The Curse of Video Games Adaptations Part 4: Hope for the Future?
This is the fourth part of a series discussing the adaptation of video games to film. Read previous posts in the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Comic books were for a long time treated mostly as a joke, and not truly art, by many. Although 1978′s Superman: The Movie is still to this day considered one of the best comic book adaptations of all time, the studio hired a well-known – and arguably very exacting – director, Richard Donner, to helm the project. Donner, although not well-known for his film work at the time (his most major film accomplishment at the time was the original The Omen in 1976), was an accomplished television director, having worked for almost 20 years in television before being hired to direct Superman. He had worked on around 50 different TV shows, including having directed numerous episodes of The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island, and Perry Mason just to name a few. Furthermore, Donner was hardly one to let the studio boss him around.
Despite the directing credit on Superman II being given to Richard Lester, most of the footage had been shot by Donner as a direct continuation of the first movie. The studio got tired of Donner’s control and essentially fired him. Lester’s greatest contribution? This:
It wasn’t until 1989, when Tim Burton gave the world his dark, gothic vision of Batman that a studio would actually give a director the proper reins and control to deliver another worthwhile movie based on a comic book. (Full disclosure: I’m not personally a fan of Burton’s Batman movies, but I respect the seriousness he brought to adapting the work; he treated it as more than a paycheck. This is even more clear in the sequel, Batman Returns). Burton’s Batman legitimized comic books being adapted into movies. In 1990, only a year after Batman’s success, Hollywood powerhouse, actor/director/writer/producer and Oscar winner Warren Beatty took it upon himself to direct and star in a movie of Dick Tracy, and with him (as Burton had), brought along a number of A-list stars, including Al Pacino as the main villain. Dick Tracy wasn’t just a critical success, garnering good reviews from critics and a whopping seven Academy Award nominations, winning three, but also a commercial success, making over $100 million domestically on a budget of less than $50 million. The success of movies like this started an influx of superhero movies in the 1990s – though admittedly, most were not very good.
Regardless, many believe that Burton’s Batman paved the way for movies like Bryan Singer’s highly-lauded X-Men movies, Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman movies, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, among others. The point is that comic books are now taken seriously as an art form, not only in and of themselves, but also as artistic works worthy of investment in adapting them to the big screen. Directors like the above, as well as others like Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, and Guillermo del Toro have committed their talents to comic book and superhero movies.
This leads me to ask: where are the Tim Burtons, Christopher Nolans, and Bryan Singers in the world of video game adaptations? It took 11 years from the first Superman before Burton’s Batman was released, and 22 before Bryan Singer’s X-Men. It’s now been 19 years since Super Mario Bros. Despite the fact that just recently, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. opened an exhibition titled “The Art of Video Games,” video games are still not taken seriously as an art form. There are many reasons for this – even very legitimate ones – and this article is not meant to address that specific debate. But I believe there is an important connection here concerning the acceptance of the medium as an art form by the masses, and the legitimacy and seriousness of their use as a referential and adaptable form for cinema.
Where does this leave us? Is there no real hope that one day, a well-made adaptation of a video game will get produced? I wouldn’t say that. Already, there have been attempts and continue to be attempts to make such films. Famously, Microsoft lobbied major Hollywood studios, including Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox to make a movie of Halo, the blockbuster sci-fi first-person shooter. But Microsoft actually wanted an investment in the quality of the film. Peter Jackson, the man behind the billion dollar-grossing Lord of the Rings films, was signed on to produce, with then-unknown filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (of District 9 fame) signed on to direct. Alex Garland, who had written the script for the much-praised 28 Days Later had written an initial screenplay, which was then rewritten by Oscar nominee Josh Olson and author D.B. Weiss (creator and writer of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones). It’s undeniable that talent was being sought out for the project. And looking at District 9, it seems clear that Blomkamp might have been not simply more than capable of making the movie, but arguably the right man for the job. Alas, contract negotiations stalled the project, which entered development hell and was subsequently canceled. For Blomkamp’s part, he says he’s unlikely to return to the project if it gets up and running again.
