactorily to the cinema screen than a novel, a comic book, or even - in the case of Pirates Of The Caribbean - a theme park ride? In short, why do so many videogame movies turn out so badly?

Let's start with a self-evident observation first: videogames are adapted into movies to make money. The Super Mario film didn't get the green light because the people involved necessarily had a burning desire to tell a story about a plumber and lots of animatronic dinosaurs; the movie got the greenlight because the Mario franchise was - and is - worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, although most properties - books, comics, television shows - are adapted into movies because they already have a pre-installed audience, videogames present an unusual problem. The reasons for their success can vary, and for movie producers and directors with only a vague knowledge of games and the people who play them, those reasons can be tremendously difficult to unpack. The first Super Mario game wasn't successful because of its compelling storyline and rich characters; it was popular because it was mechanically perfect and challenging. Resident Evil, on the other hand, was essentially an interactive horror movie, which relied on a slow build of atmosphere and tension.

One of the problems, then, is that a successful videogame can be seized upon by producers without their really having a clear handle on why it was successful or how to get the best out of its premise. When filmmakers do get a proper handle on what it is they're making, it's often because the original game makes for a decent basis for a movie in any case; Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were far from classic movies, but they naturally lent themselves to the martial arts genre template of sketched-in, colourful characters and copious violence.

When videogame adaptations do go horribly wrong, it's often due to simple artistic ineptitude. There's no particular reason why you couldn't fashion a decent horror movie out of Alone In The Dark or House Of The Dead, but with Uwe Boll at the helm, they didn't really stand a chance.

There are signs, however, that things are beginning to change somewhat. Although not perfect, 2006's adaptation of Silent Hill was an atmospheric and at times surprisingly artistic movie. The film was also unusual in that its director, Christopher Gans, was a huge fan of the games, and approached Konami personally to request the rights to them. While making the movie, Gans had a copy of the game on set so he could show his cinematographer the sorts of shots he wanted to emulate, and he even took the trouble to fly Silent Hill game's sound designer in to consult on the project.

It's this kind of artistic passion that videogame adaptations need. It is, after all, the kind of enthusiasm which fuelled Joss Whedon's desire to take on such a ridiculously mammoth yoke as The Avengers.

And it may be the success of the current wave of comic book movies that is gradually shifting the attitudes of filmmakers, actors and producers toward the videogame medium. Lest we forget, there was a time when such classy affairs as Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) were anomalies; one only has to compare the 1990 adaptation of Captain America (directed by Albert Pyun) with last year's Captain America: The First Avenger to see just how much more cash and artistic effort has been invested in comic book movies in the last two decades.

There are signs that a similar change is occurring for games. For one thing, publishing companies are themselves taking greater care over the rights to their most treasured names. And in turn, some quite classy actors have been attached to the latest batch of planned adaptations.

Ubisoft is currently planning large-screen versions of Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell, which both have star names attached (respectively, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy). With actors of their calibre attached, could one of these movies approach the quality of a decent comic book adaptation?

Then there's Square Enix's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the latest entry in an acclaimed game series that stretches back to 2000. The Deus Ex games are set in a rich sci-fi world of surveillance and physical augmentations, and in the hands of a good filmmaker, the results could be spectacular.

The filmmaker selected, we've learned, is Scott Derrickson, whose recent hits include this year's quite-good Sinister and 2005's The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. The word is, he'll write Deus Ex with his Sinister partner Robert Cargill.

“By combining amazing action and tension with big, philosophical ideas, Deus Ex is smart, ballsy, and will make one hell of a movie," Derrickson said. "Cargill and I can’t wait to bring it to the big screen.”

Now, while Derrickson isn't a seasoned director like Captain America's Joe Johnston (Derrickson did direct the iffy yet popular The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, after all), there was lots to like about Sinister, and if he's really as enthusiastic about the Deus Ex universe as his statement implies, that passion could count for a lot.

After all, there's no reason why great films couldn't be made from Deus Ex, Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell. There may be a world of difference between games and movies, but then, it's always been the job of any decent writer and filmmaker to bridge the gap between the two.

With great filmmakers at the helm, it's just possible we might one day see a videogame adaptation approached with the care and artistry that Francis Ford Coppola brought to his take on Mario Puzo's The Godfather.

