Being two of the highest grossing industries today, it’s a genuine wonder why there hasn’t been a plethora of successful films based on a video game property. When looking at narrative-driven video games particularly, there are a lot of striking similarities between the two mediums; both are exemplary of excellent forms of characterisation, and rely heavily on the visual aspect to encapsulate the story that is being given to the viewer. Despite this, few adaptations have come close to being considered critically acclaimed releases. When some of the source material available for such films are games that are sold by its narrative, sometimes containing upwards of 30 hours of content, it’s surprising to see ‘The Angry Birds Movie 2’ (2019) is sitting atop of the critics charts on Rotten Tomatoes, boasting a critics rating of currently 73%. With plenty of tools available to potential directors, and no shortage of properties available, with many more becoming available as time passes, why are so many promising film adaptations of successful video game properties failing?
It’s not as if these films have failed to live up to lofty expectations; throughout the years there have been times where they have failed miserably on almost every conceivable level. Being one of the earliest film adaptations of a game in the West, ‘Super Mario Bros’ (1993) tried to produce a satisfying take on a beloved gaming franchise, and ended up completely missing the mark. With horrendous portrayals of characters, having them practically unrecognisable from the game, and basing it in an urban city, devoid of any of the charm fans of Super Mario had come to love, the movie flopped, grossing only $20.9 million domestically, less than half of its $48 million budget.
When discussing terrible video game-based movies, it’s an impossibility to not bring up Uwe Boll. Throughout the early-to-mid 2000’s, Boll was notorious for claiming the film rights of a myriad of video game properties, and producing shoddy, low-budget adaptations, with the sole goal being to make as much of a profit from this practice as possible. Movies like ‘House of the Dead’ (2003) and ‘Far Cry’ (2005), rely too heavily on the franchise’s name power and takes very little from the properties themselves in the films. ‘House of the Dead’ is just a standard zombie survival film, with the only aspects taken from the popular arcade game series being the title. Any plot from these games were omitted, and characters that were taken were used for the sake of a namesake; an established name for a fan to recognise. This was a recurring theme for many films based on games at the time. It wasn’t the case for every film, unfortunately though for every ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ showing some potential for what video game adaptations could be, there was a ‘Postal’ waiting to maintain the low expectation viewers had developed for movies of this genre.
While the top four adaptations on Rotten Tomatoes have all come out in the last few years, it’s only going to become more difficult for directors to do such titles justice on the big screen. The gaming industry has been in a phase of immense growth, and games are becoming more advanced by the year. Games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ and ‘God of War’ boast a ridiculous amount of hours-worth of content in their runtime, and the utilisation of downloadable content means that there is potential for constant expansion. What can a movie do in a two or three-hour runtime that the game didn’t already do in forty?
Expanding on this, games have now reached a stage where they’re practically interactive movies themselves. Games like ‘The Last of Us’ provides the player with an emotional, immersive story where they are the driving force of the narrative. Now, when a comparison is made between the two mediums, film is disadvantaged, having to remove the player’s control over the story that plays a pivotal role in making the game so impactful. While some pieces like ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ show that such interactivity is possible, the hurdle of the shorter runtime available, the disappointing track record, and the advancement gaming has made means that a team with the mission of providing a fulfilling film adaptation of a game faces an arduous task.