The Curse of the Video Game-to-Film Adaptation

March 26, 2018 9 min read

The Curse of the Video Game-to-Film Adaptation

March 26, 2018 9 min read


Video game-to-film adaptations have existed since the early 90s, following the boom of 8-bit games and those classics from gaming juggernauts, Atari and Nintendo.

However, in almost 30 years, there has not been much real success in turning these legendary games into stories for the screen.

This month, Warner Brothers will be releasing the film reboot of the classic PlayStation game, Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander as the titular character, Lara Croft. With a promising trailer and Oscar winner Vikander as its star, could this be the one to break the curse?


Super Mario Bros

Let’s look back at the very first attempt at taking video games to the big screen, with 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Only loosely based on its source material, directors Ricky Morton and Annabel Jankel disposed of the colourful world we all know to be the Mushroom Kingdom and turned it into a dank, dystopian parallel universe. By changing the aesthetic and memorability of this iconic game, you risk losing the loyalty of the ready-made audience. Despite having big actors such as Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper and John Leguiziamo, Super Mario Bros. didn’t even make back half of its production budget, and was a complete critical failure. The curse begins…?


Street Fighter

The first game-to-film adaptation to really make a decent profit at the box office was 1994’s Street Fighter, starring none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme. Street Fighter almost tripled its budget, but didn’t quite break the $100 million mark. Unfortunately, again, this film was widely panned, and Variety compared its failure to that of Super Mario Bros, saying that “it’s noisy, overblown and effects-laden, and lacks sustained action of engaging characters”. Again, much of the detail from the source material was also altered.

The plot of the game and the motives of the characters were both rewritten for the screen, and the film went for a much lighter and more comical feel. This again displeased fans of the game’s franchise and meant that it couldn’t connect with the audience that was ready and waiting.

Could straying too far from the original material of the game be the problem?


Resident Evil – the most successful yet?

The most successful game to-film adaptation – in terms of longevity and takings, anyway – is quite easily the Resident Evil franchise, having spawned six films over a 14-year period. Though the films haven’t been particularly critically acclaimed and have received mostly negative reviews, the six films have raked in an impressive $1.2 billion.

What is it about this franchise that’s made it so financially lucrative compared to its counterparts?

It could be down to the lack of a complex plot to the games, allowing the film makers to take a bit of artistic license without butchering its source material. Much of the games’ appeal is based on the cathartic use of violence, it being a third person shooter involving the complete annihilation of zombie-like humans and other mutated beings – perhaps this translates well into film without too much heavy lifting?

With Resident Evil, the audience is there for the scares and the action, not for characters, dialogue and drama. Maybe, in the case of game-to-film adaptations, less is more?


Angry Birds – one of the most critically acclaimed?

Where Resident Evil may be the most successful franchise adapted from video games from a financial perspective, you may be surprised to learn which film was one of the best received by critics – The Angry Birds Movie. Although it’s still not exactly considered a masterpiece, with only 44% on Rotten Tomatoes overall, that’s one of the highest scores given to any game-to-film adaptation that’s had a global release – and shows how app-based games are making their way onto screen too.

The Angry Birds Movie made money, and plenty of it – enough to warrant an upcoming sequel. Positives of this film include the style, quality of animation and level of humour, and with the only thing needing to be mirrored from the original game being the visuals, that’s hardly surprising. And, being geared mostly towards children, it may have helped that there was a less die-hard, more forgiving audience awaiting its release.


Warcraft – the highest grossing

Earning $433 million worldwide, Warcraft is the highest grossing game-to-film adaptation yet; but with a budget of $160 million and it barely breaking even after other costs, it was considered a financial failure.

Duncan Jones, the famed director of Moon and Source Code, was the man to try and bring the world of Warcraft to life; no stranger to complex and engaging storytelling, Jones took on a whole universe and tried to cram it in to a single movie, but it sadly ended up a convoluted mess.

Despite a critical bashing, there is clearly an audience engaged in the potential depictions of the Warcraft universe, but a sequel has still not yet been confirmed.


Hitman – A film out of context

One of the most disappointing adaptation attempts has been the Hitman movies. The suspenseful nature of the narrative to these games is what makes them such a success; the Hitman character is someone quietly hiding in the shadows, taking out his targets without being noticed.

The films, however, are more like big, loud, action-packed productions, and clearly miss the mark – there was all the potential for an exceptional thriller had the film followed the essence of the games, but both attempts, 2007’s Hitman (starring Timothy Olyphant) and 2015’s Hitman: Agent 47 (with Rupert Friend) were utterly panned.

John Wick writer Derek Kolstad is looking to do a television reboot of Hitman. Perhaps a TV adaptation is key for the extensive plots that are quite often seen in video games, allowing more time to explore back stories, characters and cover more of the original game’s narrative.