A Pixar adaptation of Super Mario Bros., perhaps?

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Isn't Pirates Of The Caribbean based on Monkey Island?

I always enjoyed Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat films - but agreed, they are bad. I always though video game adaptations were bad, because the narrative is largely driven by the individual playing the game and their own projections. Take that away and you have very very simple plots and 2D characters which don't translate well on too the big screen. Combine that with outlandish and cartoonish characters and you're got yourself a real up hill struggle.

Technically, the Disney ride is inspired by Monkey Island....

Er... what? the first ride opened in 1967, while the first game came out in 1990? Also according to an interview with Ron Gilbert I read he stated that PotC was an inspiration for the Monkey Island games...

It's complicated...

Monkey Island and the last Pirates movie were both inspired by the same source; Tim Powers book "On Strangers Tides". Although Monkey Island was also inspired by the original Pirates Disney ride.
There was also talk that the Pirates series was partly based on a Monkey Island adaptation script that had been kicking around the house of mouse for years.

Mortal Kombat wasn't really that bad, I thought but most of these movies are pretty terrible. Street Fighter and Mario Brothers are enjoyable for the wrong reasons, for example, Kyle Minogue's terrible acting and Raul Julia being as over the top as possible. However, although it wasn't a video game first, I always thought Scott Pilgrim lead the way in terms of how a video game could be made. Some games like Sonic could probably only work in animation and that might be a direction that filmmakers need to consider as well.

No mention of Prince of Persia? I know some might disagree, but I found it a desent videogame movie adaption. And while it wasn't a Pirates of the Caribbean hit, it still made more than it's budget back. Plus spiritual father Jordan Mechner wrote the story and produced. Not many adaptions can say that.

There are some good...almost video game adaptations. Scott Pilgrim, not that it was a game (well, prior to the adaptation) had many game elements and was adapted. Source Code is gameishly structured, so there's that. Pirates of the Caribbean might be based on an old mothballed Monkey Island adaptation, maybe. The Mist is adapted from the same book that inspired chunks of Half-Life.

Actual good video game adaptations may be a rare thing, but there are enough things just out of the definition that I think prove that the stories, structure and language of gaming can transfer to film well. We just need more film makers and studios (intent doesn't get very far if it isn't supported) to tackle the adaptations as something more than a title with a built in audience.

Hopefully Ryan is right with the comparison to what's happened to comic adaptations in the last decade.

Silent Hill was good. Didnt see the second one though.

Ever read an old interview with the director of Street Fighter from Cinefantisque? He pretty much laid out why the film would suck. He did not play video games, did not like video games, had never played Street Fighter 2, nor would he ever. When you put a man like that in charge, you are doomed.

Movies are a lovely thing. Someone’s original idea nurtured, massaged and fed until it is just right (or as close as it is possible to be) Movies, books, TV, even games are an art form and each will have its own merits to different people. Personally, I have a place in my life for Bergman and for Bruckheimer, though it’s more of the latter these days with the age profile in my house.

But game adaptations, they usually suck, they suck because they are the misbegotten bastard sons of faceless suits, which are made for totally the wrong reasons. They are made because of brand awareness, name recognition, a built in audience, because the idea is effectively: “what about Max Payne, people have already heard about it, we can’t lose, get it together quickly, quality don’t matter, because if it did we’d hire Scorsese/Fincher/Spielberg to make it” (I like John Moore by the way, fellow Irishman and Behind Enemy Lines is decent enough)

All previous game adaptations including this years Silent Hill sequel have been talked up by magazines and web sites in exactly the same way this article is talking about Deus Ex. I know I’m being a little harsh, but this huge property has been put in the hands of the man who brought you Hellraiser: Inferno and you include the words “with great filmmakers at the helm” almost in the same breath. Is there anything in this man’s CV that says he is a great film maker, because one or two scary movies sure as hell do not? I am sure he is a committed writer and director and a lovely fella, but a great film maker I think not.

Audiences, publications and sites including Den of Geek have been accepting and promoting this kind of sh!te for a long time now, and game adaps will only improve when we make them improve. That, in my opinion is why game adaptations disappoint.

