Movies are fun. Video games are fun too. Combined, these two mediums should be the most fun, right? Wrong. It’s hard to make a good video game adaptation. For many reasons, feature film adaptations of video games have largely been flops, financially and critically. In fact, some could argue that there has never been a truly great video game movie. That’s startling considering the massive overlap between audiences. That is, people who play video games also love watching movies. So why hasn’t there been a perfect marriage between the two? Also – and more importantly – are video game adaptations needed at all anymore?
In celebration of Warcraft, it’s time to revisit a few video game movies from years past and try to see where they went wrong.
Dwayne Johnson shooting demons on Mars. What could go wrong? Well, a lot apparently. Doom isn’t one of the worst game-to-movie conversions but it’s certainly not a stellar outing. It’s very by-the-numbers and forgettable, one of those movies from the 2000s where directors substituted legitimate action and scares with loud heavy metal music. The movie then made the bizarre choice of having an extended first-person-view sequence that was a direct homage to the game it was based on it. It was fascinating, it was kind of fun but it didn’t save this loud, brash, ultimately boring film.
Here’s another film that thought loud equaled exciting. Paul W.S. Anderson’s movie features gunplay, kung-fu fighting, and a head-banging soundtrack. What doesn’t it feature? A faithful adaptation of the source material. While the first Resident Evil is heavily influenced by the popular Capcom zombie games, the series quickly went off the rails and left the story of the games far behind. That’s too bad because the games were chock-full of shady business deals, backstabbings, and gruesome horror. Whereas Doom was too reliant on its roots, Resident Evil wasn’t reliant enough.
Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat
Here’s a one-two punch that left a sour taste in peoples’ mouths. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are two of the most revered fighting games in history. The problem is that making movies based on them is tricky if you want to adhere to the genre. You could make a movie of people fighting for two hours (Maybe something like The Raid, which doesn’t sound bad at all.) but producers of the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat films decided to go a different route: constructing plots that kinda, sorta resembled fighting games. What followed were films that felt loosely tied to the properties they were based on but also wanting to distance themselves at the same time. Perhaps these were movies doomed to fail from the start since it’s nearly impossible to build a plot around a game that literally has none. The games are just two characters duking it out for a minute and a half – how can you make a movie that retains that at its core while also having characters and plot? Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat never figured it out.
Super Mario Bros
Here it is, the grand daddy of them all. This is the video game adaptation that most people talk about and not for good reasons. Super Marios Bros. is a straight-up disaster, a fact acknowledged by even those involved. It’s an admirable disaster though, coming from a place of exploration and experimentation. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (the creators of Max Headroom), the movie was decidedly not like the games it was based on. Morton and Jankel inserted Mario and Luigi into a dystopian, greasy and dark world that didn’t fit at all with the vision we all had of the Mario Brothers. It was unique but it didn’t work and the movie was so bad that Nintendo swore to never adapt another of their franchises. So every time you wonder why there isn’t a great Legend of Zelda or Metroid film, you can blame Super Mario Bros.
Those are just some of the misses in the history of games-to-movies. There are others – Prince of Persia, Silent Hill, Tomb Raider – but none rose above mediocrity. With Warcraft receiving mixed reviews as well, it’s become obvious that Hollywood hasn’t nailed it. They haven’t been able to crack the code and make worthwhile video game films. The reasons vary but it leads to a big question: do we even need game adaptations?
The answer might be no and that’s thanks to the major advances in the medium. Games used to be bare bones ideas accompanied by struggling graphics. Games were limited by the technological era they were created in. But those constraints don’t exist now. We live in an era where graphics, story, acting and score are top notch. Look at a game like The Last of Us, which is just as compelling and powerful as any modern blockbuster. In fact, it’s better than most motion pictures. It’s a different experience than a film but it’s just as rewarding, if not more so. Studios are desperate to tell the stories of video games without realizing that maybe they don’t need to. Maybe all that needs to be said already has been. It’s gotten to the point where a game can tell a tale just as well as an entire film.
That doesn’t mean game adaptations will stop. It’s really astonishing that there haven’t been more than a couple good video game films. Studios will keep chasing the chance to be the ones who figure it out and finally give audiences a ground-breaking and amazing translation from console to screen. But as video games become more and more impressive, maybe it’s time to realize that games don’t need to be adapted. Maybe they’re perfect as they are.