The general rule is: if something exists, Hollywood will make a movie out of it. No matter how uncinematic your novel is, no matter how non-narrative your property, the suits in Hollywood will find some kernel of a story and fling around $200 million until they have enough CGI things going boom to guarantee an opening weekend. This is the modus operandi of Hollywood, going back to the first silent films. Movies are constantly pulling from outside media for material to be adapted, referenced or blatantly rip-offed. And over the years, the movies have managed to wrestle numerous bizarre concepts onto the screen against all logic and reason.
They didn’t just film Lolita, they filmed Lolita TWICE.
So it would seem that there’s really nothing that Hollywood can’t bring to screen, especially with the advent and widespread use of CGI.
So why can’t anyone make a good video game movie? The games come with fully developed storylines and characters, and video games use inherently cinematic stylization to present their narratives. On the surface, translating a video game into a feature film should be one of the easiest gigs that a filmmaker could be handed.
And yet, no one has. Video game movies exist as a lowest-common denominator entity in the cinematic market place. And, I would argue, there is nothing to suggest that that will change anytime soon.
Now, there are a couple extraneous factors to this discussion that need to be handled before we can move forward.
Number one is: Who says that there are no good video game movies? After all, the Resident Evil film series is about to release its fifth entry. Tomb Raider got a sequel. And there are surely fans out there for the Mortal Kombat films or the Doom movie. Hell, I could probably even muster up a defense of Silent Hill as an above average horror film.
But none of these count as a truly successful adaptation. For starters, not a one of those films listed, or any of the other video game movies that you could name, has had 1/10th of the pop culture relevance or impact that the games had. The movies are largely ancillary items to the sweeping, long-lasting franchises that spawned them. Where the games series continue to print money, the movies exist AT BEST as decent opening weekends and OK DVD sales. Even the most successful film adaptation has nothing on the source material.
The other major defense that video game fans may use to defend the quality of these adaptations, is that many of the films listed above (and the many, many more I haven’t listed) have suffered from bargain basement creative teams and directors. How can you expect a quality film when the studios nickel-and-dime the productions, resulting in cheap CGI, C-List talent behind and in front of the cameras, and no space for the sort of massive storylines or character work that video games can achieve?
While this is largely true, there are plenty of instances of strong, or at least dependable, writers and directors being involved in video game movies that failed anyway. Simon West (Tomb Raider) did solid action work with Con Air. Christophe Gans (Silent Hill) had a few highly respected genre films under his belt. The writer of Silent Hill, Roger Avary, won the damn Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction! Love it or hate it, there’s nothing in the quality level of that film that would suggest such a pedigree.
Still, it is true that when it comes to most video game adaptations, the talent levels veer more towards the Uwe Boll’s of the world, and further from the more respected pedigree I’ve just listed.
And yes, it is true that studios tend to treat video game films as poor commodities, preferring the cheap, easy ones to the more ambitious projects like a Bioshock or a Halo.
But here’s my belief: Even IF the studios greenlit a mega-budget adaptation of a highly respected game like a Bioshock, and even if the studio went all-out and hired the best of the best to write, design, direct and act for the film, it would still not end up being a very good movie. Not unless the filmmakers made fundamental changes to the very nature of the story. Which, as modern fanbases prove again and again, is the worst, THE WORST! thing that a studio could do.
And it’s not that games are worse than movies, or that movies are worse than games. It has to do with the way that stories are told, and the way in which audiences involved themselves in that story.
It has to do, ultimately, with empathy.
Why do we care about the characters in stories?
It’s an honest question. After all, especially when you get into the realms of science-fiction and fantasy and their various subgenres, not only are you talking about people who have never existed (the mark against all fiction), you’re talking about people who have never existed doing things that will never be possible in setting that will never exist.
So who gives a shit if they live, die, fall in love, defeat the empire, kill the aliens, destroy the ring or convince Jay and Silent Bob to leave the damn QuikStop already? Why should we care?
Because that’s what people do. That’s our natural instinct when we’re presented with a scenario. We imagine ourselves in that same position. We turn every screen into a mirror, reflecting back our own personality and struggles. And fiction, particularly genre fiction, understands this and attempts to increase this connection. That’s why the heroes and heroines tend to have humble beginnings that they must rise above, like Sarah Connor being a put-upon waitress prior to being handed the fate of mankind. Or Harry Potter being a lonely, strange kid that no one understands.
