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.