Movie Adaptations of Video Games: Why Are They Bad?
Hollywood has been attempting to capture the magic and commercial success of video games through film adaptations for decades now, and yet the vast majority of such attempts result in failure. Why might this be the case? In order to comprehend this, it’s important to analyze what Hollywood does differently from their source material and how this might prevent most of these films from being either well received, commercially successful, or both.
Super Mario Bros. (1993 Film)
The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is one of the finest examples of an adaptation that failed in every respect to capture the magic of the video game series. It attempted to explain somewhat pseudo-scientifically the phenomena depicted in the game while implying a separation between the world of the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario’s home world. The film-makers demonstrate a complete irreverence towards the source material: firstly through such decisions as making Daisy, princess of Sarasaland from Super Mario Land, the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom instead of Peach; secondly, through their inexplicable conflation of dinosaurs, turtles, and mushroom-men, like how they made Goombas tall reptilians instead of short mushroom creatures; thirdly, through turning the Mushroom Kingdom into a dystopian urban environment rather than a pseudo medieval European one; and finally, through their attempts to tie-in evolutionary theory to a video game steeped in fantasy elements which had nothing to do with such (as had been done with Howard The Duck seven years prior).
Such actions likely alienated many series fans, leaving mostly children who didn’t know any better to enjoy the film as kids, only to realize later how terrible it actually was. Even Bowser, King of the Koopas, was demoted to president and was further dishonored by transforming into a Tyrannosaur before his death. It is evident from this that the makers of this film didn’t want to include anything as unscientific as a fire-breathing dragon-turtle, and yet they wrote it so that all denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom were dinosaurs that inexplicably looked exactly like humans (except for those devolved to reptilian form). In essence, the movie attempted to cash in on the success of the games while removing virtually all elements of what made them both good and successful.
Perhaps the movie was done the way it was in an attempt to capitalize on the immense popularity of dinosaurs during that period of time. In the early 1990s, Dinosaurs were found everywhere from books, to cartoons, to movies, to video games, and this is part of the reason why Jurassic Park, released later in the same year as Super Mario Bros., was so successful. Of course, Jurassic Park had competent writing, had a great director, and single-handedly revolutionized the use of computer graphics in cinema, but the film also captured audiences’ imaginations with the question of what if dinosaurs could be resurrected and its flip-side that asked if we should: a question which frankly applies to movies like Super Mario Bros. The movie, based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, was immensely successful, and proved that people were willing to pay big bucks for amazing content. However, Jurassic Park approached the science-fiction angle properly, creating revolutionary depictions of living dinosaurs, and rather than running away from its source material as Super Mario Bros. did, embraced it, proving solidly that adaptations from one medium to another, when done properly, can be good or even amazing.
Super Mario Bros. was critically panned and roundly rejected by audiences, and continues to be reviled to this day. Rotten Tomatoes has the movie at a mean of 14% among critics and 28% among users, while IMDb has a slightly more forgiving overall score of 4.0 (at half the number of reviewers). Whatever the true reason for it’s failure, whether it was the bad writing, excessive 80’s clichés, or any of the innumerable other things wrong with it, it’s undeniable that this film rubbed audiences the wrong way.
Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson film continuity)
The first film in Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil film series did a great job at capturing the essence of the games while streamlining it for a movie format. It put a twist on the sense of mystery the first game had by creating a protagonist, Alice, with intimate knowledge of the Umbrella Corporation’s misdeeds and giving her temporary amnesia. Amnesia as a plot device is certainly overused in all forms of entertainment media, but Resident Evil makes it work by allowing the audience to discover the horrors of the Hive along with Alice. Not only did it have a mutated final boss, but it also essentially had a self-destruct sequence, as the facility was set to lock-down with them inside it if they didn’t escape in time. These elements help to make up for the fact that the puzzle-heavy nature of the games is largely absent, with the only notable instance being the laser hallway, a trap puzzle only slightly more elaborate than those encountered in the games, which the group encounters and loses several soldiers to on their way to the Red Queen. In all likelihood, puzzles were limited because incorporating them into a movie would significantly impact the amount of time available for other things.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the second film in the series, was where it started to show signs of derailment. Unlike the first film, which was essentially just based on the games while featuring no key characters or other aspects apart from the questionable origin story given to the Licker, Apocalypse took beloved aspects of Resident Evil cannon and mutilated them beyond recognition. Nemesis, for example, was depicted as an apparently indestructible monster until the climax, where it was killed by a crashing helicopter: in Resident Evil 3, it took an experimental Rail Canon termed “Demon Sword of Paracelsus” and a .357 Magnum to finish it off, which demonstrated Nemesis’ durability as being above and beyond that of normal Tyrants, with a powerful regenerative ability that rendered it similar to G-infected William Birkin.
