Why Are Video Game Movies So Awful?
Want to stop asking "Why are video game movies awful?" Then stop hiring crappy directors to make them!
Time and time again, Hollywood goes to video games for material to adapt into the next movie blockbuster. Sometimes video game films make a buck. Sometimes, they make a lot. And other times they flop. Yet critical consensus among audiences and fans of the various video games brought to the screen is consistent. The movies are okay at best, and dreadful at worst.
"The story doesn't work on screen," some may say, while others point out, "What works in a game might not work in a movie."
But why is that? In recent years, video game franchises have become more cinematic. If the language of film can translate well into a video game, why can't a video game translate well into film? Why are video game movies awful?
The Adaptation Process
In order to understand how video games are adapted into films (and why video game movies are awful), it's important to understand how the adaptation process works at all. When adapting anything to film, be it a book, graphic novel, cartoon, or video game, there are certain steps film directors and writers need to get right.
First and foremost, as there is with any pre-existing story, you need to consider how much you can change. Some fans may say "Change nothing!" but it isn't that simple. Some things that work in one medium may not work so effectively in another. There's a reason so few adaptations exist of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. A giant tentacle monster may be frightening on the page, but, on screen? Not so much.
Alternatively, it may become necessary to cut material out due to time restraints or pacing issues. In J.R.R Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, Tom Bombadil fits into the novel's leisurely pace. In a film, where tension and conflict drive a narrative forward at a steady pace, Bombadil takes time away from the meat and conflict of the story, so Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings cut him out.
But the adaptation process is not perfect. Sometimes, a director or film maker changes too much. Or doesn't change enough. Take anime adaptations. On one hand, you have Speed Racer, where they tried to bring the cartoonish antics to life... only for the movie to be too silly and confusing visually to follow. On the other hand, you have Dragonball Evolution, an adaptation that tried to change so much it no longer resembled the original source material – for the worse.
But the biggest issue often is time. The Harry Potter books are all massively successful films, but every film had to compress increasingly large books into two-hour films. Much of the story had to be eliminated – sometimes instrumental details that held the story together.
So adaptation can lead to a product inferior to the original source material even when the movie makers are adapting things that have been successfully adapted before.
But why are video game movies awful?
Video games are an interactive media. You as the player do things, and the character in the game, accordingly, does that same thing. Pretty straight forward. This element is consistent throughout all video games, from Pong and Mario to Grand Theft Auto and Silent Hill. Without gameplay, video games don't work.
The sense of tension playing a game comes from whether or not you can succeed at a given task. It is immersive.
So what happens when you take away the immersion from the video game process? Will you still be able to remain interested? Does this answer the question "Why are video game movies awful?"
This is where the video game medium encounters its biggest issue. To make a game good, you need immersive gameplay.
And most game makers spend the most time focusing on that.
Take a game like Journey. This award winning game is two hours of immersion. The game is an exercise in immersion, and the beauty of the experience comes entirely from the game immersing you in the titular journey.
A silent story depicting a featureless protagonist walking across the desert does not work on film. It doesn't even work with characters who can talk and walk. The film Gerry is Gus van Sant's attempt at creating immersion through cinematic language. Two guys wander through the desert. Both the game and film spend long spans of time of characters walking through the desert.
Journey is a great game. Gerry is torture.
Take away game play, and only a game's plot can hold it afloat.
Simple Plot or Convoluted Plot?
The original NES and SNES video game classics many fans grew up with had very simple stories. Princess captured. Rescue her. Or even simpler: bad guy did a thing, so stop him. The formula works to this day in platformers and simple games.
However, starting really with the advent of fighting games and roleplaying games, games developed progressively more complicated plots. In the case of fighters, every character needed a backstory. In the case of roleplay games, the whole point of the game was to immerse you in a world, leaving you ready for a more complete adventure.
As time went on, video games developed a more cinematic sense of grandeur, which led to even more complex, complicated plots. Which is where we come to two major extremes.
On one hand, simple video game plots would need to be changed to keep the film from being dull or simplistic. Both, alternatively, other games had become so elaborate and intense that adapting them to film would be like condensing all of Game of Thrones to a two-hour film.
And here is where problems arise.
On the simple end of the spectrum, we have Super Mario Bros, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Doom, while on the more complicated end we have Silent Hill, Warcraft, Mortal Kombat, and Final Fantasy.
All were adapted into video games.
And none were particularly good films.
Let's break down why particular films don't work.
Super Mario Bros: The Movie bares such little resemblance to the original source material that it may as well not even share the same name. It's clear that someone wanted to make their own movie, and took only the names of the characters and loosely interpreted them.
Gone is the colorful nature of the Mushroom Kingdom, replaced with a world inspired by Blade Runner. Where there were cool enemies like talking mushrooms and turtle people, we have dinosaur-human hybrids. And Bowser – er, Koopa – is a Dennis Hopper villain.
This film is an example of a filmmaker seeing a simple plot, and, rather than adapting it, chooses to just toss the whole thing out in favor of something else because kids are too stupid to know the difference. But kids aren't stupid. Kids know when they're watching something crappy, and many rejected this film right out.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the general public felt this way. They didn't feel much of anything about the film. Only hardcore video game fans even remember this movie exists, and use it as a prime example as to why video game movies are awful.
But, in many ways, making a product that doesn't stand out with an icon like Mario – whose video game franchise ranks as one of the most financially successful ones ever – it's problematic.
Part of the reason for this is the lack of gameplay. At the time especially, Mario's core identifiable features were its platform gameplay. They used to call Mario "Jumpman," after all.
