How Hollywood can make a truly great video game movie
Need for Speed is the latest in a long string of disappointing big-screen video game adaptations — but there's plenty of room for improvement
If you want to know how Hollywood feels about movies based on video games, look no further than Aaron Paul, who stars in the video game–based Need for Speed. "I didn't even want to read the script," conceded Paul in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "I saw the script, and I was like, 'Oh, no, another video game movie'...… So it took everything in me to turn the first page."
Based on the critical reaction to Need for Speed, his first instinct might have been the right one: Need for Speed has earned a scathing 24 percent positive reviews for its "stock characters" and "preposterous plot."
Believe it or not, that dismal 24 percent actually makes Need for Speed one of the better-reviewed video game movies in history, above peers like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Doom, and Max Payne. But damning with faint praise is the best I can do, since it turns out there has never been a movie based on a video game that earned more than 50 percent positive reviews. In the parlance of aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, that means critics have deemed no video game–based movie worth seeing.
At a time when Hollywood is more obsessed than ever with tracking down guaranteed hits, the video game industry — which actually earns more money than Hollywood every year — should be the safest bet in the world. But Hollywood has produced a single durable video game franchise: the Resident Evil series, which barely resembles the video games on which it's purportedly based (and which has been slammed by critics since day one).
What will it take to make a video game adaptation that will score with critics and audiences alike? To answer that question, let's take a trip through the genre's infamously terrible history:
Choose the right game to adapt
When Hollywood first tested the waters of video game adaptations in 1993, it picked a title that seemed like a can't-miss proposition: Super Mario Bros., which was primed for a tentpole summer release. The Mario games were universally adored, and the franchise was at the height of its mainstream popularity (a Q score survey at the time revealed that Mario was more recognizable to American children than Mickey Mouse).
What could go wrong? As anyone who's even remotely familiar with the Mario games could have told you, pretty much everything. Portly, personality-free Mario makes for a perfect gaming avatar, but he loses much of his charm when you slap a pair of overalls on Bob Hoskins. The game's uninspired story — the princess has been kidnapped, run right until you save her — offers no material for a compelling film. And the deep weirdness of Super Mario World — with its warp pipes, marching turtles, mushrooms that make you grow, and flowers that make you shoot fireballs — offers a set of rules that works for a game, but seems positively psychedelic on film. The Super Mario Bros. movie was an ugly, creepy, incomprehensible mess, displeasing both mainstream audiences and fans of the video game.
But despite that early failure, Hollywood continues to choose its source material based on popularity. Is the crash-friendly Need for Speed really the most fertile ground for a character-driven movie? Is there anything about Angry Birds that offers a story worth telling on film? If you want to make a good movie that's based on a video game, choose a game with a story that lends itself naturally to film. The ongoing development of a movie based on Metal Gear Solid — a game with a structure and scale that consciously emulates cinematic tropes — is a hopeful sign that Hollywood is beginning to catch on.
Invest some real money in the project
One advantage that video games have over live action-movies: Video game designers have a lot of leeway to build their worlds. If a development team decides, say, that they want their space marine to fight a wide variety of aliens on a lush, tropical ring world, there's little to stop them from doing it. But the same setting — which would require extensive CGI and green screen work — would drive the cost of a blockbuster movie exponentially higher.
However, there is a significant precedent for this kind of project: Comic-book movies. Studios routinely spend well over $100 million on comic book adaptations — even on titles with relatively small fan followings like Cowboys and Aliens ($163 million) and R.I.P.D. ($130 million). It would be just as challenging to adapt Halo as Marvel's upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, but only the latter is happening — and on paper, Halo is a much safer bet.
On the first day of its release, Halo 4 earned $220 million in sales — a number that's higher than any film premiere gross in history. In 2012, Microsoft reported that the Halo franchise had earned more than $3 billion in worldwide sales. But despite those extraordinarily promising signs, studios have repeatedly balked at the budget for a proposed Halo film, which has ranged from $100 million to $145 million during its decade in development hell. To be fair, Microsoft had other extreme demands for the Halo movie, including creative control and merchandise rights, but it's clear that the budget has remained a sticking point.
Given the previous failures of the genre — and particularly pricey entries, like the $200 million Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — it's no surprise that Hollywood is gun-shy. But if Hollywood studios are to have any chance of attracting mainstream blockbuster audiences to a big-screen video game adaptation, they'll need to get comfortable with spending mainstream blockbuster money on them.
Hire people who actually care about video games
Against the critical grain, I thought the first Silent Hill movie was actually pretty good — and that's largely because director Christophe Gans actually wanted to make a Silent Hill movie. Gans spent five years trying to obtain the film rights to the series, and when he did, he made sure his film felt like a logical extension of the Silent Hill universe. Much of the film's score was culled directly from the games, most of its iconic monsters appeared, and Gans even kept a copy of the original game running on set in order to ensure he was accurately capturing its camera angles.
But when you branch away from movies based on a specific video game, there's an even better example: Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, which won over mainstream audiences with a compelling story, and scored extra points with gamers by packing the frame with loving winks to video game history. It was more than just cameos from Sonic the Hedgehog and Pac-Man; it was an overall attention to detail that included references to everything from Final Fantasy 7 to Metal Gear Solid, and a knowledge of arcade culture that went as far as ending the film on a kill screen. That kind of commitment takes passion — and if you hire passionate people, you're far more likely to get a movie that captures the essence of what made the video game work in the first place.
Make a good movie first and a good adaptation second
If you've followed the last three pieces of advice, you're well on your way to making a good video game adaptation — but now it's time to focus on making a good movie, full stop. A recent, fascinating story at Polygon offers a deep dive into the troubled production of 1994's legendarily awful Street Fighter: The Movie. When faced with the task of converting the fighting game's nonlinear story into a coherent movie, screenwriter-director Steven de Souza convinced Capcom that "seven is the number of characters an audience can keep in its head at any time" — which meant that half of the game's fighters wouldn't appear at all.
So far, so good. But after initially agreeing to use only half the game's fighting roster in Street Fighter: The Movie, Capcom successfully pressured de Souza to add no less than eight more characters from the game before production began — a number that works out to about six minutes of screen time per character. There are many, many reasons that Street Fighter: The Movie turned out to be a disaster, but its failure was assured as soon as the game's characters took precedence over its story.
Fan service has its value, and there's no point in making a movie based on a video game if you're going to throw out everything that was interesting about the game in the first place. But at some point, the creative team needs to take the lessons they've learned, put the controllers down, and figure out how to distill the interactive, discursive experience of playing a video game into a focused, narrative film.
Need for Speed may not be the movie to make Hollywood treat video games with as much reverence as they do comic books — but there are other video game–based movies, in various stages of development, that could be the game changers both industries need. Moon director Duncan Jones was the perfect choice to helm a movie based on World of Warcraft, which is scheduled for release in 2016. The Last of Us — a story-driven, post-apocalyptic action game that many deemed the best video game of 2013 — is a promising choice for a feature film. Sly Cooper, which is based on a game series that's a little like a Disney-fied Ocean's Eleven, seems like perfect fodder for a children's animated movie.
It's been frustrating watching Hollywood fumble its video game adaptations for more than two decades, but it's encouraging that the studios haven't stopped trying, and that adaptations on the horizon seem to be far more promising than BloodRayne or Hitman. I suspect we're not far from the day when mainstream audiences line up for a video game adaptation as eagerly as Star Wars or Iron Man — and once Hollywood sees the full potential, it will find a whole universe of untapped stories worth telling.