We live in a time when so many novels, comic books, and even classic cartoons are being adapted into feature films that it can often be sickening. Given the history of game-to-film adaptions, it’s easy to hope the same money-grubbers that pumped out abominations like Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead never get their greedy hands on our other favorite games. However, we should know that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. Just because past video game movies have been bad doesn’t mean they can never be good.
I strongly believe that games don’t belong on the Hollywood radar unless the film can achieve, at a bare minimum, everything the game already means to us. Thus far, video game movies have been nothing but critical flops. But one thing to learn from the vast array of adaptions to film from other mediums is that their potential for success is equal to their potential for failure. As fanmade teaser trailers for Zelda and Metroid movies have proven to us, video games are no exception. What exactly does it mean for a video game movie to be “good,” and how can one ensure it will turn out well? First, we need to examine what makes any movie good.
What Makes a Movie "Good?"
The way I see it, there are essentially two kinds of movies that are "good."
Some movies are good for pure fun. These don't need to have the deep themes or cultural significance; they just need to make you enjoy yourself. Take, for example, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that Scott Pilgrim is philosophically intriguing, but at the same time, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who’s seen it and actively dislikes it. This is because Scott Pilgrim knows what it is and it plays on that, creating a lighthearted and genuinely enjoyable experience for the audience. Are we going to remember it in 10 years as a defining film of our lives? Not likely—but it's a wonderful outing nonetheless.
In order to be enjoyable, movies like this should have exciting visuals, including environments, special effects, and overall style, as well as music that fits the movie’s tone. Scott Pilgrim would not have been nearly as fun if not for the comic book WHAM!s and POW!s. Likewise, had the soundtrack consisted entirely of Dean Martin covers, the whole movie would feel like even more of a joke.
Then there are movies that are truly great—They do all of the above, but they also challenge us mentally. They get us to think and they leave us with an experience we remember for weeks afterwards—sometimes months, or even years. Their messages move us, their characters can delight or even offend us. However, these movies don't have to be dark and mature like so many believe. Movies like Psycho and The Godfather will always be remembered as "great" films, but I think I can safely say that most of you reading this will never forget Toy Story 3. As Dylan James explains in An Argument for a More Mature Zelda, media doesn’t have to be unsuitable for children in order to genuinely engage to the adult mind.
But in making a movie, the production team must pay just as much attention to what’s being done wrong as to what’s being done right. Too often, decent movies launch with potential for greatness that is squandered by the filmmaker's own failure to see what the movie is in the context of what it’s trying to be. If a movie can’t carry itself largely on its plot, then the plot cannot become too serious, or the movie turns from quirky to dreadful in a heartbeat. Likewise, if a movie with a wonderful plot fails to take itself seriously enough, it just leaves audiences confused. When this happens, all it takes to fix is a critical eye and the time and patience (and budget) to try certain aspects again.
So a movie needs captivating visuals, fitting music, and optionally, philosophical intrigue. Movies can be made for mindless fun or to provoke more serious thought. In addition, they must take themselves neither too seriously nor too lightly for their subject material and its intent. But some game movies have been a little less obvious in why they failed. Looking back, each one has had trouble perfecting this formula somewhere along the way. This is because as it stands, not a single attempt has been made yet to create a truly memorable film based on a game. Video game movies thus far have been nothing more than film companies milking the popularity of existing franchises, which is why they tend not to proactively address their issues. This is exactly the kind of problem we need to recognize before we can construct a great video game movie. If the industry moves forward without understanding why these films turned out so badly in the past, we can’t possibly hope to improve their future.
Applying the Formula
Now let’s apply what we’ve just learned about movies to a more narrow scope. As everyone knows, movies need the right team of people to make it work: one person cannot carry it alone. Films’ triumphs are often credited to their directors, producers, actors, or whatever names make it to the public, but as the end credits will always show you, dozens of people always play various vital parts in a film’s execution. So how do we choose this perfect team? First we need to decide what we want the film to be. To outline this thought process, I’m going to build an example film. For this process, I’ve chosen The Legend of Zelda.
The first step in choosing the team to work on a video game movie is to ask questions specifically about the game being adapted—In this case, Zelda. Should a Zelda film be animated or live-action? Should it be reliant on pure fun, or should it be deeper and more mature? Which game would make the best plot the length of a feature film? How can we avoid the repetitive nature of the world-dungeon-boss structure while staying true to the events of the game? Most compellingly, should Link speak?
After figuring out what we want this movie to be, we need to find people who can take on this type of project and do it well. Who can gorgeously recreate the enchanting grandeur of Hyrule on the silver screen? Who can supplement the franchise’s classic feelings of childhood with deeper philosophical and moral themes? Who is best-suited to create cinematic adaptions of the classic Zelda tunes?
Just as we ask ourselves these questions about Zelda, the same kinds of questions should be asked about other franchises, and they will leave us with different answers. I, for one, believe that Ridley Scott of Alien fame would do a great job with the Metroid universe. If he were to work on Kirby, however, it would be laughably unfitting. In the same way, it would be downright silly to enlist the help of Slash for the music of a series like Animal Crossing.
The Fatal Flaw
Unfortunately, though this model may seem rock-solid to you, it will be a long time before it can ever come to fruition. Really what it boils down to is the eternal struggle between theory and practice. In theory, this formula is wonderful: It satisfies fans and produces an incredible finished product that leaves gamers, film critics, and general audiences happy. In practice, however, it wouldn’t even get the chance to be successful.
Foremost, the major companies of the video game industry know that film isn’t a promising medium to leap to from video games—the average score for all video game movies on Rotten Tomatoes’s database is an abysmal 18%. From a company’s point of view, this is very intimidating. Why should they sully the reputations of their beloved characters and lose so much money in the process? Even if it does turn out to be a wonderful film, how can they convince people it’s any different than the messes the made prior? Ubisoft is on the right track by keeping a close watch on their recently-announced Assassin’s Creed film, but most companies would not want to put their time and money into such precarious efforts. They would instead opt either to give too much freedom to the filmmaker, leaving us with train wrecks like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or to shrug off the idea entirely and just stick to making games.
In essence, game companies wouldn’t dare risk their most popular brands becoming a bad joke to the film industry. With the more popular characters out of the picture, it would seem that the logical option is to let smaller names like Rampage and Mach Rider show the world that games can make great movies and pave the way for our favorite characters to come to life. What qualifies these smaller franchises for this position is that people won’t care if they are ruined by their films. Unfortunately, this is exactly the trait that prevents them from being able to make room for bigger names: people simply don’t care about them. This, in conjunction with companies guarding the valuable IPs, effectively rules out every existing video game character.
There’s one more major problem, and that’s getting the right people to actually make the film. We know how to find them, but they surely would have no interest in actually proceeding with these undertakings. I have faith that Studio Ghibli could bring Mother or Billy Hatcher to a whole new level of whimsy. Hopefully the recently released Ni No Kuni is indication of things to come, but for now, a bigger collaboration between major software companies and well-known film studios is little but a pipe dream.
Another major problem with forming these teams is that when we decide who we’d like to helm an adaption, we can hope for anybody we want, because it’s entirely our own fiction. But when put into practice, whatever company plays the biggest role in the film’s development won’t look to find fans who can preserve the essence of a franchise during its transition. They may be lucky enough to have someone around who can do it to some extent, but for the most part, the only help they will enlist is that of their alread in-house teams. We could beg and plead them to assemble the perfect group to make our dreams come true, but I have trouble remembering even a minor instance of this sort of fan demand working in film.
We also have to ask: Would anyone else really care? Remember, as fans, the idea of finally getting a good video game movie excites us, but that’s because we already know and love these characters. Unless this movie looks fantastic for other reasons, and just happens to be based on a video game, most of the world would remain apathetic. For example, I’ve never read The Hunger Games, so to me, missing out on that movie would have been nothing to cry about. I saw the movie because it looked good and for no other reason. But for a fan of the books, the primary motivation to watch the film was to see how their favorite novel looked in theaters, and this reason was compelling enough to make them go out and watch it. Conversely, I had been a huge fan of the Percy Jackson books, and I was excited to see The Lightning Thief in theaters while the rest of the world stayed home.
If we ever hope to see games make an enjoyable film adaption, this is a mold that needs to be broken. I propose that the perfect film to do that would be an animated adaption of Star Fox. By applying the thought process outlined in this article, I think it’s entirely possible to create a movie out of Star Fox that’s immensely “fun”—the first type of “good.” This would work because assuming the characters in the adaption stay true to their origins, Star Fox can be done almost entirely from scratch. This means that assembling a team to cater to the movie is no longer a problem, as smaller-name studios like Illumination Entertainment have shown competence in making their own well-received productions using internal staff members. It also certainly helps that the name Star Fox is big enough for a good number of non-gamers to recognize, but not big enough to ruin the name in the way that Zelda or Halo adaptions could. This should* warm up the IP holder—Nintendo in this case—to the idea of more film adaptions in the future.
*Should. Not would.
Unfortunately, the companies that have potential to provide a big enough change in the industry will always remain cautious of their properties. Companies who have potential to pave the way for the bigger guys never seem to be cautious enough, causing disasters which only reinforce the stereotype that video game movies, by the essence of what they are, are doomed to failure. In this way, a vicious circle has been formed—one that should be much less difficult to escape than it appears to be.
What do you think? Are video game movies cursed to forever dangle on the thread of mediocrity, or can you see a future in which they are as respected as well as any other story? Should risks like these be taken, or are they too unpromising? What do you think could sway the current atmosphere of games in film? I’m looking forward to this discussion.