Gaming Adaptations Part One: Adapt, Improve, Overcome?

Throughout the history of cinema, filmmakers have always been more than willing to take a stab at adapting beautiful and fully realised worlds from the literary medium, making an attempt to bring the words on the page to life in the best way possible or how they have come to interpret the story that has been laid out before them, whether that be to the benefit or detriment to the story that beauty couldn't be any more in the eye of the beholder.


Although some attempts have been admittedly better received than others, the bevy of stories that have been plucked from literary works has offered up a never ending flow of content, for example the continual stream of adaptations that owe their origins in the mind of the legendary author Stephen King, or fantasy icons J.R.R Tolkien, J.K Rowling or George R.R. Martin is just a small sample size of the mountain of works that have come from the pages of a paperback or hardback novel.


If there is a field to be harvested then studios/creatives will not turn down a chance to reap the benefits of what other people have sewn. This does not find itself in isolation when it comes to literary works, it has also found its way into the world of video games, if there is a ready made fan base---especially a fervent one---then this represents an opportunity too good to turn down for the aforementioned studio execs and creatives.


As time has gone by the popularity of video games has increased exponentially and if there was ever a field with a gigantic yield that is in the need of harvesting then there was none more fruitful than that of the medium of video games. The experience that came to the fore in an arcade setting soon found its way onto the competitive stage before making its way into our homes, captivating us in an entirely different way. It was this captivation that caught the eyes of the big wigs in Hollywood, and they began to wonder if the kid would be willing to swap the arcade for the theatre as the home for his hard earned pocket money.


So they set about trying to figure out a way to get this fervent fan base to trade their joystick for a bucket of popcorn and what better way to do this than make a live action version of the Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros. What could do wrong, right? Is a question I'm sure some slick studio exec asked himself before green lighting the first foray of Hollywood into the world of video game adaptations. Well the answer was a lot, the 1993 film starring Bob Hoskins in the titular role alongside John Leguizamo as Luigi was doomed from the outset.


The not so super origins of the gaming adaptation


The production was marred by a messy creative process, enduring several rewrites before landing in the theatres which led to the final product being an unadulterated catastrophe. The movie has some decent visuals but lacks a coherent narrative and really failed to capture the imagination of the audience in the same way as its source material, even though it was an important event in the histories of both cinema and video games it was unfortunately the start of a trend of adaptations that favoured style over substance when it came to the process of bringing these beloved titles to life in their new medium.


This lack of substance really became an unfortunate backbone for most of the 90s when it came to video games adaptations in Hollywood. The following year after the release of Super Mario came the release of another favourite, that being the Jean-Claude Van Damme led Street Fighter, if one could hold up the perfect example of how not to turn a beat 'em up game into a movie then Street Fighter may just be it. Street Fighter amounted to nothing more than a hollow cash grab, shoehorning the wrong people into the wrong roles at almost every turn, with exception of maybe Raul Julia as the villainous M. Bison.


It was another swing and a miss from Hollywood at bringing these characters from the world of bits and bites to the movie making bright lights. It was as if the camp tone of the movie was how the outdated creatives saw the people that played these games, it was corny and found itself lacking in the same magic that the games had, and maybe that was down to the creators not having the same respect for the material as the ones that birthed the games into life in the first place.


The almost flawless victory


Then a few years went by and a glimmer of hope for gamers around the world came in the shape of the 1995 release of Mortal Kombat. Albeit the movie is extremely from its era, it showed what a beat 'em up game could be on the big screen when the creators stay somewhat true to the source material, the whitewashing of Raiden with Christopher Lambert in the role can not be forgiven but the tone of the movie was definitely in the same vein as the games themselves.


Although it lacked some of the rawness of the games it captured their essence in a way that the adaptation of Street Fighter did not. It showed that staying truer to the material was the course of action, the way forward for how this medium should be handled and we all rejoiced because the world was born anew, or so we thought but we couldn't be any more wrong. The following years would see the release of a sequel to Mortal Kombat in 1997 and Wing Commander in 1999.


The former of which recast most of the characters and failed to come close to the first instalment in what should have been a successful movie franchise, and the latter was penned/directed by its original creator, it was a total flop at the box office and saw an unfortunate return to form for video games in the theatres. As these first entrances into the film world were enduring a turbulent life at sea the video game industry was booming.


