Lost in Translation
When Bob Hoskins passed away earlier this year, people were quick to pay tribute to the man and his acting career, noting standout performances in films such as Hook, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Long Good Friday. Some video game fans were quick to point to that black mark on Hoskin’s career, Super Mario Bros. Apparently this was the first video game to film adaptation and as we all know now. It flopped and is now one big punch line. Since then various video game franchises have been brought to the silver screen. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Max Payne and Resident Evil (six films!?) have made the transition and the one thing in common with all of them is that they are critically panned and don’t make a huge splash at the box office. Prince Of Persia has been the most successful video game adaptation at the box office. It turned a profit but Disney saw no reason to continue on with building a franchise. Film studios continue to try and break the mould though, just last week, 20th Century Fox released two images from the upcoming Hitman adaptation which itself is a reboot after the 2007 adaptation starring Timothy Olyphant. Will it be a success? That remains to be seen. But based on previous video game adaptations, you’ll be forgiven for not being optimistic. So why do video game adaptations so often fail? Surely to be considered for a film adaptation in the first place, the game must be good so it’s just a simple case of transitioning the story over to a 100 minute film, finding the right cast to play the characters and that’s it? Clearly not.
I suppose one of the first things that studios are concerned about when making a video game adaptation is how they are going to make a film that will both appeal to core fan base of the video game as well as the average movie going public. After all, the large core fan base is what attracted the studio to the video game IP in the first place. Then the average movie going public are going to make up the majority of the audience for the film. To anger the core fan base is going to likely result in online blog posts criticising the movie and create bad word of mouth. To not satisfy the average movie going public is going to hinder the box office takings. Getting that balance right is a key part to making a successful adaptation. Take the original Hitman film from 2007 for example. Sure it featured huge gun battles, sword fights and a (platonic) relationship with a woman in it to appease the average Joe. But these elements did not go down to well with the fans. It didn’t help that the Hitman fan base was thrown off in the opening minutes of the film by unnecessarily changing Agent 47’s back-story. But by downplaying the core features of the Hitman games like stealthily assassinating high value targets and the lack of 47’s handler, it turned fans off it and is now considered a non entity in the Hitman fan base. But one thing that should be considered is that perhaps the reason studios and screenwriters take such liberties with the original source material in the first place is because the games have such a flimsy story in the first place. Keeping with Hitman (I apologise if you hate the Hitman series), the games, despite their moody atmosphere, have such basic storylines. There’s the thinnest of threads that ties each level together in the games with Hitman 2: Silent Assassin being the only game that even attempts to try and tell a story (that was released before the 2007 Hitman film). Hitman: Codename 47, Hitman: Contracts and Hitman: Blood Money were all games which contained a ‘story’ that was a flimsy flashback framing device or connected through the use of letters found in the various levels.
Other games with shallow or non existent storylines that were adapted into films include beat em ups such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken. Plus recently there was Need For Speed and let us not forget the first video game adaptation, Super Mario Brothers. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters found in these examples all seem to lack depth. Try and describe the characteristics of Ryu from Street Fighter? You’re certainly going to struggle with everything except any aesthetic features. I suppose you could argue that the point in these such characters is that it allows the video game player to imprint some of his own personality onto the character. But this means that each player is going to have their own interpretations of the character, including that of the screenwriter who writes the adaptation. When this interpretation differs from the player’s own, it causes the player to be dissatisfied with the result on screen. This is why I hope that any film adaptation of the Half Life series (a rich world ripe for a video game adaptation) doesn’t centre around the character of Gordon Freeman. Perhaps another reason for video game adaptations being of poor quality is because of a lack of enthusiasm behind the scenes? Within the games industry, it’s pretty much a law that any video game based on a film or television show is going to be of poor quality. They’re rushed to completion to coincide with a box office release, they have a low budget and in some cases, they’re just a few aesthetic changes to an existing game concept (I’m looking at you Simpsons: Road Rage!). There is certainly a lack of enthusiasm behind these games. I believe it’s often a case of a game studio acquiring the license to make games based on a film/television series and then assigning the task to one of their smaller game studios.