Concept art for the Halo movie.
Despite the unfortunate end of this story, it gives a glimmer of hope, because it shows that not everyone is against the investment of real artists in adapting these works. Similarly, a movie of Naughty Dog’s famed Uncharted series is in the works. Though early in development, it holds promise, as Neil Burger is attached to direct (his credits including The Illusionist, a well-received 2006 movie starring Edward Norton as a magician, and Limitless, another moderately well-received movie starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro). What gives me pause are the writers, Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer, whose most recent work as writing team was the remake of Conan the Barbarian, and also includes the total stinkers Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, A Sound of Thunder, and Sahara. Yet Uncharted is the kind of game that seems perfect for a big screen adaptation, influenced heavily in its story, characters, gameplay and tonality, from movies like Indiana Jones. (Why not bring Spielberg himself on as a producer, then?)
Furthermore, a planned movie of the hit first-person shooter BioShock is said to be in development. While early in the process (no director, writer, or cast has been announced), this game also feels like the kind that could be brilliantly put on the big screen. Including not only intriguing characters, a fascinating story, and inspired art direction and environments, the game’s themes are drawn from the writings of authors like Ayn Rand. Its philosophical commentary coupled with its unique setting and story, make it the kind of game truly worth exploring in another medium.
There are other video games that are in the planning stages of being adapted to the big screen, including beloved series like Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect, both of which draw upon cinema in their storytelling and seem suited for adaptation. Yet the reality is that although there is excitement for gamers and those familiar with the series’, the ultimate quality of the movies is anybody’s guess. And given trends thus far, more likely than not to be anywhere between just decent to downright awful. I spoke with Earl Rufus, editor of the website Nerds on the Rocks about why he thought video game adaptations were so painfully subpar. While agreeing with most of my thoughts on the subject, one point he made in particular interested me.
“I think the initial problem is of course the industry/medium is still in its infancy. Which means Hollywood really doesn’t have much respect for it, but I also know a lot of game companies/developers/publishers are just happy to be acknowledged and that they won’t even offer counseling on the projects. I think if you had someone from the creative team at least assisting with parts of the project would help to increase quality” (emphasis added).
Is he right? I think he certainly makes a compelling argument. In the case of the failed Halo movie, Microsoft was pitching and pushing the project itself, and we can see the kind of quality filmmakers were brought on board before the production imploded. If a Metal Gear Solid movie is ever made, series creator Hideo Kojima has made it clear he wants to be fully involved in the production. If game makers want their creations to be respected and well-represented in their transition to cinema, it would do them well to be involved, and not sell off the rights to their games just to make a quick buck. If they truly believe themselves to be artists, they should hold themselves to higher standards, and not be okay with the likes of Uwe Boll handling the material.
Metal Gear Solid, from the PS Vita HD Port
I think that we still have a long way to go before we see a truly great video game adaptation. Still, I don’t think the problems that exist right now need necessarily be there at all. There’s no real need to hire people like Uwe Boll or Paul W.S. Anderson to direct every movie based on a video game. There’s no reason better, more creative, and more artistic directors, writers, and technical crew can’t be brought on board. There’s no reason that the people adapting such works can’t put the same amount of thought, feeling, and investment into their films. And there’s no reason that we, as lovers of cinema, gamers, and everything in between, need to be content with such a low standard. High-quality movies don’t just benefit the cinephiles out there, though. They benefit the creators of the source material, who get to see their work treated with care in the transition to screen. They benefit the average moviegoers who, whether they realize it or not (and don’t underestimate them) get a better overall experience. And they benefit the studios themselves, who show that the integrity of the material need not be compromised by the need for a quick buck; critics and audiences regularly reward quality efforts when they see them. Not to mention, if one movie is so highly received, it opens up the doors to the possibility of more: more movies, more game creators willing to sell the rights to their beloved games, etc.
Sometimes all it takes is that one courageous person willing to take a risk and unwilling to compromise their vision in the hope that the final result will be something people not only will remember, but will want to remember. That person is out there. In the end, it’s just a matter of time before he reveals himself. Hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later.