Film and video games have had an interesting relationship, to say the least. Both mediums have experienced judgment for being new and unknown after being initially created. It’s famously known that one of the first films to be shown, The Arrival of a Train by the Lumière Brothers, comes with an urban legend that the film is believed to have sent the audience running away in fear. In the early years of cinema, many were still unsure of this new medium and judged it unfairly.
Naturally, video games have experienced the same. Throughout the years, most games have battled with the misconception that video games can lead to violence and that people shouldn’t play them. Many politicians have tried to link violent acts to video games despite there being contradictory evidence stating otherwise.
It’s safe to say that these two mediums have been misunderstood and have a lot in common – but why can they not find a suitable balance. Films based on video games are almost always terrible and complete letdowns for fans. Both mediums have their own masterpieces and devoted fans but somehow rarely come together for the ultimate project.
So why do movie adaptations of video games always flop? This article will dissect video game movies and see exactly where they went wrong.
The first video game movies
It’s well known that the Super Mario Bros. film starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo was a universal flop. Not only did the film bomb at the box office, but critics absolutely hated it. Throughout the years, it’s grown a cult following but still remains as one of the worst video game movies ever made.
What many people don’t know is that this was the first ever film adapted from a video game. Depressingly, it set a poor landmark for these films and arguably doomed video game movies. The 1994 Street Fighter film fared a little better at the box office but remained a flop with fans and critics. Video game movies almost had a shining beacon with the first Mortal Kombat film but sadly it just wasn’t quite right.
Why did these films fail?
Video games are an experience for the player. Whilst there may be a linear story, players can decide on how they actually get there. You cannot do that with movies. There will always be just one path in the films’ journey and that’s something that films cannot change.
This added with incredible designs of mechanics and more time into the story is why movie adaptations often fail. They are continuously competing with video games that can be way over the standard 2 hour film format.
Adaptations like the Super Mario Bros. tried to turn a 2D platform game into a dark story. It’s appreciated that the directors tried to do something completely different but deviated too far from what fans expected. The casting choice in the film was perfection with Bob Hoskins as Mario but the world was too dark compared to its source material. Nintendo were so disappointed with the film that they were completely put off to do another live-action adaptation for almost 26 years until Detective Pikachu released.
Other adaptations like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were faithful to their sources in terms of characters and overall story – but it still wasn’t quite right. Ironically, they were too close to being like a video game which can seem odd in a film. The over the top fighting and dialogue comes off as goofy and cheesy rather than fun. Fight scenes may look impressive but struggled to find the balance needed for films.
In a dream world, movie adaptations of video games would be created by fans of the source material to create something wholly unique. The reality is big studios seeing the success of these games and wanting to get in on the profit. Directors of the Super Mario Bros. movie, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, expressed their frustrations about the changes forced on them throughout the production.
You’d think after the train wreck of the Super Mario Bros. film that filmmakers would learn from previous mistakes. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Alone in the Dark turned a survival horror game into a sex-crazed campy movie. Doom took a first-person game where you play a nameless protagonist and turned it into a film with complicated characters and a serious tone. These are just a few of the many movie adaptations of video games that strayed from the source material.
2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog got off to a bad start with the monstrosity of the Sonic design but turned it around after an estimated $5 million redesign. Arguably, the best of the bunch is Sonic the Hedgehog as it did reasonably well at the box office with a sequel in development. It did flop with critics who saw the plot as derivative or as a film with shameless corporate tie-ins. Hollywood studios clearly saw the monetary gain of the franchise and put an abundance of product placements in – showing their dedication to profit rather than a faithful film.
That raises the biggest question of how would they even make a fully faithful Sonic the Hedgehog film. In simple terms, they could never make an accurate and faithful adaptation as Sonic games are platforming puzzle games. The excitement comes from overcoming challenges – which you’ll never have control over when you are watching a film. To make it appealing to game fans and newcomers, they’d have to keep in tone with the Sonic brand whilst being a self-parody. Providing something for fans of the original whilst showing the best parts of Sonic to others.
The reverse is just as bad
Of course, there are some fantastic movies that have been expanded into video games such as Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and the iconic GoldenEye 007. Despite a few notable examples, movies turned into video games can be just as catastrophic as movie adaptations. The video game adaptation of E.T was so notoriously bad that the developers at Atari buried the cartridges to get rid of them.
Most recently, the Fast & Furious Crossroads game was an utter trainwreck. Developers thought that they could get away with awful graphics and bad storylines ultimately showing that translating material across mediums needs great attention to detail. The brand alone cannot carry a product as consumers are not stupid.
It’s no surprise that people want better value and won’t settle for less. If the developers took what made the Fast & Furious franchise good such as the extravagant car chases and bonds of family – perhaps the game would’ve been better received. The video game made a knock-off version of these elements which ultimately disappointed everyone.
What needs to change
What is clear is that a huge majority of filmmakers and studios don’t fully understand the audiences attached to video games. They recognize certain audiences but fail to see why fans adore specific video games so much.
Paul W. S. Anderson directed the Resident Evil film series and got some things right such as the casting of certain characters and the environments. He made a huge mistake in taking away from those beloved characters and giving the story to his own original character Alice. Fan favourite moments belonging to Claire Redfield and Jill Valentine were suddenly thrown towards Alice and invalidating their experiences in the games. Anderson thought he could get away with throwing in references to the games rather than realizing what fans loved about the series.
In this sense, he needed to find the balance between staying close to the source material whilst not straying too far. Understanding that video games give players control and recognizing that they cannot be replicated fully. This should be substituted with the epic moments from games but being built up so the payout is satisfying. For example, the animosity between Wesker and Chris in the films is barely explained – but we are expected to know their past. A great adaptation would’ve built on this instead of focusing on other elements.
Gamers are the furthest thing from stupid and can see things like this from a mile away. There’s no denying that making a movie is hard, but if comics can be adapted into universally loved films like The Avengers – then video games should be given the same treatment. You wouldn’t be expected to care about Luke Skywalker’s father-twist without knowing his journey and the context of the story – video game adaptations should be the same.
Despite directors and producers struggling to create high-quality films based on video games, slot developers such as NetEnt have enjoyed great success adapting video games. If other mediums can do this, then why can’t film do the same? It’s insane that films have struggled so much to create a universally loved movie adaptation of a video game.
For video game movies to be magnificent, filmmakers need to put in the same amount of care and effort they would with any other film. To understand the target audience and find the balance in bringing video games to the silver screen. This doesn’t mean copying it exactly – but translating it to the screen so that existing fans can recognise the source whilst bringing in new fans. It should be closer to an homage rather than a clone and that’s what films are getting wrong.
The future of movie adaptations does look promising with Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Uncharted, and Borderlands – so let’s hope that these adaptations take note. Movie adaptations of video games have gotten better but they are still closer to flops than successes. With the growth of video games and the stigma of violence attached gradually reducing, hopefully, they’ll be some outstanding adaptations within the next few years. Only time will tell, but hopefully, the stereotype that movie adaptations of video games always flop will eventually die down.