Adaptable – Why Video Game Adaptations Fail

I love adaptations, let me say that straight away. Even the bad ones, for me, reveal something about the original work that I may have missed or at the very least you see big, shiny robots fight other big, shiny robots. Despite my love, there have been no video game to film adaptations that could be described as great. Why do other adaptations work? Comics have been particularly fertile ground recently, but books, plays and even poems have been turned into successful and interesting films. Why not video games? Games themselves are more cinematic than ever so you’d think its easy to make a good movie based on a video game, right?

The Problem of Interpretation

The Joel Schumacher Batman films were not true sequels to the Tim Burton Batman Films or adaptations of the contemporary comics, they were trying to emulate the anarchic, over-the-top pantomime of the 60’s television show.1 Their failure to meet the canon established by Burton or Miller and the increasingly grim and gritty comic writers that followed in their wake, was part of the reason the first film was not critically well received and why they were ignored when Batman was re-booted to great success in 2005.

Once you release a movie, comic, book or any other work, you don’t get to make a statement explaining why you made the choices you made or to justify the tone and content of your work. Or if you do, its something that the watcher needs to search for or actively pursue; if you’re lucky a viewer might read your blog or listen to the DVD commentary, but this is normally too little or too late to change the initial feeling that has embedded itself in the viewer. This is, of course, true for every type of movie, comic, etc, but is especially damaging for adaptations as they are usually emotive subjects that have preconceived notions already attached.

Fans of Lord of the Rings range from those that have read the books to those that have read all the books, written fanfiction and attend conventions honouring Tom Bombadil. Each person will have a different notion of what’s important in the work, how people look, what they sound like and how they feel about certain passages. Changing those passages, even if the changes make sense to you, will make people angry and lead to them disliking the entire adaptation because they can’t get over that one bad scene. My brother hates the moment in The Return of the King when Sam abandons Frodo, because it doesn’t happen in the book, and no amount of hand-waving about the power of the ring is going to persuade him that that moment is true because his Sam didn’t abandon Frodo.

You could avoid the problem by removing as much of the story element as possible and building a film around a generic premise. Stripped down to the bare essentials the Super Mario Bros game is about two plumber brothers who rescue a Princess from King Koopa. The film, despite its flaws, remains true to this. But, because no-one playing the games had ever experienced what occured in the film the gamers cried foul and the film failed spectacularly to reach their core audience. After the initial flurry of excitement for a film adaptation had died down it died a quiet death at the box office.

The Problem of Multiplicity

If you think its difficult to adapt a single story into a coherent movie imagine the problems inherent in adapting an experience that also allows for each playthrough to be a different experience. Games have been dabbling with multiple endings for a while now, but this is only a symptom of a greater freedom that gaming allows.

Take Baldur’s Gate 2. You create a character who you call Naroth, he’s an elf ranger who also happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. He interacts with a huge number of NPC’s, some of whom join his party, become friends and even lovers, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. At some point he defeats Irenicus, excellently portrayed by David Warner, and the game ends. At the same time, someone else plays the same game, except she creates a human mage called Melody, who happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. She meets some of the same NPC’s and a different set join her for the adventure, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. Eventually she defeats Irenicus and the game ends. Both have played the same game, but neither would agree on the story, except in broad terms. Other players would certainly have different views so that there is no way that you could agree on a canon version of events. Even if you did dictate what was canon, you could hardly enforce it.2

While this is a bigger problem for role-playing games in particular it is still an issue for any game which has diverging gameplay. Take any beat-em-up as an example, players choose different characters dependent on their own pecadillos and each offers a different story. This is probably why Tekken never makes sense to me, as I’m a Hwoarang fan. It doesn’t matter when you’re playing a game, but usually a film crystallises all of the possible diverging narratives into a single story. Am I suggesting that Rashomon would be a good model for the next Tekken Film? It would certainly be interesting to watch and it worked for Jet Li’s martial arts epic Hero.