The series would continue to derail like the Ecliptic Express as it continued, introducing psychokinetic powers, using the names of beloved characters as fan bait while having none of their original depth or character, and butchering concepts like Las Plagas, until it ultimately arrived at its merciful conclusion last year. Umbrella’s ultimate plot to populate the world with a master race as determined by them was sort of in keeping with the plot of the games, but Oswell E. Spencer’s vision involved a world ruled by virally enhanced individuals, which is why the Wesker Project was employed: the end results of this project were series villain Albert Wesker and one-time villain Alex Wesker, and yet Albert, a traitor to Umbrella and would be god, was depicted in the movies as a loyal lapdog to Umbrella’s leader.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, the first film was the best received by audiences, with approval generally trending downward as the series progressed. Interestingly enough, this trend is reversed when one looks at scores awarded by critics. This is odd considering how Resident Evil: The Final Chapter had more of a post-apocalyptic road trip vibe than anything else, with way too much emphasis placed on combat against other humans instead of the mutant creatures Resident Evil is known for. Without such creatures, Resident Evil would be just a generic Man vs. Man conflict film.
Doom (2005 Film)
Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Doom marked an even more radical departure from its source material than the previous entries. Its depiction of the demons of hell as genetically altered monstrosities accidentally discovered by some ancient alien civilization was questionable at best but still kind of fitting with the theme of destruction by tampering with ill understood forces, and perhaps once again an attempt to eliminate the nonsensical nature of the original story by grounding it in pseudo-science. Sure, the idea of experiments with portal technology leading to a demon invasion might sound ludicrous compared to a genetic engineering experiment gone horribly wrong, but it’s far more original than the viral infection plot this film has.
Among other things, one wonders why the legendary BFG-9000 (literally “Big F***ing Gun”) was changed to the inane and nonsensical “Bio Force Gun”: the movie was clearly going for an R rating to begin with, so what good would the addition of censorship do? Perhaps the writers were under the mistaken impression that this name sounded more sciency and cool than lame, but it’s not clear that the original name was ever supposed to be more than an in joke about the weapon’s immense destructive power. The only good part of the whole film is the fps sequence at the end, as it actually felt like one was watching gameplay footage (though the character moves much slower than Doom Marine), not to mention the character wasn’t saying anything inane about genetic engineering. However, even this short-lived homage to Doom‘s nature as a first-person-shooter was incapable of saving it from the cup of mediocrity.
Rampage (2018 Film)
Rampage, judging by its trailers and apparent premise, appears to have been written for film audiences rather than gamers. It’s otherwise inexplicable why they would feel the need to go down the same road as old Saturday morning cartoons like Godzilla, wherein the title monster is unambiguously good and more or less controlled by humans for some strange reason. It also feels like an excuse to have Dwayne Johnson (who has been in quite a few films lately) be the protagonist, which would have been difficult if the film was more faithful to its source material.
Instead, audiences are left with what appears to be a cash-grab using a well-known celebrity as some sort of gorilla trainer rather than having him become a giant gorilla monster as happens in the games. It does indeed seem to be an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, as George, Lizzy, Ralph, and the others are certainly far from heroic given that they destroy cities and devour their inhabitants: the series is exactly as its title describes, depicting giant mutants on a rampage. Perhaps the producers were trying to ride the wave of popularity super hero movies have had over the past decade, since one could easily argue that the ability to control a giant mutant gorilla constitutes a kind of super power, or perhaps its something similar to what was done with the Velociraptors in Jurassic World. Whatever the case, it doesn’t exactly appear like they were trying to win over fans of the video game series.
