It all started in the summer of 1993 with Super Mario Bros, the first live action adaptation of a game to be released in cinemas.
Based on Nintendo’s key franchise and console mascot, Super Mario Bros would go on to fall faster than Mario down a sewer pipe. On a $48 million budget it would only go on to gross $20.9 million, co-directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel would never direct another feature film, but the cast survived to tell the tale of a painfully unforgettable experience. However Super Mario Bros was not a teething issue for the new avenue of source material, it was a trendsetter, a first blight on a genre of films that has failed at almost every turn to yield a great film. The following year Double Dragon was released, starring an up and coming Mark Dacascos, a young Alyssa Milano and even Robert Patrick post T2: Judgement Day. However even on a modest $7 million budget, it only grossed $2 million and earned negative reviews. Then completing an unholy trilogy that same year was the release of the awful Street Fighter, the less we talk about that the better.
It was a terrible start to video game adaptations, and one has to wonder had film producers known how massive the gaming industry would become would they have taken more care with these properties? It hasn’t all been doom and gloom, there have been some acceptable and entertaining films based on games, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Prince of Persia to name a select few. However the majority of them, like Mortal Kombat, have not dated well, and without a shadow of a doubt none of them have been great, brilliant, or any other overwhelming superlative. Why is that?
According to Rotten Tomatoes, the ‘freshest’ rating for a video game adaptation is the animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within at 44%, the lowest rating is 1% for the utterly risible Alone in the Dark. The average rating for cinematic releases of video game adaptations is 18%, which would certify them rotten as a whole. Have the wrong properties been adapted? Are the budgets too big or not big enough? Are the wrong people working on the films? Are games just too hard to adapt into the film format? Video games are the greatest untapped source material for film ideas, so why is it taking so long for Hollywood to get them right? My mind is already imploding fathoming how it isn’t a success yet.
The games industry is brimming with untold stories across all genres that already take on a grand cinematic quality thanks to the evolution in modern technology. Those first three films were based on games simply constructed to play, not to tell an immersive story, so constructing something out of nothing will have its challenges. That being said, games these days have stories and worlds created for them already. This can be a double edged sword for creative screen writers and directors, but it’s groundwork already laid out, a blueprint ready to be constructed, and if the story has already proven a success in another media why change it?
One issue that plagued Street Fighter were the conflicts between director and influencing parties such as Capcom and those funding the project. The people who thought they should have control, but probably should have left it well alone. An article over at Polygon details Capcom’s pushy input into the project. Cramming as many of the games roster into the film despite an original agreement to seven characters, insisting Jean-Claude Van Damme (a Belgian) play Guile, the most American of heroes. Not to mention the harshly strict schedule that wouldn’t budge, and a deal with Hasbro that arguably influenced the appearance of the film and the international action centric story over tournament style film. Though everything about Street Fighter is bad (except Raul Julia’s delightfully mad performance) you can look at these points as having a dramatic impact on the quality of the film.
Super Mario Bros also experienced production issues after the production was pre-sold to a studio. In an interview with director Rocky Morton on Nintendo Life, Morton explains Super Mario Bros intended to be a type of darker fantasy, which explains some of the really weird tones and aesthetic in the film. However when the studio read the script they deemed it too dark and requested it to be changed for more humour and a lighter tone. Clearly the conflict of interest did the film no favours, but the interesting interview paints a picture of a directing team and script that tried something a bit avant-garde for a film about a tiny plumber that jumps on mushrooms all day. Despite unrest and rewrites throughout the films creation, the unusual grimy mark is still evident on the final product, a vision that simply doesn’t work.
Now if we cast our focus over to one of the recent big budget video game adaptations, Warcraft: The Beginning was rather poorly reviewed but with good international box office success. Duncan Jones is a fast rising directing talent, and though there is plenty in Warcraft to be happy about, ultimately there is more than the occasional flaw. In a really interesting interview with Thrillist Duncan Jones reveals his love and frustration with the final product, which of course is understandable, but also sheds a little light on why. In response to a statement regarding fighting for stuff in the film, Jones responds “Trying to make a movie like Warcraft, and trying to do it in a unique way… you get killed by a death of 1,000 cuts. Not just editing cuts. It’s little changes that seem really innocuous”. He then mentions later “Trust me, if anyone is frustrated about the pacing of the film and how it turned out, it’s me. It’s not because I didn’t know what was happening, but as I said, death of 1,000 cuts”. Though the interview by no means details a rift, or disagreements with production during the film, the above quotes are enough to assume changes were made for better or for worse, and presumably it wasn’t always Jones’s decision.
If there is a concurrent theme running through the productions of these video game adaptations we’ve discussed, it’s a varying degree of interference in the directors visions for their respective films. Whether it’s from the studios who own the properties requiring/demanding certain concessions, or those who’ve funded the film wanting to have a say in their development, there is clearly an unhealthy amount of intrusion during the films production. Though all invested parties will have reasons for their involvement, it’s obvious that to a certain extent they are hindering the film making process. That is not to say the films wouldn’t have been poorly received had their fingers resisted from being in the pie, but it most certainly would not have helped. Sometimes a bad video game adaption is just a bad because of the creative minds involved, take Uwe Boll’s films for example. It’s no coincidence or conspiracy that Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, Bloodrayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, or Far Cry are critically derided films. They have been fundamentally flawed from script to screen because of those working on the project. They might have put the graft in, but that doesn’t validate poor decisions, awful dialogue, and shockingly shallow stories. It’s not all Boll’s fault of course, he’s just been the unfortunate soul who decided to direct these ventures. Interestingly he never wrote a single one of them, unlike a lot of his other films.
For a multi billion dollar industry it’s a marvel that the video game studios haven’t been able to cohesively work with film studios to bring about great video game adaptations. The bridge to that gap could be Sony (the last studio you’d expect), who own Naughty Dog, the studio behind the Uncharted franchise. Time will tell if Joe Carnahan’s script will make it to the silver screen but with all invested parties under the same roof the less meddling there is the more efficient its production could be, if they ever get it off the ground. For now we’ll have to settle for sub par video game adaptations, but fingers crossed somebody like HBO picks up Fallout or The Elder Scrolls and once again shows the studios how to tell a story. Maybe, just maybe, an all round talent like James Gunn will come along and save the day by directing Gears of War… here’s to dreaming.
So why do you think video game adaptations are failing to hit the mark?