With Warcraft charging into cinemas this week, I decided to look back at the history of video game movies and why Hollywood has such a hard time translating them onto the big screen.
It’s become something of a punchline in recent times, but the cold, hard truth is indisputable; in over 20 years of trying, we’ve yet to see a truly great film adapted from a video game. For whatever reason, video games have always struggled to translate well to the silver screen, and even though the industry has poured millions of dollars into trying to crack the code, they’ve remained unsuccessful.
That’s not to say all video game movies are terrible; the two Tomb Raider films are enjoyable enough, but that’s more or less where the list ends. That’s it. 20 years and all we have to show for it are two mediocre action movies featuring a young pistol-wielding Angelina Jolie.
So far, the best video game movies aren’t actually video game movies. They’re movies that lovingly borrow ideas and motifs from video games and seamlessly interweave them into the narrative in a way that compliments the story. Look no further than Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. Both employ video game imagery and tropes without actually basing their story on any one single video game, and both were well received by audiences and critics alike.
The reason we see so many direct video game adaptations fail is that they’re often treated as cheap, disposable cash-grabs that only exist to make a quick buck. Look no further than Sony’s recent adaptation of Angry Birds or the upcoming Fruit Ninja movie (yes, that is a real thing that is actually happening). I mean, c’mon – what’s next? Temple Run? Candy Crush? Farmville? Shit, better not give them ideas…
We’re on the brink of an influx of video game movies that will either make or break the genre; Duncan Jones’ Warcraft arrives this week whilst Assassin’s Creed swings into cinemas around Christmas. Will either of these direct adaptions buck the trend? Early word on Warcraft suggests not, but maybe that’s because the whole industry is doing it wrong.
Imagine if Hollywood studios greenlit adaptations of video games and actually took the time to understand their lore and backstories. Picture a world where adaptations of The Witcher, Dark Souls or The Elder Scrolls were produced with the same love and arduous craftsmanship as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga. Their universes already draw heavily from J.R.R Tolkein’s fantasy epic – why not treat them with the same sincerity and gravitas as Jackson?
Maybe we’re approaching this all wrong. Maybe we don’t need video game movies, period. After all, the best video games are already inherently cinematic; anyone who has played Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series have experienced this first-hand. The series is a perfect blend of likeable characters, smooth cinematic visuals, adventure storytelling and gripping gameplay that isn’t just as good as a film – it’s better! Why would we need to see Uncharted replicated on the big screen when we can just boot up Among Thieves for the sixteenth time?
A game doesn’t have to become a film to cement its legacy in our collective cultural zeitgeist; there’s a reason that Empire Magazine described The Last of Us as gaming’s ‘Citizen Kane’ moment. It’s peerless storytelling and character-driven narrative surpasses most movies in the last decade, let alone video games.
Until the industry dedicates itself to producing accurate, well-crafted films, video game adaptations are doomed to fail. Unless they stop fucking around with shit like a Tetris trilogy (seriously, how would that even work?!), audiences will continue to reject bastardized versions of their beloved properties. There are great stories out there waiting to be adapted; it’s just that somehow no one has got it right yet.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox