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Game Over: Why Video Game Adaptations Constantly Fail

Let's take a look at why video game adaptations just don't seem to work.

Filmmaking is tough. Adapting books, short stories, and video games is even tougher, especially when you have a majority of fan bases that can be easily outraged (guilty as charged). Video games are interactive, and movies are a passive experience which can alienate video gaming fans from a film. 


Hollywood has a problem turning video games into films. They have compounded the issue by doing several things wrong to make these adaptations even worse. 

For decades, the bane of the movie industry's existence has been video game adaptations. Fans of beloved gaming franchises such as Resident Evil, Hitman, Doom, etc. (the list could account for the entire article if continued) have been sorely disappointed with their big-screen counterparts. The critics have not been any more receptive to them either and in some cases, they have been even more unforgiving. Regardless of who is doing the shredding, it is indisputable that most video game movies have been ripped apart as far as reviews go. Let’s explore some of the reasons behind the poor ratings and dig into some possible methods for improvement in the future.

Staying Faithful

Many times, film directors and studios do not follow the storylines from the games. They will simply take the title of the video game and abuse their creative license to desecrate the original content. These blatant deviations from the source material come across as cash grabs and cause major issues.

One of the most egregious examples is the 2008 dumpster fire Max Payne. It is beyond painful that this travesty of a movie is permitted to share the same name as the insanely entertaining and groundbreaking third-person shooter trilogy. Director John Moore either had no experience playing the games or, an even worse possibility, he did play them and chose to stray as far away from honoring them as possible. The lack of the game's signature narration, no regard for the original storyline and characters, unsatisfying and infrequent action scenes, an inexcusable/sellout PG-13 rating (the games all had hard Mature ESRB ratings given the graphic gunplay and heavy themes), and lackluster acting from everyone involved all contributed to making this one of the worst adaptations of all time.

Another notable example of this is Super Mario Bros (1993) where pretty much nothing in the movie resembles anything from the game aside from character names. The general story of "save the girl" is there but it takes place in an alternate dimension called "Dinohatten" and the Mario Bros. don't even suit up until the last third of the movie. WHAT!?

The Wrong Ingredients

Another culprit in the seemingly doomed realm of video game adaptations is miscasting/poor acting. Iconic characters should be portrayed on film with the proper likeness and prowess. Sadly, this is not always the case. 

Again, in Max Payne, Marky Mark was given the mantle of the gritty and tormented titular character and he misfires on a major scale. The dark nuances that make Max a relatively complex character are lost in Wahlberg's hollow performance. His one saving grace is the horrendous script affords him some slack. 

There have been two versions of Tomb Raider movie adaptations. The first two films starred Angelina Jolie and her character was formatted based on the original games. Her portrayal and likeness of Lara Croft received mixed feedback from fans.

The second version was based on the rebooted game trilogy, which featured a different look and style to Lara than that of the older installments. The newer games took a more adult approach and explored M-rated territory with more brutal combat and harsher environments. As a result, Ms. Croft was given a more rugged appearance. She was dressed in more practical and less revealing clothing, frequently had cuts and bruises on her face and arms, and had a taller figure. This look was brought on the big screen through Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander. Her likeness reflected the reboot's vision fairly faithfully and her performance was decent enough.

The biggest issue with the casting/character is the laughable invulnerability that Lara exhibited throughout the entire movie. Not only was she unphased by the copious amounts of punishment inflicted by enemies triple her weight, but the plethora of environmental hazards had no effect on her either. In order to maintain some sense of believability, they needed to either have an actress with a more formidable frame or put Vikander's Lara in positions where the damage dealt to her wasn't as substantial or ignored entirely. These are only a few examples on a long list of underwhelming video game character portrayals in movies. We're looking at you Street Fighter (1994).

Time Constraints

Another factor in why the transition from game to film has been rough is the difference in length between playtime and runtime. Single player campaigns for video games take anywhere from 6 to 30+ hours to complete. The lengthier end of the spectrum typically belongs to the main mission completion time for open-world games. That figure can be much larger for those who take part in all of the side missions and various activities that are frequently included in more expensive projects like World of Warcraft and the more recent Assassin's Creed entries.

Translating dozens of hours of gameplay and storyline into a two-hour movie is no easy task for filmmakers. The sheer amount of condensing involved is bound to sacrifice some level of authenticity. The key is to retain the essence of the games by including as much of the distinct features as possible. This is easier said than done, as deciding which elements to bring on-screen is only half the battle. Once those choices have been made, filmmakers then have the unenviable responsibility of effectively capturing those portions on film. A possible solution to this dilemma can be found on a path that isn't ventured nearly enough.

The Small Screen

Movies are the go-to for live action video game adaptations. However, a far more viable option is a TV series format given the previously mentioned playtime to runtime ratio.

Plenty of animated series are based on video games, but for some reason, the same cannot be said nearly as often for live action.

The Netflix smash hit Castlevania is a shining example of an animated adaptation that is adored by fans and critics alike. It does the games justice by maintaining the same style and atmosphere, while also fleshing out the story over three seasons with number four on the way.

By expanding a game's story into multiple seasons of 8-10 episodes each, a showrunner can delve much deeper into the source material. Even a limited series would be far more likely to remain faithful than a one-and-done movie outing. The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, is based on the fantasy book series written by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it does share many similarities to the games of the same name. The show has been well-received by both fans and critics and it was one of the better Netflix offerings in 2019. So why don't more live action adaptations follow a streaming series layout?

The short answer is also the most accurate: money. Traditionally, there has been a far quicker and larger return for movies than that of shows. Movies can rake in more at the box office on opening weekend than a series does over the course of several years. The COVID-19 epidemic is already shifting the landscape in Hollywood, however, and more trends could be changing going forward. It will be interesting to see what effects this has on adaptations as well as movies and television as a whole in the coming years. 

What's Next?

Hollywood has produced nearly 40 live-action video game to movie adaptations and most of them have failed in the eyes of both critics and fans. With more on the way though, it will be interesting to see if they learn from past mistakes or continue down the same path as before.

Sony recently dropped the trailer for Paul W.S. Anderson's Monster Hunter, which looks fun but doesn't resemble the game. From a two-minute trailer, it looks to be a movie about a fierce squad leader (portrayed by Milla Jovovich, who also happens to be Anderson's wife) and her team of Marines as they face off against “Monster Hunter” looking beasts. This film is already receiving a lot of negative buzz from fans of the game...we think it might be time to break the lens on Anderson's camera. 

Look at the upcoming Uncharted movie, it's already been through production hell with multiple script and directing changes. Baby-faced Tom Holland stars as the rugged, charismatic hero Nathan Drake who is supposed to be in his mid to late 30's. Maybe it's an origin story? Or a prequel to the games? Why would they do this? Make this an 8-episode series and follow ONE of the games. Instead, it looks like they're borrowing the Uncharted name and making their own mess of it. 

On a brighter note, Showtime has an episodic Halo series in the works that is being produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Over the course of the already ordered 9 episode run, we can expect to see more character and story development than if it were a 90- to 120-minute movie. Spielberg is noted as someone who respects the source material of his projects. With his production company backing this Halo series, we hope to see an accurate portrayal of story and characters, as well as some incredible Spartan action.  

As both movie and video game fans, we are trying our best to remain optimistic that quality adaptations will become the norm and not an outlier. Fingers crossed.

This piece was written by Josh Aboody and Matthew Novak. Both collaborated on its direction, content, etc.

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