Why Is It Difficult To Make Video Game Movie Adaptations?

Why is it hard for Hollywood to successfully adapt video games to the silver screen?

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Monster Hunter (2020)

Video Game Movie Adaptations

With the recent release of Monster Hunter and the upcoming Mortal Kombat movie, are video games headed for greatness? We here at PHASR dive into the question; why are video games difficult to adapt?

Whether you are new to playing them or grew up with a Playstation or Xbox, one thing is clear, video games are an amazing vehicle for telling engaging stories. Since the first Silent Hill came out in 1999 and Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid showed us the future of the medium, video games have developed in ways nobody ever thought possible.

Not only have graphics reached a point where the ‘Uncanny Valley’ is no longer a worry, but the intricacies of storytelling have flown to heights beyond what people thought when the original Super Mario Bros. was released. One thing still eludes the Gods of Video Games. A single inescapable concept that, to date, has never been cracked. Hollywood has never been able to successfully adapt any video games to the silver screen. Why?

It’s a simple question, right? Games are wildly successful, interactive, with some of the greatest plot twists and pure story moments that are ever written. With amazing characters and incredible set-pieces, why hasn’t any Hollywood adaptation been able to replicate this?

The Problem With Video Games

Yes. There is an inherent problem with adapting any medium into another, and that is you lose certain elements from that original medium. For example, adapting a book to cinema or TV requires losing a lot of information: character thoughts, sub-plots, descriptions, and even entire characters. Look at Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit movies as prime examples of this happening.

The same happens with adaptations of musicals or plays to the silver screen. Every time an adaptation happens, it doesn’t matter if it’s a work of fiction, non-fiction, historical events or biography, there is always a loss of detail or medium-specific aspects.

But there is one difference that makes video games a million times harder to translate to the big screen than any other medium, and it happens to be the thing that draws people to games in the first place. Interactivity.

Unlike a book, movie, or piece of theatre video games make the player themselves part of the story.

Whether it’s an FPS like Doom or Half-Life, a JRPG such as any of the Final Fantasy games, or an epic 3rd Person Shooter in the vein of Gears of War, a stealth adventure game like Assassin’s Creed, or those lovely open-world sandbox games that hit their pinnacle with Red Dead Redemption, the way the player works their way through the story, making choices that affect the outcomes and giving each player a unique experience makes video games a singularly personal experience that movies or tv shows just cannot offer.

The way a player controls the character creates a bond between the Game Creators and the player. I can remember the first time playing Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and the moment Kojima pulled the rug out from under all the players by having Colonel Campbell address us directly. Or when the main character, Arthur Morgan from Red Dead Redemption 2, gets a true hero’s death (spoilers!). These are moments that will forever be ingrained in my memory until something more powerful comes along.

The point is this: once you take away that all-important aspect, you’re left with sometimes a great story and pretty graphics, but not much else.

Another problem with video games is that more and more they are using the tricks of Hollywood. With every AAA game release, the word ‘cinematic’ is bandied about. We are rapidly heading towards a day when games are the predominant form of entertainment and movies are a thing of the past. To illustrate my point on exactly why video games are difficult to adapt, here are some examples…

Mortal Kombat & Super Mario Bros.

Video Game Movie Adaptations
Mortal Kombat (1995)

1993 and 1995 saw the release of two prime examples of the problem with video game adaptations. Super Mario Bros. (directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel) and Mortal Kombat (directed by a recurring figure in this story, Paul W. S. Anderson) were two of the earliest adaptations made by Hollywood, with each having different effects on this wonderfully eccentric sub-genre.

The Super Mario Bros. games, which we all know and love, are about plumbers saving a princess from a monstrous dragon-turtle hybrid in a fantastical world with pipes, venus fly-traps, goombas, and a little mushroom headed guy. One of the earliest successes, the Marioverse has continued to thrive into the 21st Century with game after game, an animated TV show, and a plethora of merchandise.

The movie, on the other hand, is a mess of ideas and characters that have no place being together. For example, the big baddie Bowser is no longer the love child of a dragon and turtle. Now he is Dennis Hopper, hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow. The fantastical land is now a dystopian shithole-covered fungus, missing the bright colors and cheerful music. They took everything about that game out the back and put it down humanely. What survived were the characters’ names and the barest of references to key elements of the game.

But, if you can get through the god-awful jokes, poorly written plot, and characters you will discover a truly terrible movie that has nothing to do with the original games. Super Mario Bros. is the perfect example of the problem with adapting video games.

There had been some notable failures like Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon, so there was this feeling that video game adaptations don’t work.

Paul. W. S. Anderson syfywire interview

Mortal Kombat, which is constantly said to have broken the video game movie curse (which makes me laugh since before its release we had Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon) gets a lot right. For starters, it keeps the basic premise of the game front and center; a tournament is held where fighters from across different realms come together to beat the ever-loving snot out of each other.

Since the first game in the series came out in 1992, Mortal Kombat has always had a special place in video game land. As each new generation of consoles was released, Mortal Kombat changed and did everything it could to stay relevant. With the latest release, Mortal Kombat 11, the bloodshed and brutality have been upped to take full advantage of modern graphics.

But back to the movie. Paul W. S. Anderson was more than excited to make the movie. In the above-quoted SyFyWire Interview, Anderson also said:

There were definite characters there like Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, Shang Tsung. And there was a real narrative with the tournament fighting for the fates of these two worlds. There were a lot of fantastic tropes at work in the video game, and I thought this was an opportunity to make a great fantasy movie with kick-ass martial arts action. I was a big fan of Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts movies, and there was a whole fighting style that those films really pioneered and those styles were not being used in American movies.

Paul. W. S. Anderson, SyfyWire Interview

And that enthusiasm can be felt when watching the movie. For writing this article I re-watched the movie, and it is still an over-the-top funny and exciting romp! The only quibble to have with the movie is the lack of fountains of blood spewing out of every orifice when a finishing move is performed. But, if the lack of bloodletting is the only problem to be found, then I’d say we have a winner.

Resident Evil & Silent Hill

Video Game Movie Adaptation Resident Evil
Resident Evil (2002)

Once again, Anderson comes up with the 2002 Resident Evil adaptation. Now, there are many a fan of Capcom’s game franchise who have said and written many terrible things about the live-action series of movies. But, and listen to me before writing angry letters to the editors, here’s the thing; an adaptation is going to be different for one reason.

Whoever is going to helm the adaptation is going to make it their own. Which is something that ALL of us seem to forget when a new movie based on a beloved franchise is announced or released. And this is why with every subsequent Resident Evil movie, Anderson changed the genre to be something different ranging from the claustrophobic terror of the original movie to the post-apocalyptic Mad Max inspired Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). 

Which is why Anderson’s Resident Evil is an excellent movie. A movie. If you ignore the prestige of the source material, what Anderson and Co. have done is taken the core elements of the game and made it its own unique monster.

As Anderson himself said in an interview:

To be scary you have to be unpredictable, and that’s why I felt completely free to reinvent the story and use my own set of fresh characters. There was no point in using the Jill Valentine character from the first Resident Evil game, as the fans would know she wasn’t going to be killed because she pops up in the later games. The suspense dynamic of who is going to live, who is going to die and what people’s allegiances are, was only going to work with new characters.

Paul W. S. Anderson Spong interview

For me, all the Resident Evil movies are good on one level or another. In fact, they were my gateway into the world of the Umbrella Corporation and Raccoon City. And that is something that not all video game movies are able to do.

Assassin’s Creed & Rampage

Video Game Movie Adaptation Assassain's Creed
Assassin’s Creed (2016)

We’ve all watched ‘playthrough videos’ on YouTube where some guy or gal records themselves playing a game. These have some merits, but in honesty (for me at least) it’s the same problem when watching a friend or sibling play a game. It’s boring as fuck!

The immediacy of action is lost and all we are left with is blue balls.

That is the feeling when watching the 2016 Assassin’s Creed movie. Director Justin Kurzel and the entire team went the opposite direction to that of most adaptations by following the source game to the letter.