The games themselves were not just enjoying an uptick in users but also an uptick in terms of both technological and narrative advancements. One of which helped the other immensely because as the technology improved so did the possibilities in terms of storytelling. This led us all to believe that the more cinematic the games became then they would become easier to adapt to the screen but life is not always so cut and dry.


It would actually become a prevailing theory that the more cinematic the games themselves become then the less they are actually in need of an adaptation to begin with. That the movies find themselves lacking, as the restrictions of the medium in how it differs to the gaming experience prevent the same immersion because the viewer is just that, a viewer, a spectator looking at the world, in place of an explorer venturing through the often times sprawling landscapes, that maybe the voyeuristic nature of movies lacks in its ability to tell these stories that are participatory in their very nature.


Adaptability viability


This hovering question mark in terms of the viability of video game adaptations would go on into the next decade and 2001 saw the release of the movie adaptation of the legendary Tomb Raider herself with Angelina Jolie in the role of Lara Croft. The middling reception to this generic action movie has been a hallmark of its existence and its follow up Lara Croft: Cradle of Life was not much better, the first outing has become extremely dated and its sequel has pretty much faded into obscurity.


The year after Tomb Raider's release another fan favourite franchise would get the big screen treatment. In 2002 Paul W.S Anderson would make a go at adapting the Capcom horror stalwart Resident Evil. A game that brought a new spin to the classic zombie trope and was a pioneer for the new and more cinematic age of gaming. What could go wrong? There is that a question again, surely a game that had mass fan appeal and a excellent story behind it made for ripe picking when it came time to bring it to its new medium, surely the ground work that had been so expertly laid would be used as a zombie laden yellow brick road for the creator to guide this franchise to the big screen but as I mentioned before life isn't so cut and dry.


Instead of adapting the beautifully macabre narratives that the Resident Evil games have contained within them, Anderson would forgo much of the source material, creating an almost entirely new world, with the exception of a few small bits of fan service thrown in here and there. The franchise is undoubtedly a box office success over the course of half a dozen instalments but it never came close to capturing what made Resident Evil so unique in the first place, favouring a more straight forward action type feel, abandoning the chills for thrills which missed the point totally of what really lay at the core of the Resident Evil experience.


False dawn or good start?


Although the release of both Tomb Raider and Resident Evil weren't the coup the grace for the gaming industry we hoped it would be, instead, it was a very good start, even if they lacked the same magic of the games they both faired well in the box office, helping the gaming industry to gain an ever so important foothold in the film industry, garnering their own set of fans along with the trickle down from both franchises original fan bases. After nearly two decades of existence neither of the two entries got better with age but they weren't a death nail into either franchise as there will be new life breathed into both further down the road in terms of the 2018 Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander and the upcoming Netflix CG anime Resident Evil series.


The following years would see a little barren spell outside of the aforementioned Tomb Raider sequel and the follow-up from the Milla Jovovich led Resident Evil franchise with Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Then in consecutive years we would see the release of two other icons from the world of gaming, that being the 2005 action/horror Doom starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban and the 2006 horror Silent Hill starring Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean, both of which strayed---the latter far less than the former---from the source material and were met with a lot of so so's on arrival.


Doom is an above average action movie but once again took away the major component of what made the games so compelling, swapping out the demons and hell aspect of it all, favouring aliens and genetic hybrids in their place. This was probably an unnecessary change but at least it was a direction taken wholeheartedly and it was a fun experience, even if it gave the movie a shorter half life than the games themselves, which have been popular for decades now.


Silent Hill on the other hand shared much of its tone with its source material---apart of a few narrative alterations---it is a stunningly grotesque movie and definitely catches some of that same thing that made the games so special. It also instilled a real sense of fear in the viewer in the same way the games do, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. Although the reaction to its release was not monumental it definitely had the makings of the first entrance into a franchise, as many a franchise has been born from far less but the chance of a fully fleshed out Silent Hill franchise were scuppered with the sequel Silent Hill: Revelations several years later, which was panned on release from all quarters.