The film appears to have been better received by critics and audiences, with a mean of 52% and 77% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes, and a mean of 6.2/10 on IMDB.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to game-movies…
For a long time, game developers had a bad habit of licensing generic and sub-par tie-in games to complement the release of major motion pictures. It was exceedingly rare for any of these to be commercially successful or even any good, with rare exceptions like 2004’s Spiderman 2 arguably surpassing their movie counterpart. Most of the time, such games exist solely in an attempt to grab as much cash from the unsuspecting public as possible, playing on the notion that if one likes the movie, they’d surely like the game based on the movie . . . or at least might buy it. Games like 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe exist to remind us that $50 or $60 is way too much money to blow on a game with little care given to its production and its gameplay. In fact, the most infamously bad movie-to-game adaptation/cash-grab of all time, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, was blamed for the great video game market crash of 1983, even though it was only symptomatic of industry practices (such as the assumption that people would still buy a million copies of a garbage product) and was thus only the final nail in the coffin. Atari executives believed that because the movie was the biggest blockbuster of all time up to that point, any game made based on it would be a guaranteed success. Such beliefs obviously do not reflect reality, and resulted in the collapse of the movie-game industry at some point after 2010.
With this in mind, is it possible there’s a similar reason behind game-to-movie adaptations? Are they more of an attempt to cash-in on something corporate executives believe would be guaranteed to sell? It’s difficult to render an absolute judgment on this, given the relative obscurity of games like Rampage, but there can be little doubt where it concerns games like Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, Doom, Assassins Creed, and Tomb Raider. The companies involved believed they had a guaranteed path to success by buying into franchises with large audiences, but they didn’t take into account that their attempts to pander to too broad an audience would be well received by neither gamers nor movie goers. Gaming is similar to other nerd subcultures in that quality products and experiences tend to be lauded above the mediocre, and while mediocre, bad, or even broken games do unfortunately sometimes see financial success, games that are successful tend to be doing at least something right. If gamers feel that something they enjoy has been messed with beyond their threshold for enjoyment, they are as liable to abandon it as anyone else. It appears that more often than not, the failure of such films results from a perfect storm of the apathy of the average movie goer (why would they care about a movie titled Doom) combined with the apathy or outright disgust of series fans.
These concerns aside, translation from one format into another is always a risk. Much like when a text is translated from one language to another, much of what results is lost in translation, either from the resultant audience having no connection to what was written, or because meanings just don’t translate. Adapting a novel or 20+ hour game into a two-hour time slot necessarily requires a lot of the substance to be sacrificed, and thus the end product doesn’t often look pretty. For example, the 2014 film adaptation of The Giver left out important philosophical and political elements and even changed the way certain key events transpired to fit with with common film tropes, forcing them to fit the artistic vision of its creative team, whether or not it fits with the source material. It’s perplexing, and yet not, that Hollywood continues to attempt film adaptations of video games year after year, even when the most of these films are destined for failure. Creating an original film is risky, as there is no proven track record to look at, and no guarantee audiences will turn out for it: this is the reason why so many movies nowadays are either sequels or adaptations of other popular media. Perhaps Hollywood is addicted to gambling on adaptations of popular entertainment, with each successive property representing another hand of blackjack: with every loss, they tell themselves things will be different next time. Assuming this to be the case, they are enabled in their addiction by the rare success of one of their sub-par films, like how Assassin’s Creed [sic] made more than $100,000,000 over the film’s production costs.
So What Does It Take to Make a Good Game Movie?
What most of these films have in common is that they appear to care nothing for the spirit of the games they are inspired by. Because a soulless product is essentially guaranteed to be awful, these films turn out to be exactly that. It’s easy to blame villainous executives and producers for ruining beloved series, but a lot hinges on whether the writers and directors themselves actually care enough to get their representation right. It’s thus likely that bringing people into development who have a deep knowledge of, admiration for, and experience with the properties they wish to bring to theaters is necessary. This alone isn’t enough, however, since making things too fan-boyish could easily turn into a negative, and if the film ends up looking like a bad fan-fiction, then it’s completely counter-productive.
