How Hollywood finally cracked the video game adaptation 

With ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ turning out to be immensely successful, here’s a deep dive into the history of the genre, the infamous video-game movie curse, and how it was broken

May 19, 2023 10:45 am | Updated 08:25 pm IST

A still from ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’

A still from ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’

Here’s a fun fact: Google The Super Mario Bros. Movie and a small NES-era question block will appear at the top of the page next to the film’s name. Click on it to hear the signature 8-bit coin sound, and every 100 clicks will get you the satisfying sound of a 1-Up (the author, in the name of research, personally verified this). Google’s hat tip to a film which released more than one month ago is the result of it going where no other video game adaptation has.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie has grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, setting multiple box-office records, including the biggest worldwide opening weekend for an animated film and the highest-grossing film based on a video game. It also became the highest-grossing film of 2023 and the fifth-highest-grossing animated film. If the big screen is filled with adventures of plumbers of Italian heritage in the mushroom kingdom, The Last of Us, on streaming, took that fungi trope up a notch.

The premiere of the series, set in a post-apocalyptic world caused by a mass fungal infection, was watched by 4.7 million viewers on the first day — the second-biggest for HBO since 2010 — and almost 40 million within two months; by March, the first six episodes averaged over 30 million viewers. 

The success of this film and the series is a benchmark when it comes to video game adaptations because, almost always till this year, such adaptations have rarely worked and have mostly been critically panned. Barring a few instances, these adaptations have rarely even come close to the first checkpoint, while the games they were based on have been levels ahead.

Let us look at where it all began, the challenges of adapting a video game, why the ones that happened weren’t good enough and what finally changed. 

The days of blowing into cartridges

Despite The Super Mario Bros. Movie taking home the prize of being the film that turned the tide for video game adaptations, it was ironically the same franchise that started this trend and it was a disaster from World 1-1. Super Mario Bros. (1993) was the first feature-length live-action film based on a video game and a glimpse of what the film has in store would explain why it’s a fiasco.

A still from Assasin’s Creed

A still from Assasin’s Creed

Over the years, famous series such as Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed also failed to produce film franchises that have matched the successes of their game counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this transition not yielding the desired results and interestingly, the biggest one is how games already look and feel like films these days. Gaming has come a long since the days of 2D constructs and with open-world set-up turning out to be a game-changer, the possibilities of coming up with an intriguing story said cinematically have become endless. 

Until we get to see pokemons roaming the streets of India or we get to race cars on them on our quest for the ‘Need for Speed’, the interactivity the games provide is hard to translate into feature films. If films are a mix of audio and video elements, gaming adds multiple layers to it in the form of puzzles, side quests or even just having the option to lazily roam around.

In one of his blog posts, Jack Wentworth-Weedon, coordinator of Festival and Cinema Events at the National Science and Media Museum, U.K., said, “Both film and gaming have their place, as do music and still images, but when you try and adapt backwards, you take away the elements that contribute to the whole experience. Making a film version of a game like Breath of the Wild would be like trying to capture Forrest Gump through the medium of music or with a painting.”

It’s also an open secret that such adaptations are not popular with filmmakers and hence, we rarely see an established name attached to such a film. Even when they tried — Peter Jackson’s Halo project, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock and John Woo’s Metroid — the film never took shape for various reasons.

Still from ‘Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection’ games

Still from ‘Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection’ games | Photo Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Given how the target audience for game adaptations happens to be those who know the game, most of these adaptations have failed to live up to their expectations predominantly because of their inability to stay faithful to the source material. For example, in the Uncharted games, Nathan’s mentor, Sully, is a white-haired, seasoned treasure hunter with his best days behind him. In the 2022 film, he was played by Mark Wahlberg. 

Then comes the trouble of compressing a game, that’s usually many hours long, into a film’s runtime. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is 11.5 hours long, while the 2001 Angelina Jolie-starrer of the same name is 101 minutes. Completing the main objectives of Resident Evil takes seven hours; completing all aspects will take 15. The 2002 film that kickstarted the franchise was just 100 minutes; you get the drift. This is why The Last of Us series is a revelation as games can find stride in long-format storytelling. 