After over a decade in cinemas, gaming adaptations were faltering badly aside from the success of the Resident Evil movie franchise. The success of which led many other filmmakers to abandon the source material in favour of their own visions, not unlike what occurred in the literary world, the stories from the games themselves where now opened more for interpretation. This led to an unfortunate slew of bad titles hitting the theatres.


When 2007 came around the Resident Evil franchise continued to churn out movies, reaching trilogy status at this stage with Resident Evil: Extinction. 2007 also saw the release of Hitman, with Timothy Olyphant as the bald headed Agent 47, to say Hitman came and went without much attention would be the understatement of the year. It was another generic action movie that failed to resonate with not just its own fan base but also the new audience it tried to attract. It's lack of interest would lay the Hitman franchise in a state of dormancy for several years until Rupert Friend took the lead in the sequel/reboot Hitman: Agent 47 in 2015, but that too failed to impress.


The lack of interest in both of these movies is quite intriguing, the games themselves are ready made for adaptation but this might be a sign of growing fatigue for this genre as a whole, with many people getting their fix for this type of movie from the plethora of James Bond and Mission Impossible movies or the Bourne franchise. The successes of these franchises leave very little room for anything else of a similar mould, and this is becoming more and more evident as the years go by.


The year after was the turn for another beloved game to take its bow on the big stage, in the October of 2008 Mark Wahlberg would take on the lead role as Max Payne, a gritty detective that was in search of vengeance for his slain family. After massive alterations during production and many rewrites, what should have been a slam dunk turned into a supernatural snore fest that borders on the unwatchable.


The following year would come and go with just Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li being the only entry from the gaming world, which couldn't be any more forgettable and disappeared from our memories as quickly as it came into them. It was released with very little fanfare and was met with almost no excitement whatsoever, feeling something akin to the Daredevil sequel Elektra. An uneventful movie with a less than inspiring story, once again an attempt to adapt Street Fighter fell flat on its face, landing squarely in the bargain basket at all the retail stores.


Is this Halo to the future of gaming adaptations or good bye?


So with the persistent floundering of video game adaptations in the cinemas everyone was crying out for something to be done, something to catch the imagination, something in the guise of a big summer blockbuster that would have the truest of crossover appeal. That public outcry was almost quelled four years prior in 2005 with the news of Fox's and Universal's joint acquisition of the film rights to Halo, the largest jewel in the Microsoft crown. It had a script penned by Alex Garland and Microsoft initially wanted The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to helm the piece, but he came on in a producing role with newcomer---at that time---Neill Blomkamp sitting in the directors chair in his stead. What should have been an occasion on par with any major release in the history of cinema instead ended up being the one that got away.


Unfortunately for everyone involved, the creative process for Halo was extremely fraught with tension, the cited cause being that Microsoft didn't have a great understanding of the film industry and the studio execs did not like the vision that Blomkamp had concocted. The South African director is known for his gritty nuts and bolts style of bringing worlds to life which didn't mesh well with the vision from the higher ups, especially Tom Rothman who had a real dislike for Blomkamp's post-cyberpunk style, the director believing that Rothman wanted a more generic action blockbuster, which Blomkamp had no interested in making.


Adding all of these things up it is no surprise that the juggernaut that is Halo never made it past the developmental stage and onto our screens in a whole new way. Blomkamp later stated that he believed it was a generational void that saw the prospect of the Halo movie being squashed, that the money men didn't have the same understanding of the source material as he had, having grown up playing the games himself. This harkens back to something I mentioned earlier, that the ones creating the movie adaptations lacked the same reverence for the work as the ones who created it and now that also branches out into the new generation of filmmakers that grew up as gamers.


The collapse of the Halo movie was the perfect example of how the wheels of change slowly turn and even though a new generation of filmmakers just lay over the horizon, it was the same old, jaded studio execs that still called the shots so for the time being their vision is what would make it to the screen, so Halo fell to the wayside and what was offered up in its place was the same old schlock that had been indicative of the previous decade in terms adaptations of video games. Gaming adaptations had now surpassed the 15 year old mark by this stage and the future looked somewhat bleak, but as I mentioned there was a new generation of creators coming and how that would affect the future landscape for gaming adaptations remained to be seen.


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