Where are they going wrong?

Storylines and the script seem to be what’s really letting these films down, despite often having so much world to play with.

Is it the initial medium that’s the problem? Book adaptations, for example, have never had this issue. We’ve seen countless much-loved books successfully move to the silver screen, and whilst it’s clear that books provide a more structured plot to work from, the unique universes often created within games should be inspiration enough to build something that works cinematically.

Fans of video games want to see what they know and love about their favourite games when they’re turned into films – all the good bits of the gameplay without the laborious bits in between. Some adaptations can be guilty of overcomplicating their script and trying to fit too much of the game’s lore into the runtime, ending up with something that might give us a lot of information, but doesn’t really work as a piece of film.

But, maybe it’s cutting out that gameplay and the interactivity that comes with it that means games just can’t translate. The joy of the experience of playing a video game is that you’re in control – you’re choosing where to go, what plot points to follow, and you’re improving and learning independently as you progress through the game. Turning this into a movie takes away all of that, makes it much more one sided. Watching a film adaptation of your favourite game can never excite you in the same way, because you’re relinquishing all the control that the original medium gives you.

This article from The Conversation thinks that this lack of gameplay leaves audiences less open to the idea of strange plot devices. When you’re playing a game, you’re more immersed in the landscape, and can more easily pick up on those signature aspects of the game that make it something you love – for example, jumping across rooftops in Assassin’s Creed. Though the Assassin’s Creed games became increasingly more complex in narrative as more were released, it didn’t matter – because the gimmick of the rooftop always remained. Of course, with a movie adaptation, you’re simply watching the action, and without the immersive aspect, it can become convoluted and dull.

Even some professors have tried to establish why film adaptations of video games always fail; this Gamespot article, though written a while ago now, makes a lot of sense when it comes to why game-to-film adaptations just don’t work. In the article, Professor Kirk Kjeldsen explains that films mostly follow a three-act structure in their narrative, but video games work vastly differently, and that successfully forcing a three-act linear narrative out of a lengthy video game narrative is pretty much impossible. In his opinion, “Translating a non-linear narrative into a linear three-act structure is like making a song out of a painting or sculpture”.


This was the case with the Need for Speed adaptation. The game is an open world racing game in which the player makes decisions about where they want to go next, what changes they make to their story and vehicles, and so there is no concrete narrative or character arc. This Chicago Tribune review makes the comparison everyone was expecting – the film (rarely but surely) mimics the fun of the Fast and Furious franchise that it so clearly aspired to be, but simultaneously is based on a strange and illogical plot. Need for Speed was only considered watchable when the actors were behind the wheel – incidentally, the only part which truly relates to the game.

Another reason why these kinds of films fail to make an impact could be the lack of true directorial vision. Only a handful have had any standout talent on the director’s chair, namely Duncan Jones for Warcraft and Justin Kurzel for Assassin’s Creed – looking into other directors that have taken on this genre, you’d be hard pushed to find one that’s truly acclaimed.

The most notorious of them all is Uwe Boll, the man behind video game adaptations such as Postal, Far Cry, In the Name of the King and House of the Dead. He has made a phenomenal amount of movies, but he has been described as one of the worst film directors ever. He was even turned down by Blizzard Entertainment, the owners of the Warcraft franchise, upon his request to direct the film adaptation.


Is Tomb Raider a turning point?

With the recent release of the rebooted Tomb Raider movie, it is too early to say whether it’s a game changer or not.

Reviews for the new film, starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, are distinctly average, with it sitting at 50% on the Tomatometer, though the audience score is a little higher at 65%. At time of publishing it’s made around $211 million worldwide (according to Box Office Mojo), which surpasses it’s $94 million budget, but isn’t exactly setting the world alight. It’s too soon to tell whether a sequel will be green lit for a film that the studio was clearly hoping would be the start of a new franchise.

You can check out our review for Tomb Raider here, but in short – whilst it is a half decent watch overall, it’s hindered by changing certain elements of the story compared to the game, as well as a lot of mostly mediocre action. The plot is less messy than past video game adaptations, but is disjointed, and the action that is so well loved from the games doesn’t ever seem to translate well to the screen.

The jury is still out on whether Tomb Raider has broken the curse of the video game to film adaptation. Nowhere near as good as fans could have hoped, it’s still mildly better than its predecessors – and we reckon that’s a step in the right direction.



Image References:

Kim Higson

Kim Higson is a graduate of Film Studies who has had a passion for film her whole life. She has grown up seeking the strange and obscure side of the art form and has a particular love for horror, independent and world cinema. Kim now spends most of her free time on the hunt for something new to see, whether a brand new release or a forgotten gem, and reading up on all the latest in film news. Today, Kim has partnered her love of film and writing to bring you the very best in film and TV.

All posts