The checkpoint to reset them all

Interestingly, though most video game adaptations haven’t been well received by critics and many of them have not been accepted by the audience, what’s also an undisputed fact is that many of these adaptations have been financially successful. Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019), one of the first successful live-action adaptations, made at a budget of $150 million ended up collecting almost three times that number at the box office. On the small screen, the animated series, Castlevania (2017) on Netflix successfully had four seasons with a follow-up series, Castlevania: Nocturne, in the works. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is also an equally stunning adaptation.

A still from ‘Pokemon Detective Pikachu’

A still from ‘Pokemon Detective Pikachu’

Speaking about animated series, this list cannot be completed without Arcane (2021) — based on the legendary League of Legends game — which has been having a dream run on Netflix. Fascinatingly, animated versions of video games have comparatively fared way better compared to their live-action counterparts. But with the Sonic films and the recently released live-action adaptations that have turned on to receive favourable responses, it’s high time we call bluff on the video game adaptation curse. 

A lesson learnt from content that has worked is to figure out the most important elements that are fundamentally inseparable from the title and retain them. Films such as Warcraft (2016), Assassin’s Creed (2016), and Prince of Persia (2010) had fantastic world-building but substandard characters, while it was the other way around for Sonic (2020) or Tomb Raider (2018). There have also been films such as Mortal Kombat (2021), Monster Hunter (2020), and Doom (2005) that suffered from both issues. While the basic idea for studios is to make money and they already have an audience in the form of game lovers who cannot wait to see their favourite stories reimagined for the big screen, what is often undermined is how fans are protective of the IP (intellectual property).

The case in point is the Sonic controversy, where fans weren’t happy with the titular hedgehog’s appearance and the film team changed the output for the final film. Greg Spence, executive producer of The Last of Us, during the promotion of the series, said, “We have to love the characters, love the relationships, love all the little details by understanding it and playing it. All these things then lead to a place where you can carry the soul though. Anything else is calculated, cynical and probably won’t work.”

Coming back to The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the film had a big budget, one of the best animation studios and a star-studded voice cast. But why risk with a genre that has mostly not worked? Because we’re into cinematic universes now and that’s bigger than games and standalone films can be. Marvel and Star Wars proved it to be a successful model and given how the animated film ends with a lead for a sequel, this theory sounds quite plausible. These games have already created a universe and all that the films have to do is come up with a story that would fit into that universe. 

Ready player one

While not all game adaptations can fit into the classic three-act structure of feature films, having several instalments can do wonders for them. Meanwhile, for the smaller screen, The Witcher and The Last of Us have proved that long-format storytelling is the perfect choice of games with tonnes of lore and backstory. The Last of Us series proved that it’s possible to translate the active video gaming user experience to a passive film-watching user experience with a duration that can uphold the immense source material. With films spread across a franchise or a series, the creative freedom and runtime leeway will aid in adapting the aspects that made the games successful. 

A still from ‘The Last of Us’ series

A still from ‘The Last of Us’ series

Given how we’re pushing the envelope when it comes to storytelling, and games work, thanks to the freedom it gives its players, imagine a film like that was done in the format of the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, where we get to choose the outcome. Ironically, this freedom has been the cornerstone of comics and games which were once considered inferior entertainment. Similarly, comic books were difficult to adapt, given the number of pages in each issue for every character. That’s why Marvel took just the story concepts and characters from the comics and created an entirely new story. This has worked wonders for them because they honour the source material, while also keeping even the comic book fans guessing on what will happen next. 

The video game industry is booming, generating $100 billion annually in the U.S. alone. All it comes down to now is to transpose the game’s universe into a film. It’s unarguably a fact that gaming as a medium will never be fully translated into films, it’s the job of the films to achieve the tone and themes of the games within their plots. Last, but certainly not the least, like every other film, a good story at its core separates the upcoming adaptations to make or break the space created by the success in recent times.

David Menkin, in a recent video for BAFTA, said, “I think games are being co-opted by film and TV in a different way than it used to be. If you were making a big franchise movie, you had to have a game tie-in. But now, film producers are starting to see that it doesn’t start with the film anymore. It starts with the story.”

Speaking of games with brilliant storylines, imagine finally getting to see an adaptation of Red Dead Redemption, which was actually inspired by classic westerns such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers. A cinephile would call it life coming a full circle, while a gamer would probably name it Halo

Video games that deserve their own films/TV shows
God of War
The Legend of Zelda
Prototype
Fallout
Metal Gear Solid
Mass Effect
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