Perhaps the sweet-spot lies somewhere in not giving the middle finger to the gaming audience (as implied by marketing material like the poster on the left, which implies that games like the one the film is based on are somehow childish and silly) and not making a film primarily for a non-gamer audience: if the studio doesn’t care about gamers, then why make a movie based on a game to begin with? By balancing out the cinematic aspects with the aspects people loved about the games, it’s theoretically possible to create a film that both demographics can enjoy, and potentially get non-gamers interested in the original works. Part of this includes asking for input from actual gamers and working with those who made the games to begin with, but it’s understandable that this is not always possible: even if it were, there are as many opinions as there are gamers, so it could potentially lead to a development hell with no single coherent vision. In conclusion, it’s a complicated problem with numerous moving parts which presents no obvious solution, but as noted, certain steps could potentially lead to a future in which game-movies actually don’t suck.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’m still baffled over Warcraft. Why didn’t they go for the Arthas storyline. I think that would have brought it out to a wider audience not just fans of the games.
It’s ironic then, that the Warcraft movie is only marginally based on the games. It is based more on one of the Warcraft novels – The Last Guardian. As far as depictions went, it was a pretty good rendition of the book.
As for why not Arthas, I think it is simple. They wanted to start at the beginning, and Arthas is nowhere near the beginning.
The problem with Assassin’s Creed was its failure to link the movie squarely with the game series. To do that, they would have needed a character we knew who had been in the animus to help Cal. Ubisoft, unfortunately, killed off Desmond Miles. The film suffered from decisions made by the developers. That combined with the idea to reboot the storyline with a character we don’t care about made the movie a mess. Oh, and killing off your best character wasn’t good idea either.
There are so many games that would make good films.
Beyond good and evil
Last of Us.
Beyond Good and Evil would make for a great movie. Mass Effect too.
Spec Ops: The Line
Any of the Ken Levine Games for that matter
I’ve always felt Jason Biggs would make a great Link….
Horizon: Zero Dawn (perhaps given a more appealing title though)
Goldeneye was a pretty good movie.
I think the best example of how this can be done is Crank. The whole thing runs through like a game (punch ’em ups, shoot ’em ups, mad driving – even a cinematic take on the hot-coffee mod from GTA The film has a game’s ryhtm; A ludicrous story set-up; The charactr development is akin to levelling-up in games.
I’m sure that the film-makers must have been aware of this, otherwise why include the side-scrolling fighting game into the credits.
Interesting article. I always wish that we got to see Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock film (suppose to be an R rate film but the studio was hesitant to green light such an expensive/elaborate R rated film, among other issues. Bioshock has an incredible atmosphere that I think could translate well to film.
Silent Hill was nearly (if not quite) good – the first half of it in particular holds up. I reckon the second Silent Hill game would have made an excellent film – likewise I reckon you could make great games out of genuinely story-driven titles like The Last of Us or Grim Fandango.
But I think the problem in general is that games are interactive and films are passive. The mediums are just very different. What works in a game just won’t necessarily work in a film and vice versa. Most of the games studios are picking to adapt – Super Mario, Tomb Raider, Max Payne, etc – are those that are more interesting for their gameplay than their story. Remove the gameplay aspect of it and you take away what makes them interesting.
Dude I agree entirely- the world is waiting for the real Silent Hill 2 movie.
Has a truly great director ever taken on a big video game property? What would the results be like if we had:
The Last of Us directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Mass Effect directed by Denis Villeneuve
Shadow of the Colossus directed by Guillermo del Toro
Dark Souls directed by Miyazaki
I’d rather see Mass Effect by Luc Besson. And surely Del Toro would be better suited to Bloodborne?
Asteroids would be a good movie. Maybe a little short.
Assassins creed has been the biggest dissapointment for me personally. Each time I watch the video game trailers, I always end up banging my head against a solid object and keep asking myself why the Hollywood machinery has not been able to produce movies of a similar scale as the video games.
A good essay. Yes, the first Evident Evil was good, after that they went downhill.
Bioshock would make a great film.
No it wouldn’t. Bioshock’s about how player control and choices that games offer are all meaningless really, as you’re just doing what the game tells you either way. You don’t even have the illusion of choice in a film, so you’d just be left with a character shooting stuff underwater with no point to any of it.
Street Fighter. Enough said.
Say what you like about the film (and for me it’s a 5* masterpiece), but that is a truly inspired piece of writing. Chun-Li’s look afterwards is a brilliant mix of confusion and anger.
You can’t make this stuff up!
In the same way that computer games convert from film the aspects they will least be able to convey well (cut scene bloat, big actors) so do film’s take the worst aspects from games (action set pieces, big licences).
If a more story driven title was used, the results may be different.
e.g i expect people would rather see a last of us, bioshock, horizon zero dawn film, or hell, even the silliness of F-Zero, compared to a COD film, Rampage (which looks dire) or yet another Resident Evil, which is bound to happen.
It’s easy: Games are designed around their gameplay. The story is just a thing to give it context, and a bit of emotional weight if you’re lucky. Some games don’t even have a story and are none the worse for it.
Basically games are like pron films in that they may or may not have a story, but it isn’t their primary purpose. People don’t love playing Tomb Raider, Doom, Mortal Kombat or Mario because of their storylines, but because of the fantastic gameplay. So you can’t just remove the one thing people like the most and expect it to stand up on its own.
There are one or two examples of games with stories that would totally work as films, e.g The Last of Us. But even then, what’s a film going to bring to the table that the game doesn’t already do?
I disagree. Great games combine excellent gameplay with compelling characters (e.g Halo). The next billion dollar video game movie is going to be the inevitable Overwatch movie; a shooter game with a diverse cast of relatable characters.
Isn’t the problem that games have the viewer as controller, actively participating in the decisions and where the story goes next, while films need us to be supine and just watch? That’s why game-based films either go for random fetch-quest/carnage sequences barely discernable as ‘story’ (the Jolie ‘Tomb Raider’ was presented to us as ‘post-narrative’) or opt for the tedious ‘Hero’s Journey’ formula, telling the same story we’ve seen a thousand times with slightly different props and rubber ears (as per the 2000 ‘Dungeons and Dragons’).
I maintain that the original Tomb Raider is the best videogame movie by far (talk about faint praise). The plot’s stupid and the action’s poorly filmed, but Angelina totally owns it as Lara Croft. She knows just how ridiculous the film is, and seems to be having a whale of a time, so she carries the movie.
The World of Warcraft Movie was good IMO, especially the Orcs. It had top quality motion capture performances and cool story. The humans weren’t as good but still okay. I think this article, (and seemingly Hollywood producers) are missing the point. There is no story in a game like Super Mario or Angry Birds. It’s like snakes and ladders – the big draw is the gameplay itself. How about Cluedo (Clue)? The game has a concept (a murder mystery) a setting (mansion) and characters everybody knows. The movie was relatively successful.
Comparing adaptability of Assassin’s Creed or Warcraft, games with deep backstories, relatively complex characters and rich worlds (think comic books) with simple games that are famous for their great gameplay like Mario is crazy. It took a few decades for comic books to get the traction they have know, with A-grade talent in production, scripts and production.
But comics and film are far closer cousins than games and film. It’s just an awkward translation.
I liked Warcraft. It was your standard fantasy film with extra cheese, not bad at all.
“Pong : The Movie” — Now THAT would be bad. But probably still better than Super Marios Bros.
Video game adaptions are like book adaptions. Its so important that they are faithful to the source material or else is loses what makes the story special and beloved in the first place.
It has been proved that “faithfulness” is not the key for any adaptation to work. This shouldn’t be a discussion.
Mirror’s Edge could work. DOOM wasn’t too bad and had a good chunk of 1st person in it.
Games I am surpised haven’t been turned into movies:
– Zelda series
– Metal Gear Solid series
The Witcher… that world could be amazing with the right director.