Right now I would say that a similar thing happens on the flipside with film studios assigning video games to some of their smallest screenwriters to churn out a basic film that ticks a few boxes and then is rushed into promotion. It’s rare that you read about the actors or crew behind the film expressing a devotion or liking for the source material. A notable exception to this was Christophe Gans and Silent Hill. Gans was supposedly passionate about the Silent Hill franchise and lobbied for the director’s role. I’ll admit to never playing the Silent Hill franchise or watching it’s film adaptation. But supposedly the film was well received by Silent Hill fans for it’s attention and devotion to the games. Look at any comic book film made before X-Men. It’s mostly poor. Sure you’ve got Batman and Superman, but they seem to be anomalies. The majority performed woefully at the box office and with critics. Could it be fair to describe that era with the current situation that video game films find themselves today? Of course after X-Men, that seemed to open the floodgates for more comic book films to the point where today, they dominate the box office and have evolved into interconnected ‘mega-franchises’. Perhaps what video game films need is just that one film that breaks the mould and proves to studios that there is serious money to be made in these films and that it’s worth investing in high quality cast and crew to bring the games to life. The question is, what will be the film that breaks new ground in video game to movie adaptations?
Metal Gear: These games are practically films as it is. The series in it’s 3D iteration is kind of notorious for their lengthy cut scenes. Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear’s creator) confirmed alongside Avi Arad (a major force behind Marvel’s films between X-Men and Iron Man) that a Metal Gear movie was on the way. That was two years ago and very little has been released since then. But the Metal Gear series does multiple decades and has a range of characters that fill a story of political and philosophical issues while being action orientated. There’s plenty to explore and in theory would make the basis for a good film.
Uncharted: Unfortunately, I have only played the first Uncharted game, but I think the basic gist of the series is pretty clear. The games are pretty much a modern day version of Indiana Jones. So I suppose it’s National Treasure, but with a rebel wisecracking hero and his two sidekicks. I can’t see how this film could go wrong unless they include an out of nowhere third act that introduces monsters into the mix (is it just the first game that happens?). At one point David O’Russell and Mark Wahlberg were attached to direct and star respectably. Which suggests the studio was taking this adaptation seriously. Since then however, they have dropped out and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) has stepped into the director’s chair and the role of Nathan Drake is vacant. (It’ll be Nathan Fillion, right? I mean sure, he’s 43. But who cares?! Get some Benjamin Button CGI on him!)
If there’s one game that I think will manage the feat of becoming a good video game to film adaptation, I think it’s going to be Assassin’s Creed. If in two or three years when the film is released, it turns out I’m wrong. You’re welcome to laugh at me via Facebook/Twitter or whatever the social media network is at that time.
Assassin’s Creed has the luck of being able to set itself at any point in time alongside a modern day story. The question is, whether the creative people behind the film decide to rehash a period already explored in one of the previous games (Renaissance Italy, Revolution era America, Crusades) or go for a completely new period (Victorian England? Feudal Japan?). Personally I’m hoping that the film will revolve around a character and locale not yet seen in the Assassin’s Creed series. I’m hoping the film can stand alongside the games and just be another part of the Assassin’s Creed mythology.
But the reason why I think this will be the film that could break the mould is that Ubisoft are taking a great deal of creative control in the film. Ubisoft themselves have set up their own separate film production company (Ubisoft Motion Pictures) with the intent on working with major film studios to bring their IP’s to life on the big screen. Ubisoft intends to retain creative control of “key elements” of the film’s production according to a press release released in 2013. You could compare this approach to what Marvel Comics took to when they brought Iron Man to the big screen alongside The Incredible Hulk which of course gave birth to Marvel’s Phase One of films that culminated in The Avengers. The extra creative control has supposedly been seen as a bad movie by some major players in Hollywood but this could mean that fans of the game are going to get a film that respects the source material while also being a pretty solid blockbuster. Will the film strike a chord with average movie goers? I would like to think yes. Despite it’s dual storylines in the games. They are not overly complicated. It’s practically The Matrix with a little history lesson while cutting people’s throats. It should be a winner…right?