Even characters that exist completely within fantasy realms are given these sort of immediately understandable backgrounds and traits. Luke Skywalker may live on a desert planet surrounded by robots and Sand People, but at heart he was just a kid dreaming of a bigger world beyond his farm life. Frodo Baggins may not have been human, but his fears, hopes, and capacity to give and receive love made him completely identifiable for audiences. Establishing this empathetic connection is one of the first, most important tasks that a writer/director/artist has to achieve.
(Or they can completely half-ass it and create a character completely lacking in any discernible personality, existing ONLY for the audience to write themselves on top of. [coughcoughBellaSwancoughcough])
But with a video game all that work is already done for you.
Quick! What is Gordon Freeman’s personality? Or Master Chief? Or Mario, in his first appearances?
These characters don’t have characters. They are blank spots upon which the game developer can build stories and characters around. The player creates all of that empathetic connection, simply by playing that game. When a bunch of hideous monsters come through the door and start killing people, Master Chief isn’t scared. The player is scared, and puts that emotion onto the character.
And, and this is the important part, that is totally fine. This is not a knock against the structure of games (someone who is more of a dedicated gamer than I can write that article). Creating simple, blank characters with an iconic design that the player can put their own personality onto is the perfect way to give the player control over, and a deep connection to, the story that the game is telling. You want to complete the mission, you want all the power-ups, you are scared of what may come around the corner and kill you.
This is perfect for a game, but it’s death for movies. Movies rely on the characters generating the narrative and emotional arcs of the story. Sure, plenty of meatheads will tell you that all they want from an action movie is “big explosions” but a cursory study of the films unanimously agreed to be the best of the genre shows this for the loud of crap that it is. The exposition and emotional scenes in films like Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Road Warrior, The Killer etc., these aren’t just the serious parts you ‘have’ to get through to get to the gun fights and car chases. The writers, directors and actors responsible for scenes like John McLane pulling the glass out of his feet, or Indy and Marion talking about where “it doesn’t hurt” put just as much thought and care into those scenes as they did into rendering various fireballs and face-meltings.
In a video game, these cut scenes are just the stuff you have to get through to get back to the game. Man mainstream games still struggle with how to properly juggle gameplay with communicating the narrative, often times resorting to massive info-dump cut scenes where non-player characters will just talk, talk, talk, talk about the set-up for the next playable sequence.
So when trying to bring a game and its rhythms to the big screen, the creative team has a hurdle right off the bat. In a horror game, the player is scared because THEY could die at any second. In a movie, the fear is generated from concern for someone ELSE. Those are completely different emotional reactions, calling on completely different creative skill sets.
This is also reaaaaaaaaaaaally important to understand why something that’s scary or shocking in a video game isn’t in a movie. In a video game, you can die. The monster can get you. In a movie, you go in knowing that the main character is safe until the last reel, so repeatedly endangering the character becomes nonsensical. We know Alice can’t die, so it becomes impossible to engage with the film when it makes it seem like she’s going to. You just wait for the miracle moment to come when someone either saves her, or she pulls some new super power out of her butt to save the day.
The Assassin’s Creed movie is going to need to figure out how to deal with this problem early and often. The game can get away with building everything around experiences as seen in the Animus, because YOU are the one falling off a building or getting stabbed or being denied the story. In a movie, tension is derived from the illusion of danger. How can audiences be engaged with whether or not Enzio is going to make the jump, when they know that the actual main character, Desmond, is hundreds of years in the future, completely free from harm?
If they ever DO make a Bioshock movie, they’re going to run into this problem at 10,000 MPH. Bioshock has several truly nasty twists built into its story, several places that call into question the perspective of the whole story and the very nature by which the player has interacted with the game. But those twists only work to the degree that they do because it is The Player who made those choices. If a film were to simply recreate this ending, it would just be another movie with a cheap twist ending.
You know what? I can illustrate this whole point with one character. I just need to invoke the Patron Saint of Internet Discussion. Let’s take this thing to Batman.
Click “next” below for part 2, “A Tale of Two Batmans”;
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