Mortal Kombat. Super Mario Bros. Ratchet & Clank. Mention these names to a video game connoisseur and you’ll hear no end to the praise. But ask a film critic what they think of these titles, and you’ll get a slightly different response. Filmmakers seem to have a hard time adapting the most acclaimed video game franchises into just-as-acclaimed movies, though not for the want of trying; a new Tomb Raider film, starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, is due out this month. However, the plethora of bad video game movies begs the question: is it possible to truly adapt a video game into a good film?
At first glance, your first answer may be yes. After all, we’ve had successful franchises inspired by books, stage plays, and even Pirates of the Caribbean was based off a Disney ride. So why not video games? What is it about Assassin’s Creed that lends it to rave reviews year-on-year and yet losses of $75m-$100m at the box office and a 36 metascore when adapted to film?
I would argue that many film directors and (especially) producers simply don’t understand what it is that makes video games great and unique. The most obvious – and significant – difference between video games and all other forms of entertainment is the agency and involvement of the consumer. There are entire academic papers dedicated to devising innovative narrative structures to give the player ever more freedom when playing a story-driven game. When such stories are delivered to film, that independence is inevitably lost, and with it, what made the reason to experience it unique in the first place. The most irritating moments in the Assassin’s Creed games are when you are forced to watch cutscene after cutscene to advance the plot, rather than experiencing a historical location as a deadly assassin. Why subject audiences to nearly two hours of that?
Then there are the games driven by the gameplay as opposed to story, such as Mario and Mortal Kombat. The entire reason these games are played is to play them. Have you ever noticed how you used to just want to hop on and play when your older brother was on the console as a kid? That’s what adapting these games as purely as possible amounts to, and that’s a best case. At worst, a plot is created to fit the characters and brand, resulting in a confusing mess that breaks every rule of screenwriting and leaves the director with a mountain to climb to salvage the project.
So how can video games be faithfully adapted to film? In a sentence, they can’t. Player interaction plays too great a role in what makes a video game great to allow for them to be adapted as straightforwardly as, say, books. But there is hope. For abstract games, such as Mario, use games and characters purely as reference for the film’s world as a whole, as executed perfectly in Wreck-It Ralph. For more story-driven games, the challenge lies in adapting the right story, with the right characters and game world, that die-hard fans can feel comfortable just sitting back and watching, and that more casual audiences can find accessible. It’s a difficult task, but one which, if trailers and reports from set are anything to go by, the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot may have finally cracked.
Watch the trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider (2018) below: