BY THE NUMBERS
The Avengers set box office records last weekend (05/06/12) when it brought in over $200,000,000. The previous holder of all-time highest grossing opening weekend was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 at $169,000,000, and before that, it was The Dark Knight at $158,000,000. Harry Potter – an eight-part film adaptation of JK Rowling’s novels – made $7,706,200,000 in combined international box office sales. Comparatively, the top eight highest grossing Marvel comic-based combined for $5,616,300,000; the top eight highest grossing DC comic-based movies combined for $3,318,700,000; and the top eight highest grossing video game-based movies combined for $1,637,200,00. Even if you were to compare the gross take after adjusting for inflation or the total number of box office tickets sold, video game movies would still be WAY behind the other movie adaptation families.
As per Rotten Tomatoes, video game movies are just as unsuccessful critically as they are financially. In looking at the average scores of the top eight films from each group, Marvel has the highest average with a score of 88%. There were three movies scoring above 90%, the lowest scoring film was Elektra at 10%, and all 28 feature films average a score of 55%. The Harry Potter films scored an average of 84% with only Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban scoring above a 90%, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sitting at the bottom with 78%. DC’s top eight films averaged 82%, the average of all its films was 48%, two films broke 90%, and the 1984 movie Supergirl was at the bottom of the list at 8%.
Finally, we have video game movies. The top eight movies made from video games scored a brutal 32% on average. The highest scoring film was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within at 43%, and no other video game movie cracked 40%. The average of all 30 films comes out to an embarrassing 18%. Seven (SEVEN!!) movies scored below 10%, and Double Dragon was the lowest with a score of 0%. Some of the most successful video game franchises have been adapted and each one did poorly. Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children scored a 33%, Super Mario Bros scored a 13%, Mortal Kombat scored a 34%, Pokemon’s highest score was 22%, the Halo movie fell apart [later becoming District 9], and the movie version of Zelda has never gotten further than the fan-made trailer stage.
So what exactly is it about video game-based movies that causes them to be so awful?
WE’RE ALL ASKING THE SAME QUESTION
If you Google “Why do video game movies suck?” [in quotations], you’ll get 7,780 results. Echoing the first thought I had when approaching the subject, most of the 30 articles I read led with the obvious: Video games are interactive. Video games start as a set of mechanics (the means by which a player interacts with the game) and then have story built around those mechanics. This story-comes-second approach makes a direct translation between mediums (video game to movie screen) almost impossible. Or, as Doom illustrated, impossible to do without being terrible.
The other popular complaint is a lack of respect for the source material. What are we really saying when we claim that the source was betrayed? Sometimes it means the movie only had two things in common with the game: a title and some character names (eg: Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon, Silent Hill). Other times it means the movie departed from the exact canon established by the video game (eg: Street Fighter, Resident Evil, Pokemon). By allowing so little artistic license to be taken with our properties, we’re painting ourselves into a corner. Mediums can be crossed, and it can be done with astounding success; Lord of the Rings went from book to film, my favorite book (The Arena by William R. Forstchen) is based on the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went from comics to action figures to cartoons to movies back to action figures. In fact, half of the top 10 highest grossing films of the past 10 years are adaptations. What video game fans are doing, though, is demanding that the film adaptations of our video games be the video game while still delivering a movie experience. That’s not just unfair of us to demand — it’s impossible for studios to deliver.
A GROSS MISAPPROPRIATION OF FUNDSThere are more issues with making video game movies beyond interactivity and the handling of source material. A lot of the current video game movies come off as lazy. Some of the scripts to these films feel as if the writer is doing his/her absolute best to be as cheesy and cliché as possible. I can understand the desire to tip your hat to the source material’s faithful fans, but there’s a difference between including a few easter eggs and delivering an immersion-shattering line just for the sake of using a specific adage. Casting is an issue as well. There have been some very big names attached to these films, but a big name does not guarantee a strong performance. Jean Claude van Damme was a terrible mismatch as Guile in Street Fighter; Timothy Olyphant is too charismatic to play a cold, machine-like killer; and the list goes on and on.
Instead of taking the easiest-to-adapt games or the cheapest game rights on sale, the industry should be putting itself in a position to succeed. If it’s going to make a film adaptation of an existing game, why not find the game(s) that would best fit the new medium? Games like Infamous, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Zelda all have well developed characters and stories that are not only deep, but they’re not so much a departure from what Hollywood already puts out that you’d be asking film studios to take some gigantic leap of faith. I’d like to see some of the stronger game studios involved in helping to carve out the rebooting of the video game movie market. Blizzard may have become reviled [since the buy-out by Activision], but it’s still one of the best examples of a commitment to quality. Despite your personal feelings on Blizzard’s games, the amount of polish their games possess is indisputable. I have to imagine the same would hold true for any non-video game product they put out, especially something as large-scale as a blockbuster film.
IF I MAY BE SO BOLD
By taking away the audience’s ability to interact with the story, you sever their personal connection to it; the only message they will hear is that of the person making the movie. Video games offer the chance for self-expression and a depth of experience that comes from forging the story with your decisions. However, player-controlled narrative means the pacing of the story is directly up to the player. Unfortunately, this can really unhinge some scripted sequences that deliver a stronger message when watched, not played. In my experiences with games, this is particularly true of the setup and resolution. It’s hard for a game to have us truly engaged in gameplay while simultaneously trying to tell us who, what, where, when, and why everything is happening. Playing to the strengths of each medium, I would suggest the film and video game each tell a separate-but-continuous story.
Writing the film and video game together [with the intention of having them deliver a complementary experience] bypasses the need to have the film live up to the impossible standards of the die-hard game fan. Instead of having two autonomous works exploring the same property, there will be two parts of a single story. The film serves as Part One: laying down of foundation. The film tells an engaging story that ends without complete resolution. The video game serves as Part Two: the players build on that foundation, crafting their own stories from the work they’ve been given, or, equally as viable, creating the film as a sequel to the game. The player participates in the building of the world, but the resolution is delivered through a passive medium.
Regardless of who makes the next video game movie, how they make it, or who they have star in it, I can only hope it’s an honest effort. Video games are an emerging medium through which some very brilliant people are telling some incredible stories. Unlike passive mediums, the interactivity of video games allows for both the producer to send a message, and for the player to hear that message while crafting one of their own. If we can enhance that by incorporating the strengths of another medium, great, but we need to do it right because Hollywood will only take so many risks before it stops offering the video game industry opportunities for adaptation.
Box Office Mojo
Internet Movie Database
List of Films Based on Video Games
List of Films Based on DC Comics
List of Films Based on Marvel Comics
Why the Halo Movie Failed to Launch
– Jamie Russel