It escapes me to name one movie based on a video game that hasn’t been critically panned. Most have failed miserably at the box office to boot. I haven’t seen the Assassin’s Creed movie yet, but judging by its current, very very “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its disappointing box office haul, I don’t foresee it breaking the cycle.
So what gives? Hollywood has seemingly tried everything to make video game adaptations work. Acclaimed directors like Duncan Jones and Mike Newell and acclaimed actors like Angelina Jolie and Michael Fassbender have given it the old college try. There have even been some good innovations, like the animation style in 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. But nothing, except the occasional cult classic like Mortal Kombat (1995) or Resident Evil (2002) seems to stick.
I propose that there are two reasons for this problem. First, many great video games don’t have inherent stories. Second, video games with inherent stories typically aren’t original or coherent enough to carry themselves when separated from the interactive experience.
1. Category One – Video Games without an Inherent Story
The video game to movie adaptation concept got off to a bad start. Let’s face it, making a live action version of Super Mario Brothers is about as bad of an idea as remaking Ghost in the Shell (1995) as live action film with a blonde, American actress starring as the Major (coming soon in 2017!). The Mario games are fun because of their easy to understand design, not because there’s anything particularly interesting about the backstory. Especially not when the backstory is expanded to include some convoluted nonsense about dinosaurs and parallel universes.
Fighting games were next on the list. Street Fighter (1994) might be one of the worst films ever made, starring a coked up Jean-Claude van Damme. At least the late Raul Julia did a good job as the villain, despite slowly dying of cancer during the entire course of principal photography.
Mortal Kombat (1995) came next. The worst thing one can say about it is that it’s a below average martial arts movie – which puts it in the running for best video game adaptation of all time.
There were a couple more attempts to shoehorn storyless video games into film format, like Doom (2005) and the Angry Birds Movie (2016). The Angry Birds Movie made a few dollars at the Box Office, but so far I’ve seen it on quite a few year-end “worst of 2016” lists.
Doom is essentially the “Man with a Movie Camera (1929)” of video games. It has no backstory, and that’s the point. You’re told you’re something called a “space marine,” you’re dropped into a maze, and you shoot bad guys. For this emphasis on game design and the introduction of multiplayer, it’s a legendary game. I have no idea what they were thinking when they greenlit a movie version. Oh wait, yes I do – Hollywood is lazy and thinks they can always make money on an existing property.
2. Category Two – Video Games with a Story
Then there are video games with rich backstories and cutscenes. You’d think these would translate better to the screen than the tale of jumping on turtles and mushrooms, but you’d be wrong. Let me use a few examples to explain why.
The Wing Commander series was one of the most popular PC game series of the 1990’s – World War II style fighter pilot war, but in space! The games were able to attract legitimate Hollywood talent (Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davies, Tom Wilson, John Spencer) to video games, a feat previously unheard of. So naturally, when they made a movie version in 1999, it stunk on ice.
Here’s the problem with Wing Commander – the story is only fun because you are in it. When stripped of its interactive elements, it’s nothing but cheesy science fiction clichés. A similar thing would happen if they ever made a Grand Theft Auto movie – the GTA series is fun because you’re in a clichéd gangster movie, but if you’re not in it, it would just be a clichéd gangster movie.
Assassin’s Creed has a similar issue. Even though its worldbuilding is far more original and less derivative than GTA or Wing Commander, that doesn’t automatically make it good. I find the “animus,” ancient Greek gods, and budget Dan Brown nonsense to be an unnecessary distraction from jumping off rooftops and stabbing bad guys, so much so that I’ve written about it before.
This is the same basic problem with adaptations of World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and about a half-dozen horror games. These are great games because of the game design, not because they have compelling or original stories. Removing the gameplay aspects from the story does nothing in these instances except reveal flaws in the story.
Even if there were a strong story to adapt aside from the gameplay aspects (think “The Last of Us”), the way the stories are adapted are often lacking. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) is a modern classic partially because it would work as a self-contained entity if the theme park ride did not exist. Video game adaptations, however, never seem to forget that they are adapting a video game, and try to retain too many elements from the games, like boss fights.
All that being said, I think a good video game adaptation is possible. First, a game must have a story worth adapting. Second, that story needs to be good enough that it can stand on its own without interactive elements. Finally, a strong adaptation would not include reminders of “hey everyone, we’re adapting a video game here.” I guess all of that is easier said than done.
(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe