The first time I encountered 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” film, I felt a mix of delight and soul-crushing disgust. If you’ve ever looked at Bob Hoskins — Smee from “Hook” and Eddie Valiant in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” — and thought to yourself, “Put him in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and make him fight dinosaurs in Brooklyn,” then maybe you’d like the movie. However, I think the film’s current 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes might persuade you otherwise.
“Super Mario Bros.” is only one in a long lineage of bad video game movies, and I would certainly consider it the poster boy of such films. There’s the 2002 “Resident Evil” film with its 33 Metacritic score, or “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li,” which was released in 1999 and grossed $12.8 million against its $50 million budget. And who could forget 2016’s “Assassin’s Creed,” which holds an 18% score on Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer. All four of the listed movies come from some of the most popular video game franchises of all time, so they should have the creative teams and fan support to make incredible, successful films. Yet these and so many others fall embarrassingly short of becoming box office successes — where do we keep going wrong?
Sometimes it’s a lack or excess of lore within a game’s universe. Some video games may be too complex, and others simply may not lend their characters or stories well to the big screen. Some video game movies forgo the creative teams that made the games brilliant, forget their source material and fail to pay homage to the games from which they come. They actively spurn the fandoms that made a movie adaptation possible in the first place. It is also difficult to turn a video game, an inherently interactive medium based on the player’s ability to control characters and events, into a more passive movie medium and still make it enjoyable to a gamer audience. So there you have it: a good video game movie is not possible. The medium is doomed.
But fear not, dear reader. In light of these issues and with plenty of research and staring at a wall, I have compiled what I believe to be the definitive guide on how to make a good video game movie. In five easy steps, I am going to solve all of Hollywood’s current problems with video game adaptations. So listen up Justin Kurzel and call Michael Fassbender, because I’m about to single-handedly revive that cancelled “Assassin’s Creed” sequel.
First, pick a game prepared for adaptation and play to its strengths.
Choosing a video game to adapt into a film doesn’t necessarily mean picking the most popular game, hence “Super Mario Bros.,” but picking “a game with a story that lends itself naturally to film.” These are games that already have established plots, structures, characters and settings that make it easier to create believable spinoffs and plots within the same universe. This does, of course, raise questions as to how films like “Assassin’s Creed” failed when the games have already established an expansive world and well-developed series of storylines. However, that film was also critiqued for leaning too heavily into the Animus plot set during the future, rather than the parts of the film set during the Granada War. The future elements of the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise are admittedly the more boring parts of the games, and are neither the main strength of the games nor the most adaptable elements of them. Even a quick scroll through the film’s Google reviews will reveal that reviewers find that the modern stories are not “an interesting concept in the games in general, but disregarding that, the modern story here is incredibly bland and uninteresting.” The “Assassin’s Creed” film was based on a readily adaptable game, but it did not lean into what makes the games memorable and unique — the history and the action — and ought to be a lesson to future video game adaptations as to what should and shouldn’t be included in the films.
Second, include members of the game’s original team in the filming process.
I’m talking about the writers, the developers, the composers, the animators and, perhaps most importantly of all, the actors. Actors, whether motion capture or voice, are integral to the games they are involved in. They have a tendency to become a major part of the fan culture and the face or voice of a game. Just like film actors, they can be easily recognizable key elements of the projects they are involved in and, just like film actors, it becomes difficult to convincingly replace them in reboots or remakes of those projects. Take Chris Pratt being cast over Charles Martinet in the upcoming “Super Mario Bros” film. Chris Pratt is not what fans are used to, but he is a big Hollywood name. Still, that didn’t stop public upheaval over the casting decision because Pratt is not what made the “Super Mario Bros” franchise special in the first place. Part of what had made the Italian plumber so memorable in modern history is the voice of Charles Martinet, and to see him so blatantly cut out of the film has already set up the movie for some modicum of failure.
And it isn’t just actors — video game movies need to hire the writers, artists and developers that created the games upon which the film is based. These are the people who know the game most intimately. They know the world of the game, where it might go, what it ought to look like and how to put together a story that could feasibly exist within its established universe. If there’s anyone that could adapt a video game into a rich film that also pays service to its fans, it’s the people that made the video game in the first place. Riot Games did this when the television show “Arcane,” based on the video game series “League of Legends,” released late last year. Christian Linke and Alex Yee are two of the showrunners for “Arcane” and they have also been members of the “League of Legends” creative team for over ten years. “Arcane” currently boasts a 100% score on the Tomatometer. The “Arcane” team was smart — Linke and Yee know the franchise and the fans, and with that comes a certain knowledge of how best to serve their audience while creating a story that transfers well from game to television screen.
Third, stick to the lore — but not too strictly.
Video game adaptations differ from book adaptations in that video games are already visual. Some can function as films in their own right when it comes to plot, characters and use of cutscenes. The danger in these elements comes out when filmmakers attempt to directly move a game’s scenes to the big screen. While there is something to be said for copying the occasional scene as a form of fan service, filmmakers ought to be warned that this won’t work for an entire video game-to-film rendering. Fans have already played through the game. They’ve experienced, lived and even caused the events of video games because they are interactive. To see what one has already done and experienced in a passive format like a movie borders on being boring for viewers. Earlier this month, Sony released a full fight scene from the upcoming “Uncharted” movie, and the scene is a direct rip from the third “Uncharted” game. This is the only scene I hope to see brought over completely from the games. It pays homage to an iconic fight scene, which is usually fun for an audience that truly loves a game. But for films, I also argue that it is more important to stick to the essence of a game and weave its most-loved lore into a fresh story to avoid becoming a tired rendering of what fans have already seen.
Fourth, lay on the Easter Eggs.
I want them. I want Easter Eggs in every single film I see that is based on something else. I love them — every time I see one, I turn into that Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme. As you can tell, this is a very personal joy, so you are welcome to disagree with me, but I have always thought that Easter Eggs provide a lot of fan service in very small packages. For devoted fans, Easter Eggs can be incredibly meaningful, blink-and-you-miss-it moments that they’ll be pointing out to their friends every time they watch the movie afterward.
Finally, respect your audience.
This point is, essentially, a combination of every other point I’ve made. Gamers are hardcore. They want their fandoms to be represented just as well as any book or comic lover, and they deserve that representation just as much as the others. I understand that video games are not always considered as prestigious a medium as books or films, but that should not discount them from fair and proper treatment of their characters and storylines. This rings true for fans as well — video game fans are not less intelligent or refined than avid readers or filmmakers. What they are, though, is just as passionate. So if someone wants to take a swing at making a box office-shattering video game movie, then remember the audience to which you are catering. They will make or break you.
There are lots of video games that I think would make incredible movies. “The Legend of Zelda” or “Horizon Zero Dawn” or even “Metroid” are some of my top picks. However, any future game-based project would have to be cautious moving forward. While I do feel that we are on the brink of entering an age of truly incredible video game movies — shoutout to “Detective Pikachu” and “Sonic the Hedgehog” — I maintain the belief that something has to change. We have to recognize that video games are interactive and films are passive. It will be difficult to please everyone in the transition between media, but even a few of the steps above will make it smoother. I want to see more video games become films, but it must be done with love and respect for the source material. My hopes are high for the upcoming “Uncharted” movie, but even if my optimism is misplaced, it’s okay. After all, we still have “Super Mario Bros.” to look forward to.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.