Take that away from them, and what do you have? You have two brothers, a reptilian fiend, a princess, fungus people, and Yoshi.
And the Super Mario Bros film does include all of those.
So, in conclusion, if we use this to answer the question "Why are video game movies awful?" then we can conclude that a lack of signature gameplay and a loose interpretation of game lore did this franchise in. But what about the opposite problem?
For many, the original Mortal Kombat is a cult-classic video game adaptation. The movie, while cheesy, is usually seen as the model for adapting video games. It balances out the signature gameplay with the fighting game's lore, characters, and style. There are issues, of course (like working around Sub-Zero and Scorpion's epic rivalry by having them be under mind-control), but it works as a fun, silly action film.
The same can't be said for the sequel to one of the few decent video game movies, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
Let's ignore the fact that the movie just sucks as a movie. It's awful. Dreadful. Nothing about it works. But let's analyze the elements of the video game that, when adapted, led to it being awful.
Unlike Super Mario Bros, which adapted the lore in the loosest manner possible, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation tried to incorporate all of the lore of the first three games without ever trying to incorporate a coherent narrative to fit it all. They tried to adapt the action by stringing fight scene after fight scene together.
The problem is the filmmakers were not very good at this.
But, by trying to bring in every single character into the film, the film encounters a new problem: no one matters. The stakes cannot matter if we do not get enough development for the characters. In a video game, we play the characters, and, thus, have a personal stake in the game. Knowing Sub-Zero's story is a good bonus, but, as we are fighting through him, we do not need to know his story.
But on film, story is far more important.
This should be understandable to anyone who has to ask "Why are video game movies awful?" They are awful because, so often, they hit one of two extremes in the adaptation process: too much or too little. Super Mario Bros is one extreme, and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is the other.
But both versions encounter the same problem: the video game works because they are interactive, and film, a more distant medium, cannot relay the same sense of excitement one feels when playing.
The Best Adaptations
This is why films like Silent Hill work best. While the film's sequel is an awful video game movie (and an awful horror movie), the original adaptation of the survival horror game plays to the film medium's strength.
It is a faithful adaptation of the game's plot and lore, but changes things to fit the narrative the director intended. The film is an exercise in visual storytelling. The dialogue and conversations are used to explain what needs to be explained, but, for the rest of it, most of the film features characters encountering some strange, horrific thing. Only in the last half hour of the film are we introduced to any explanation as to what is going on, and even that is left vague and unsettling.
In this sense, it dodges the main pitfalls of video game adaptations. We are immersed through story and visuals. While it isn't a great movie, it's a great video game movie, which, considering its peers, is an important distinction.
Another good adaptation is the recent Warcraft film. Many thought this would be the breakthrough film to break the awful video game movie trend, but, alas, it was not. While it won't make people stop asking "Why are video game movies awful?" Warcraft is a good movie, albeit a very fast paced one.
But this is in part because the game was always story-focused. Warcraft, as a real-time strategy game (and later a massive-multiplayer online game), did not have the same level of immersive gameplay something like Mario or Mortal Kombat featured. Ergo, the original games relied on a complex fantasy story.
The other reason these two movies work so well is that the directors are competent. Christophe Gans (Silent Hill) has a long history directing horror and fantasy films, while Duncan Jones (Warcraft) has directed Moon, one of the best science fiction movies ever (he's also David Bowie's son, which is cool).
The point is that both films were helmed by people who understand how to make a good movie.
Which leads back to that big question: "Why are video game movies awful?"
Video game movies are often helmed by directors who are, for one reason or another, just not very good. Paul W.S. Anderson, who directed Mortal Kombat and the Resident Evil films, does not have a very good track record when it comes to movies. Sure, Event Horizon is pretty cool, but that's about it. While many of his films are fun, he hasn't directed a truly great film.
Sadly, he's also one of the best directors consistently involved with video game adaptations.
The overwhelming majority of video game movies made by one man: Uwe Boll. He's one of the key reasons why anyone at all asks "Why are video game movies awful?" Boll is a cheap director known for making schlock. His films are awful adaptations, poorly directed, poorly produced, everything! His movies are just all around awful.
When you have one man with such a prolific catalog of shit, it brings down the whole genre of video game adaptations.
Which Boll turning the medium into damaged goods, many production companies put less and less money into it, and, often, will use them as a cheap way to make extra money. Games have a built-in audience who will see the film regardless of its quality, so why put any effort into it?
This is clearly beginning to change, but even recent movies like Assassin's Creed proves that film production companies really don't care. Either that, or the directors don't seem to understand why the property is successful.
Using Assassin's Creed as an example, the appeal of the game is not the futuristic, sci-fi stuff, but rather the historical adventures and assassination affairs. But the film, hoping to make logical sense, focuses instead on the sci-fi modern aspect, and not the stuff people liked about the game.
Even though, yes, that future stuff is a major part of the game. But it's usually a means to an end: cool historical stuff. The adaptation process requires adaptation. This lack of understanding of a property is an example of a director not being right for the job (even though Justin Kurzel made a terrific adaptation of Macbeth with much of the same cast as Assassin's Creed).
Would Street Fighter be a better movie with someone like Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle) behind it? Yes. So why was the most recent Street Fighter movie directed by the guy who made Doom (also an awful adaptation) and Cradle 2 the Grave (why does that even have a 2 in it? It's not a sequel!)?
Simple. No one in production cared.
Want to stop asking "Why are video game movies awful?" Then stop hiring crappy directors to make them!