When it Comes to Video Games, What's the Problem with Turning Them into Movies?

11/09/2009 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Jeremy Wilkinson

If you’ve been in a theater lately, you know it’s a good time to be a comic book fan. "Iron Man," the first two "Spider-Man" films, "30 Days of Night" and "The Dark Knight" are among the many great comic book adaptations to be produced in recent years. So, if filmmakers can adapt comic books and actually do justice to the source material, why can’t they do the same for games?

Hollywood keeps attempting to successfully create a great video game movie, but most of the time the movie falls flat on its face. Most video game movies are neither faithful adaptations of the source material nor are they good movies, independent of what they are based on. In fact, I find myself saying, “It was an okay sci-fi movie” or “It was an okay action movie” in regards to a few of these films. Quite honestly, these are the best compliments I can bring myself to give these movies. Why are they so bad? Maybe Hollywood doesn’t take the genre seriously yet, maybe it’s just bad luck, or maybe those making the movies only see them as cash cows.

Take "Super Mario Bros." In the late '80s and early '90s, Mario was everywhere. The first Mario Bros. game was a gigantic hit for Nintendo and spawned a franchise that still is around today. This was the first time Hollywood thought, “Hey! We can make money if we adapted this!” So, they took an amazing game and made it into a movie.  A very bad movie.

What could have been an Alice in Wonderland-esque family hit became sub-par film set in a dreary (though somewhat comedic) dystopia. Don’t get me wrong, dystopias are great…but why make that kind of change? That was not the only change.  Oh, no. In the game, Bowser is a fire-breathing turtle. In the movie, he’s a human (more or less) descended from the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The goombas went from mushroom people to reptile people. And Yoshi? Okay--he was still cute. The movie is not a good film on its own and it made changes to the source material that did not add to the film, but instead detracted from it. This turned out to be a running theme for movies based on games.

"Super Mario Bros." went down in history as one terrible movie. If you’ve seen it, you know why. The following year, two other live-action adaptations made it to the screen: "Double Dragon" and "Street Fighter." These movies were a one-two punch of cinematic blandness that should have made people realize that things needed to change. Both suffered from the same cardinal sins that the "Mario" movie did--they changed important aspects of the source material and were not good movies on their own. It’s too bad, too, since both movies had good enough actors as the lead villains.

Robert Patrick played Koga in "Double Dragon," but has none of the menace he had in "Terminator 2." In fact, he seems to not even be trying--it’s like he realized how bad the whole thing was after he had signed on for the picture and then gave up. At least Raul Julia (as M. Bison in "Street Fighter") does his best with what’s given to him--even if the writing was atrocious.  His character would bellow, “I’m going to take over the world!” Yes, because that is a legitimate goal in life. Why put that kind of pressure on yourself? Look at pictures of George Bush before and after his presidential term--and he only had to run a country! The logical loopholes in these films are astounding. Did the filmmakers say to themselves: “Children love video games.  Let’s make these movies childish!”

The one good thing about these movies is that one can watch them for their cheesy qualities. Sure, they’re bad, but some at least can be entertaining because of how bad they are.

As the years passed, more games were adapted into films. "Mortal Kombat" and "Resident Evil" were two of the three best (the third will be discussed later), which is kind of sad to say. Even though I like the movies, they still are average movies. And while "Mortal Kombat" kept most of the important aspects of the game in translation, "Resident Evil" eschewed the main characters from the game and replaced them with an original character. It was an okay action-zombie movie, but a bad "Resident Evil" movie.

In 2003, the world of video game adaptations changed forever. When "House of the Dead" was released, it introduced gamers to the soul-sucking parasite that is director Uwe Boll. Compared to the cinematic garbage of Boll, Ed Wood looks like Guillermo del Toro. Like Hitchcock, he treats source material as a treatment. But Hitchcock’s changes elevate his films whereas Boll’s changes murder his films. The sad thing is that Boll keeps getting the rights to make movies based on video games. "Alone in the Dark," "Dungeon Siege," "Zombie Massacre," "Postal" and "Bloodrayne" (with its second sequel on the way)--all of these games are on the list of casualties that is Uwe Boll’s filmography. How he keeps getting these flicks is beyond me. If you want to know how not to do an adaptation (or how not to do any type of movie), watch Mr. Boll’s movies--and keep the pen and paper handy because you’ll have a lot to write down.