The biggest problem with video game movies is they always pick the least suitable games to adapt. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are guilty pleasures of mine but they are pretty terrible films.For a long time the only video game movies we seemed to get were based on fighting games which aren't really known for their storylines. And then when they do pick games with strong stories they tend to avoid what made the games great in the first place. The first Final Fantasy movie had very little to do the games. The second Final Fantasy movie is one of my favourites but is clearly only fan service and is probably a complete rambling mess to anyone that wasn't a massive fan of Final Fantasy 7. I guess the biggest problem is these games can have 40+ hours to tell their stories and it's hard to fit that in to a 2 hour film.

The best video game to film adaptation to date is the Street Fighter II Anime version.

You do could a lot worse than to head straight over to Amazon and get yourself a copy!

The Uncharted series (which itself has plotlines based on movies) would make a great film. The platform and format is already in place for a compelling original storyline and strong character development. It would be like a modern day Indiana Jones...without George Lucas' intervention :)

It's simple: why are movies based on video games so bad? Because video games ALL have a bad story to begin with, so any adaptation is going to be bad. Let's be real, video games are NOT about the story, while comic books are built around the story. It's really not fair to compare the two.

You're playing the wrong games apparently. What about Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, Fable, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Dishonoured, Mass Effect, Zelda... there is an endless list of games played for a campaign story not just multiplayer. "All games have a bad story to begin with..." I don't think so.

If Pixar made Mario, I'd die happy. I know I say that a lot, but still...

Yep, I watched Prince of Persia recently and was pleasantly surprised after the critical mauling it got.

Jordan, you really need to play some better games, not just the ones in the Top 10. Psychonauts, Skyrim, Heavy Rain, Dragon Age, Half Life, Prince of Persia SoT, Day of the Tentacle, Max Payne, Fallout, Bioshock, System Shock, Deus Ex, Tomb Raider (certainly recent ones), Legacy of Kain... heck, even an unashamed shoot 'em up like Left 4 Dead has a gripping storyline to go with it.

I think the problem is that when certain types in Hollywood sees the potential in a game to be a film they don't take the time to understand why. They see special effects, violence, sex, etc. But they don't see how they play into the game's overall tone. One of the reasons Silent Hill worked for me was because the diirector 'got it' so to speak. He understood what made the games so special and he attempted to create the same thing in the movie. It worked in some aspects and not so much in others. You just can't throw together a movie in the first place, but you have to try that much harder with a movie whose source material is a video game.

"Ace Attorney" is truly the best videogame adaptation ever. Bar none. "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Wreck-it-Ralph" are the best films that revolve around videogaming.

No one mentioned the Uncharted film, which Sony are being very hush hush on at the moment, which i think has all the makings to be a very good film. Provided of course that Naughty Dog stay heavily involved like they have been so far. Thank god they got rid of Mark Wahlberg before he had a chance to ruin one of the PlayStation's biggest and best games!

Doesn't help that the second a lot of critics hear that a film is based on a game, they instantly mark it down and usually write something along the lines of "Made me feel like I was watching someone else play a game".... gets boring reading those reviews...

Here's my idea. First of all I agree, Mario and sonic should be animated. Second, no origin crap. Third, Mario and sonic always beat koopa and robotnic, so some super badguy, whoever I don't know, switches them and Mario and sonic can't beat them so they team up to find mother brain or Nemesis or whatever, leaving behind brothers, foxes, and all manner of princesses to take up the battle. Halfway through we realize the badguy is lamo king k tool from donkey Kong. At the end they beat their personal demonstrated or something and After various teamups they beat koopa n robotnik, but tool takes their powers and becomes a robot dragon thing. Enter donkey Kong. The badguys are defeated and balance is restored the end... or is it?
Yes, yes it is.

"Movies are made to make money" is the dumbest possible justification to not sell tickets.

I think the reason theyre so bad (for the most part) is that the studios think theycan just bang somethng out with the same name as a property with a built in fan base and cream off a few mil in profit before everyone realises they've been had. Hence the nonsensical choices for adaptations, and they way studios have their mouth about certain game frachises, then, once they realise just how much its going to cost to bring a 'proper' (i mean with like, someone who can write and everything) adaptaion to the screen it quietley goes away.

For the resasons I mentioned above Im, sadly, convinced we'll never get a decent Uncharted adaptation.

Here here

Video games are a work of art. You have to interact in the games instead of movies in which you only see characters play out their stories in a generic manner.

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