The Curse of Video Games Adaptations Part 2: A Deeper Analysis
This is the second part of a series discussing the adaptation of video games to film. Read the first post in the series here: Part 1.
When I envision a Resident Evil movie, I envision a movie backed more by suspense and bursts of terror than I do the kind of cliché action movie with zombies that Paul W.S. Anderson treated us to. It’s true that in recent years, the games have focused more on action than anything else, but the original Resident Evil game was not action-oriented, and instead focused on puzzle solving and exploration as its main gameplay elements. However, those gameplay elements can mainly be ignored for the purposes of cinematic adaptation. Instead, there are various aesthetic, environmental, and atmospheric aspects to the game that seem ripe for a horror/suspense. Three specific aspects come to mind. First, the immense quiet of the soundtrack, which is drawn attention to by emphasized sound effects like footsteps, the creaking of a door, and the shuffling of a zombie. Second, the fact that the game takes place in a giant mansion, which has long hallways, cramped spaces, and a feeling of claustrophobia. Third, and this is the most important factor: the game used pre-rendered environments that were placed as odd, sometimes off-kilter angles. While some would argue that such a choice hindered the game with shoddy controls, when thinking cinematically, it seems almost too perfect.
Notice in the following how the angle changes from shot to shot. But furthermore, in this scene, we see how a zombie ambushes our hero – Chris – from around a corner.
In a fully 3D environment, this is not a huge problem. A simple rotation of the camera could reveal the zombie lurking around the corner. But here, Resident Evil takes advantage of its pre-rendered environments to the fullest. In a Resident Evil movie, camera placement could be fully exploited to give a sense that anything could be lurking around a corner as we follow our hero through the mansion. Furthermore, if we look at a movie like Ty West’s The House of the Devil, there is a constant foreboding in the atmosphere, and the elongated sequences of what amounts to essential nothing add to the suspense that something must eventually take place. Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby uses a similar technique, showing the audience a nightmarish and demonic rape sequence. Then most of the movie withholds and restrains information, leaving audiences to not only question the direction of the film, but at what point that “nightmare” would become a reality. Finally, movies like Alien and Jaws use a similar technique of suspense in introducing the viewer to an ever-present “evil,” or enemy, but then refraining from revealing that enemy until the third act of the film.
The game relied on a lack of zombies (no armies of them here) to make each one a frightening experience. Furthermore, at points throughout the game, “gotcha!” moments occur where suddenly birds will fly through a window, or a zombie’s corpse will awaken and bite the player. All of these techniques create suspense, add to the possibility of horror, and could all work beautifully in different ways in a possible Resident Evil movie. Unfortunately, Paul W.S. Anderson settled for poorly-plotted action shlock, and continues to be drowned in it with each successive release of a new Resident Evil movie.
Silent Hill is a great example of almost getting it right. The game is extremely atmospheric, and heavily reliant on its environments and lighting, and sound to add to a nonstop psychological horror. The movie accomplishes conveying the atmosphere and art direction of the game for the most part.
Yet the movie, rather than attempting to have a narrative on par with the quality of the art direction, settles for confusion. Some people were upset that the protagonist searching for his daughter was changed to a woman for the film. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What does bother me is that a strange, muddled story of her husband is spliced into the story of the woman’s search in the town. This creates a disjointed narrative where none should really exist. The story and its revelations in the film only further work to confuse the viewer. Although a story of witches, black magic, and cults is somewhat overdone, that by no means dooms any movie that dabbles with such material. More on this issue later. What one can take from this though is that an investment in the production design can pay dividends, as Silent Hill, for all its narrative problems, looks great.
The original Silent Hill on PlayStation. Notice the fog and eerie deserted streets.
From the movie Silent Hill. We can see a striking recreation of the town.
Max Payne is painful (pun intended) not only as an adaptation of the best-selling video game, but also as a movie in and of itself. However, for all its failings if taken on its own, there’s no real reason for why it had to be such a failure, given how cinematically-inclined its source material actually is. The game, a neo-noir third-person shooter inspired by hard-boiled detective novels (examples being James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane) and John Woo action movies. A strange combination, but one that works surprisingly well. The movie chucks the noir angle out the door, with the exception of the opening scene: Max Payne in the water, on the edge of death, a somber voice over setting up the film. However, the voice-over narration is ditched almost entirely for the rest of the movie, replaced by more-or-less typical action movie with a confusing narrative and lack of character development. Looking at just a minute of the original game’s cutscenes gives us an idea of the tone and direction the game is going:
The material here is classic noir, something cinema is arguably over-familiar with. Yet the movie literally ignores or throws out every noir aspect of the original game in favor of almost a straight action movie. Max Payne the game makes me think of this:
Sin City successfully melds intense, fantastical action scenes with hyper-stylized film noir. This could have been a model for the Max Payne movie. As it stands, I’m not sure what the influence was for it.
Maybe I’m completely wrong in my assessment of these movies, but it seems so clear how one would go about adapting them to the big screen. I think what I’ve discussed so far proves, at least to some degree, that something is wrong not with the source material, but rather with how that material is being translated to cinema. This brings me to what I described previously as my “main thrust”: that the talent actually invested in these projects is lackluster, and that studios simply don’t care enough about the material to give it a proper treatment. Tomorrow, I will be discussing the people behind the camera, and the talent, or lack-there-of, involved in adapting video games to film.
Read Part 3 and Part 4.