Did anyone see Halo: Nightfall? That was pretty awesome
I think the main problem of the movie adaptations of video games is that the cinema does not usually win anything with movie adaptations of games: yes, there are games with good stories that could originate good movies, but the cinema has already generated good stories without being based in games, so you do not need it. Despite this, I would like movies based on the following video games:
This is so true. Actually care about the game and their fans if you want to make a successful movie on it.
It’s difficult. I know The Warcraft movie suffered from trying to balance between making it marketable to everyone without alienating diehards. The average popcorn movie viewer just wants action and doesn’t care about lore. The average WoW player is dedicated and want a level of fan service that if executed would most likely close the movie off to others, and be universally unsuccessful. Hard line to walk.
I agree it is a difficult line to walk between what fans expect and what is “true” to the source material. Much of this is similar to the comic vs film debate also.
I will note that I think a great reinterpretation that still feels like a video game is the new Tomb Raider.
Interesting points made here. Especially considering that many book to film adaptations are not terrible (I mean some, definitely are), but that so many video game to film are consistently flops reveals something about cross-genre adaptations.
I love games and movies, but your essay made me think directors face an impossible task when adapting video games. Games offer something movies can never offer: complete immeraion. You have control in a game. Movies are always passive. That can’t change, unless you count video games as an evolved form of movie making. I think video games will ultimately replace movies, the same way movies replaced radio and color replaced black & white.
super mario brothers was awesome
Simply put, videos games are an interactive medium whereas movies are not. To make a successful adaptation, the movie needs to embrace its heritage in a sense. If it is a movie based on an action shooter game, it needs amazing action scenes. If it’s based on a telltale-like (RIP) game, then it’s all about story and the choices that it’s necessarily complex characters make. Seeing the movie should make the viewer think to themselves, “I cannot wait to go home so I can play the video game myself,” not just, “I cannot wait to go home.” Honestly, it doesn’t seem as hard as everyone’s making it but studios control the finances behind the films and the studios haven’t realized this yet.
I think one of the reasons that films fail to capture the magic of the stories of video games is that in one medium you often feel that you are the character or the you are the little angel on the protags shoulder guiding them through the world. Whereas in film you are viewing the world and seeing things away from the characters and often do not feel as connected to the story or the characters.
@connordore64, @Jennie: Exactly, and that’s a serious flaw. Films don’t let you interact. They don’t give you control over the characters’ choices. In a world where everyone loves and craves interactivity, I’m surprised this type of movie manages to survive at all.
I think there are Three reasons why game movies fail.
1. The people who make these movies don’t care and only include stuff from the games to “please fans” but it make no sense
2. the interactivity of the games doesn’t reflect for movies (different medium I know but it can still be its own thing
3. It doesn’t use its medium (film) to it’s advantage, think about it, since we can’t play these movies show us something else, like in hitman instead of it being a dull action movie, have it be a detective solving the murder of 47 from who he killed, how he did it, and why it was done. Yeah I know people would like it to be about 47 but he’s better as a ghost instead of a main character in a movie media.
As someone who loves gaming and movies, it is painful to watch so many potentially great game stories get treated so badly by the Hollywood executives. I have seen nearly all of these movies (including Mario Bros and it explains why Leguizamo and Hoskins were drunk on set all the time) and they really do range from mediocre to awful. I think everyone agrees that the interactive nature of games is difficult to translate to the passive nature of the big-screen. It is the same for movies going to games such as ET, Independence Day and The Matrix: Path of Neo. Games have a lot more content and can have choose-your-own-adventures which makes Fallout and Mass Effect so popular. A talented writer like Alex Garland would still struggle to pull something good out of a more linear adventure, hence why he dropped out of HALO. Is it time to stop trying to make games into movies and vice versa? Or should executives look at it from a different angle like the play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ where side characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are the main characters watching the antics of their rulers play out? It could make for an entertaining ride if say ‘Assasin’s Creed’ was made from the viewpoint of a guard in Acre constantly seeing Altair perform parkour and getting all stabby on those he is meant to be protecting!