Apart from the story which follows the battle between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, there are many sequences that are lifted straight from the game. What this means is the audience is left with a perfect visual representation of what it is like to play Assassin’s Creed, but without the immediacy of action … or interesting characters or an engaging plot.

Of course, we then have Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson showing everyone how to make a game with little to no discernable plot and turn it into a rip-roaring, larger-than-life good time. Just like The Rock himself.

Video Game Movie Adaptation Rampage
Rampage (2018)

Rampage for me is the perfect video game adaptation. Based on the 1986 video game, the 2018 movie adds heart and a truly crazy plot that brings our star and the three titular monsters together, the gorilla George, Lizzie the crocodile, and Ralph, who in the original game was a werewolf but here a mutated wolf.

On the surface, the Rampage game itself does not seem like the most obvious choice for an adaptation. But when you look at the sum of its parts, it’s perfect for a star like The Rock. It has no story except to destroy a city with three immediately recognizable monsters. This gives the creative time the power to craft a great story while also keeping the glorious destruction we all loved from the game.

Seriously, The Rock teaming up with a giant albino gorilla to fight a mutated wolf and crocodile. What more could you want?

Prince of Persia & Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Video Game Movie Adaptation Pokemon
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2009)

Our final two examples also toe the line between the sublime and the asinine. 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the first theatrical adaptation of the long-running game series. Anyone who claims to be a gamer knows of the sordid history of the Prince of Persia game series.

The original side-scrolling puzzle games that frustrated me more than anything (just trying to make that perfect jump, argh!) to the glorious reinvention in 2003 by Ubisoft. For fans of the game, the announcement of the movie, directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral 1994, Donnie Brasco 1997 and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire 2005), produced by powerhouse Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton should have given us one of the greatest game movies ever.

Instead, what we got was an absolute mess that if you ignore all the bad decisions, terrible writing, and bland characters is actually quite an enjoyable so-bad-its-good popcorn movie. But! If you know the games or have ever played them, then you know what is on the screen has more in common with the remake of Clash of the Titans than the actual game. This is a pity since Gyllenhaal shows that with the right script he can actually play a very good swashbuckling character. It’s just a pity it was in this misguided studio cash-grab.

2019’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu on the other hand is an enjoyable romp that brings us the cute creatures of the Pokémon universe to the big screen. The original 2016 game is a curious thing to be the source material for an adaptation, especially one where Ryan Reynolds voices the titular Pikachu. Instead of focusing on the battles and the “can do, friends and family” attitude of the series itself, the 2019 movie is as the title says a detective story. But one that still focuses on the family-centric nature of the Pokémon universe.

SPOILER ALERT! What follows is a major spoiler for both the game and movie.

In the game, it turns out that the central human character’s father, Harry, is missing and that the Detective Pikachu has no powers and can talk. This sets up an intriguing mystery for the player to solve. Now, in the movie it turns out that Harry’s consciousness was transferred into that of the main Pikachu and the movie ends with him being out back into his body.

This is a big change to the plot but one that works in the movie, since the makers of it were unsure if it would be successful enough to warrant a sequel. Detective Pikachu follows the beats of the game without falling into the ‘playthrough problem or messing with the story too much and the experience of watching it ellicited many a “Ooooo” and “Awww” from me.

What Next?

This is the question. What is next for video game movies? With the lukewarm reception to Paul W. S. Anderson’s latest movie, Monster Hunter, the future looks grim indeed. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us the incredible Kong Skull Island, has signed on to direct the much-anticipated movie version of Metal Gear Solid, with Oscar Isaac to play titular hero Solid Snake. Much has been said by Vogt-Roberts on his love for video games, which is something that most directors of video game movies don’t possess.

And that is the key to cracking the code and answering why games are hard to adapt. Finding that balance between pleasing the fans and making something accessible to the mainstream moviegoer. Because at the end of the day, Hollywood is still a business.

Perhaps Vogt-Roberts and Co. can be the ones to find that balance. I certainly hope so.

Let us know your favorite video game movie adaptation over on social media!

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