It is not hard to believe that the video game industry is the most profitable entertainment industry in the world worth an estimated $120 billion. In comparison, the film industry box office took $40 billion in 2019. It would be easy to think that, with these revenue streams reaching astronomical heights, there would be a strong symbiotic relationship between the two art forms. However, it is universally recognised that both film adaptions of video games and video games based on movies are perceived as sub-par when compared to independently driven properties. Surely the issue is more convoluted than the industries believing rabid fan-bases will invest their money into certain products no matter the quality? Well no, unfortunately it is that simple.
Licensed games of their movie counterparts
Looking into game adaptations of movies – specifically those with the licenses to the relevant movie franchise, it is easy to see that game development companies win the rights to new blockbuster movie adaptations. They sit safe in the knowledge that no matter the quality of product they put out, the hype surrounding the film will ultimately get them a certain degree of organic sales. The intimacies of fine-tuning the final product may not be as critical an issue as it would be on independent titles.
Film distributors will also put added pressure on the game developers to adhere to a completion deadline which coincides with the release of the film. Because the film’s plot is, for the most part, in secrecy for fear of spoilers the developers are more than likely given more of a guideline for the film instead of a full synopsis. At times A-list actors of the film won’t agree to their likeness being portrayed in game or they won’t contribute to in-game voice acting, leading to substitutes who sometimes don’t sound like their counterparts. All the aforementioned issues create an an unmitigated mess.
There have been some notable exceptions to these rules. GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 was heralded on release and, even though it has not aged as well as we remember, it’s still seen as one of the greatest games of it’s time. One of the worst superhero films ever made, (in my opinion) X-Men Origins Wolverine, made for a surprisingly fun and extremely violent game adaption. Alien Isolation was a surprising hit and, all the way back to the fourth generation consoles, Disney games such as Aladdin and Lion King are also very enjoyable to play and have seen recent re releases in 2019. Unfortunately these gems are few and far between and don’t tip the scales.
Just looking at games such as Charlie’s Angels and Catwoman on the PS2, and the infamous E.T. The Extraterrestrial on the Atari 2600 highlights the amazing lack in quality. We all know the story regarding E.T. The Extraterrestrial – a game so bad that unsold copies of the game were buried in a desert landfill. Looking at the many iterations of games based on Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bad Boys, Rambo, Predator, Terminator, and the absolute glut of rubbish churned out by developer LJN for the NES in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it is clear to see that they were cheaply made for a quick buck.
Film adaptations of video games
So, why do films based on video games fail? The short answer is “Uwe Boll”, but it would be too easy to place all the blame on him. Games do not make well-received transitions to the big screen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes filmmaker’s like to use the basis of the game as a foundation to the film, but want to put their own twist on things, just like they do with novelisation adaptions. This may be down to the fact that a video game that lasts an estimated 20, 40 or 80 hours needs to be streamlined to fit into a 2 hour film.
This process can make the movie seem forced, rushed and certain elements are noticeably removed. There is also an issue with regurgitation – meaning a viewer will not want to see all the cinematic cut-scenes duplicated just to make a movie out of a successful story-line. The casting can also be a major factor in the success and failure of the symbiotic relationship between movies and games. Video games in the current generation are more cinematic than they have ever been before. Actors likenesses and voices are imposed into the games themselves and having different actors portraying the characters in the film can seem strange – sometimes to the point that they look more like they’re cosplaying at Comic-Con.
Budgetary reasons could also be at play with studios unwilling to take a gamble, especially with the mass failings that have already occurred with this transitional medium. Sometimes the case is that some games just can’t truly be adapted to an on-screen variant. The Super Mario Bros. movie had to deviate far away from it’s source material because the world of the 2D side-scrolling platformer couldn’t transition into live action. This forced the filmakers to go down the more dystopian and gritty setting for the viewers experience and, despite it having a cult following, it has been universally panned by critics and fans alike.
Probably the most successful and well known video game movie franchise is the Resident Evil series of films starring Mila Jovovic. Despite the success, the deviations between the games and films was still majorly prominent from the opening scene of the first film, where we’re introduced to Jovovic’s character of Alice – a character not presented in the 25 games to-date.
Looking at other adaptations over time, the Angelina Jolie-fronted Tomb Raider films were underwhelming and the aforementioned Uwe Boll disasters, such as House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark, are disrespectful messes that are insulting to the fans of the respecting franchises.
Probably the most loyal adaption is the Alicia Vikander rebooted Tomb Raider film which seemed well casted, well written and looks like it could have been an entry in the game series itself. It’s possibly this blueprint that Hollywood needs to look at when they decide to adapt a game to the big screen.
With gaming being more cinematic and well written than ever with recent masterpieces such as The Last of Us Part II, film adaptions aren’t needed or craved as much as they once were. The same applies to gaming adaptations. Stories can easily be told independently with a creative team of talented artists crafting games to their own visions instead of a watered down movie baseline.
By all means enjoy both mediums, but enjoy them away from each other.