The Problem of Focus

Even given these two problems, surely a movie adaptation of Bioshock would be great? It has a strong story, it’s heavily scripted and you’ve got a fully realised world that has a strong visual identity to work with. In essence there is very little you have to make up to bring Rapture to the screen. I still think there is an issue which will cause the Bioshock film to disappoint, even if it looks and feels like the game.

The movie adaptation of Watchmen uses the comic as a panel for shot reference and is true to the source material in almost every respect, with the obvious exception of the ending. It’s been hailed as the most successful of the adaptations of Alan Moore’s work to the big screen because of this. However, it is still inferior to the original. I don’t say this because I think that comics are a better form of art than movies, there are plenty of comic book adaptations of films that prove that point for me, but there are certain things that a comic book can do that films cannot. Issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is constructed in such a way that the layout and colouring of each page is mirrored, the first page with the last page, second with second to last and so on, culminating in a mirrored splash page at the centre of the issue. Even if the film wished to emulate this in the film, which they don’t attempt, it wouldn’t work as you can’t compare frames of film while sitting in the cinema, it has a relentless pace of 24 frames per second that doesn’t allow for reflection. The film tries to be faithful to the subject matter but because it doesn’t have the same capabilities of the comics medium it ends up being a good-looking copy of the action of the comic without much of the depth of the original.

Bioshock is interesting because it gives you the illusion of control. The moment that Andrew Ryan reveals that you are not in control could not be re-created in a movie. it is true that it could be re-created in a practical sense, but the viewer of the movie would not have the same sensation as the player of the game, how could he? In the game you are the protagonist, you’ve just been told that everything that you have done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, you are responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and you are nothing more than a tool. In a film the protagonist will be told that everything he has done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, he is responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and that he is nothing more than a tool. In the game you are the centre of attention, in the film you are a passive observer. Depending on the quality of the actor, script and direction it is possible that this scene will be marrow-chillingly effective, but it can’t possibly recreate the same emotional resonance.

The Only Neat Thing To Do

One option, and what Irrational Games is doing with Bioshock Infinite, is ignore the story from the first game completely. It is not possible to recreate the story and resonance of a game in a satisfying way for the screen. What you can do is take the themes, setting and concepts and use as much or as little as you like to make a great story. Going back to Batman, the core ideas that Christopher Nolan took from the Batman mythos were few and stripped down to the bare essentials: there is a extremely rich man with revenge issues who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. Names are kept, but the characters like Alfred or The Joker are changed enough to make the story work or make the film better. What they’ve done is ignore the story elements almost completely and are concentrating on the strongest elements of character, those which a large majority of people ascribe to Batman, and little else. No-one would’ve cared if Bane was a bumbling idiot or a super-genius in Batman & Robin if the movie was good.

Some video game adaptations have already attempted to sidestep the ‘game’ story. The Resident Evil series of films takes parts of the story from the games and has created an alternate universe where similar things happen but everything revolves around Milla Jovovich’s character, Alice. Now, by no stretch of the imagination are these films great, but they are the best of the current crop of game adaptations.3 Even in this case though, Alice is a player substitute, but because the games don’t have an Alice character, its less noticeable that she is having the fun that players normally have when running around Raccoon City shooting zombies.

The danger is, the more you remove, the more the first problem raises it’s head. As a film-maker, you have to make a choice. Do you want the film to be faithful or be good? I would argue that a game adaptation can’t be both. I would love to be proved wrong.

1 Whether they succeeded in that endeavour is debatable.
2 Which means the failure of the D&D movie is even harder to bear. The most interesting things about D&D are the various campaign settings and to make up a new, inconsistent, wafer-thin and frankly boring version of Forgotten Realms in the week it seemed the scriptwriters had to write the film when you already have a Forgotten Realms type setting called Forgotten Realms with twenty years of development, backstory, history and character on the shelf is head-scratchingly dumb.
3 The Resident Evil games are essentially adaptations of zombie movies so perhaps it’s easier to do it in reverse.

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