There are some movies that try to give the fans what they want, like 2005’s "Doom." If you know your gaming history, you know the name "Doom." The game was a pioneer, placing the player in a first person perspective and dropping him on Mars to slaughter the demons of Hell. Naturally, that had to become a movie at some point. During the film, there is a scene where the camera shots are done entirely in first person. I’ll admit that I liked that scene. But if the filmmakers really wanted to do the film justice, they would have made the monsters be demons from Hell like in the game instead of people who were transformed by a virus...or something--I don’t really remember. Apparently, I’ve tried to repress that memory.

Finally, in 2006, there was a glimmer of hope. The game franchise "Silent Hill" was to be adapted. The previews looked wonderful, the director seemed to really love the project, and Radha Mitchell was cast in the lead. She had played one of the leads in the movie "Pitch Black," and I really felt like she could play the part well. The opening was okay--it was when the characters got into the town of Silent Hill that things picked up. The monsters looked like their game counterparts, the town was creepy, the whole thing felt like “Silent Hill.”

I enjoy this movie (more so than others), but I was sorely disappointed with some of the decisions that were made. There were clunky scenes of information dumping and parts of the movie made one think, “Why are they doing that?” It also suffered from some bad dialogue. So, despite great art direction, creepy atmosphere and a strong lead, it still wasn’t what the fans wanted.

After almost 20 years, you would think that someone would have done at least one amazing game adaptation. So, one has to ask--can it be done?

The answer is, yes. If a comic can be made into a movie worthy of greatness, then so can a game adaptation. Closer attention needs to be placed on the source material.  Keep the important aspects and, if you must, make changes that make the film better.

There is a great short adaptation done by Neill Blomkamp. Does the name sound familiar? It should because he directed the phenomenal "District 9." He also did a short film set in the Halo video game universe and was slated to direct the "Halo" movie, which currently is on hold. In addition to Blomkamp, Peter Jackson had been involved with the project as an executive producer. Now that would be a film to see--but it doesn’t look like it’ll be coming out any time soon. Yay…

There have been other successes, just not in theaters. "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children" was a direct-to-video CG sequel to the mega-hit "Final Fantasy VII." It was well received by the fans, even if it wasn’t a direct adaptation. There was also that "Legend of Zelda" trailer that hit the Web last year. Fans went nuts for it. Sure, it looked a little low budget in places, but it seemed to hit the nail on the head. Too bad it ended up being an April Fool’s joke done by a gaming Web site.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe translating something so immersive onto the big screen can’t work (unless it’s not a direct adaptation). I still hold out hope, though. One day, those in Hollywood will take video games seriously and someone will step up to create a masterpiece. Sure, I’ll probably be dead by then, but it’ll happen.

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  1. Flash said...

    My brother-in-law worked on Uwe Boll’s Dungeon Seige film, and I got some insight from him at the time. Uwe exploits a law in Germany where if people invest in a film and it losses money, they get a massive tax write-off. So these films are supposed to be bad. I would assume that he keeps getting the rights because he's willing to bid higher than their true value; but if I was selling the rights I would certainly not want him to ruin my franchise's good name no matter what he bid.

    During the filming of the Dungeon Siege movie apparently Uwe constantly had his dog on the set. If Uwe was actually directing, his dog would often walk into the shot and ruin it; but he didn't care. The would simply shoot the scene over again, and the dog was never restrained. Most of the time, though, he was away from the set throwing sticks for the dog, and the 2nd director would have to direct the scene (which is not his job function at all).

  2. Admin said...

    Flash--that last part was fascinating. Thanks for sharing that.