Why are so many videogame adaptations so bad?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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