Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hollywood vs. The Mushroom Kingdom

Adaptations from Hell

I, as my alias would suggest, am a gamer. I, as this blog title would suggest, am also a film fan. I tend to curse when these two passions of mine collide.

One of the main problems with cinematic game adaptations thus far is that the vast majority have been shit. It doesn't help that two of the directors who keep being put in charge of these adaptations are dreadful - Uwe Boll and the 'bad' Paul Anderson (there's a good one too, and thankfully he's not lowering himself to Resident Evil sequels) are two frequent offenders. Barring maybe two or three exceptions, few films have managed to do their gaming counterparts anything resembling justice. Forgetting our merry band of hack directors, there are a few reasons for this. Let's explore!

Hopper as Koopa
Imagine, for a second, they made an adaptation of Lord of the Rings and re-imagined Middle Earth as a futuristic dystopia. Fans would be angry, and with good cause. When you adapt something, one of the goals is to remain loyal to the original vision, and at the same time adapt it to fit comfortably into its new medium. It's with that logic that we can point Super Mario Bros. out as a primary example of why Hollywood shouldn't be fucking with our games. Here, the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom of the games becomes said futuristic dystopia. Colourful characters (like Yoshi the Dinosaur) from the game become horrid mutants. Bowser (or King Koopa) is the series' main antagonist. In the games he's a kind of turtle / lizard with a spiky shell. In the film, he's Dennis Hopper. Ahem. It shits upon the world Miyamoto and co. created with nary a concern.

It borders on disrespectful, and that's a frequent theme with video game films. While I'll be the first to admit that game settings may not always be as inspired or 'mature' (mature in video games often means tits and gore, shamefully) as other mediums. But that doesn't mean we gamers aren't fond of them, so seeing them bastardised is always painful. The Resident Evil films are another example of removing much of the uniqueness and tone of the series and replacing them with generic action film bollocks. Again, Resident Evil has never been the most original of beasts, but the films barely resemble the series that inspired them.

Of the films that successfully at least capture part of the essence of their source games, Silent Hill is memorable for at least looking and sounding like the Silent Hill that has scared gamers shitless since 1999. The atmosphere is great, but unfortunately the film goes a bit crappy in the second half. A valiant effort, though, even if it is up itself. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is perhaps the most successful game adaptation of them all - it features all the well-known characters (and cameos from the ones who don't get a major role), the narrative roughly coincides with the very basic story of the game, and there is plenty of actual street fighting featuring the signature moves of Ryu and co. It's anime, though, and it is telling that the best game movie isn't live action at all.

Which brings me to another point. Gaming, for all its eccentricities and flaws, is an interactive medium (or at least it should be). The phrase "like watching someone play a videogame" is a common one in contemporary film criticism, and while I find the the phrase bit ignorant coming from reviewers who are clearly non-gamers, it does make a point. Games are meant to be played, not watched - look at the painful first person sequence in the disaster they call the Doom film. Jumping on turtles makes great gameplay, but isn't something necessarily fun to watch.

Silent Hill - at least they sort of got it right. Source: Sony Pictures.

A major design flaw with many contemporary computer games is their reliance on non-interactive cutscenes to tell their often uninspiring stories. These games, therefore, are far more memorable for their gameplay than their narratives. Take Metal Gear Solid - a fantastic stealth action series. Unfortunately creator Hideo Kojima has a penchant for narrative flights of fancy, and hence the player is often let sitting for forty minutes watching the regularly ho-hum and unnecessarily convoluted events of the series play out, sometimes for periods of over an hour. Narrative is a regular weak point of gaming, with exceptions of course: the Half-Life series, Braid, BioShock, the Persona games, Mass Effect and Shadow of the Colossus to name but a handful of examples of stellar interactive storytelling. Why does Hollywood think gaming's admitted weakness is going to make for compelling non-interactive cinema? The best games embrace their inherent "gameness" - from shmups to FPS, from puzzle games to RPGs - and that's why much interactive entertainment remains compelling despite their frequently limited stories. Game designers make games, film directors make films - and the best of both excel in their own medium time and time again.

It goes both ways. Gamers are well used to film adaptations disappointing. The recent Thor game has attracted some serious ire from the few individuals who spent cold hard cash on overpriced copies. There have been good games based on films - Spiderman 2, MegaDrive / SNES era Disney adaptations, King Kong - but alas we're dealing with exceptions, and the reality is games are often rushed out to coincide with film releases. It is telling that the best Batman and Transformers games of recent times have nothing to do with the ongoing film franchises, instead making uniquely 'playable' experiences out of their beloved characters.  Making something worth playing out of a linear and tightly focused film is a constant problem for game developers, or at least the less talented ones.

Rapture in Bioshock. Source: 2K Games
I'm very much a cynic when it comes to this topic: a cynical gamer, one could say. I've been burned too many times. Max Payne wasn't the most amazing game of all time, but its noir influences and curious presentation made it stand out from the crowd. The film was hopelessly generic junk. Same goes for Alone in the Dark, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and countless others. I've taken up ignoring the damn things unless I'm advised by trustworthy sources to do otherwise. I'm not hopeless, though. A BioShock film has been long rumoured, for example. The game, for those of you not in the know, is an Ayn Rand inspired (yes, that level of literary influence is extremely rare for gaming) descent into a failed underwater utopia called Rapture. The setting is an astonishingly visceral place to explore, a gloriously demented art deco metropolis populated with its deeply disturbed citizens. It even has a lot to say about the very nature of interactivity, and the way games often cheekily influence players. I dare say I'm not alone in suggesting the ideas and setting are more compelling than the gameplay - which is still great fun, especially in the narratively weaker but technically stronger sequel - at times. While half the joy is in uncovering the hidden secrets of Rapture for yourself, in the hands of a good director - Guillmero del Toro has been suggested - such a unique setting could potentially make a fascinating film.

Possibly successful adaptations like the above, though, are rare. On the other hand, we have the terrifying case of Shadow of the Colossus: a film adaptation stuck in production hell, where it should stay. SotC is a breathtakingly beautiful game in which you play the young Wander, who is tasked with defeating sixteen colossi in order to reincarnate his fallen love. There is miniscule storytelling and barely any extraneous features: you merely traverse the barren landscape on your horse in order to slay these majestic creatures. As you drive your sword into each of them, there is a powerful sense of loneliness. Do they deserve to die? What is the final outcome going to be? All you can do is desperately continue on out of a sense of hopelessness. Emotions flow as you, the player, slays these mysterious, seemingly innocent giants as they desperately try to shake you off. It is a rare game that uses gameplay to make the player question their actions; the overwhelming sense of loneliness captured with barely a word. And this is something a film will never capture.

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