Sunday, May 26, 2024

Breaking The Video Game Adaptation Curse

Following the successful releases of “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” this past month, a conversation that has once again become prominent is the discussion around video game adaptations and the long history of their productions and failures. While “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” opened to a more mixed critical response, unlike “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” both movies have been rather successful with audiences, with the Mario adaptation even garnering the largest opening weekend for an animated movie in history. It begs the question: has the “curse” around video game adaptations finally been broken?

With the evolution of filmmaking techniques and spectacle cinema over the decades, studios have worked on adapting many visual IPs that exist outside the medium, such as comic books and video games. The former has resulted in some of the biggest franchises of all time, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whereas video game adaptations have had a harder time reaching the level of success they’ve recently found.

To understand the breaking of this “video game adaptation curse,” we must discuss how it ever came to be in the first place. For many years, the curse was ever-present across mediums, with both shows and movies made around popular game franchises often failing to live up to the quality of their source material. Movies such as “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (1993), “Hitman” (2007), “Max Payne” (2008), and the “Resident Evil” franchise (2002-2016; 2021) were some of the prominent failed experiments during these years. While adaptations such as the two “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” movies starring Angelina Jolie had their fair share of fans and the first film even garnered a cult following, the movies were poorly received and weren’t on the same level as the game franchise before it. As a result of many years of critical and financial disappointments, it was widely considered that video games would never have been successful on screen.

One of the major reasons that often plagued such movies seemed to be a lack of faithfulness to the material. A game adaptation, much like a book or comic adaptation, is made for two kinds of audiences: the gaming audience, which is familiar with the IP and will show up to watch the movie, and the casual moviegoing audience, which will be introduced to many of the characters for the very first time. As such, a show or movie has to act as both an entry point and a familiar world, but often, the essence of these adaptations would forget why those game franchises were successful. Take, for example, the “Resident Evil” franchise. To date, no adaptation of it—ranging from the Milla Jovovich/Paul W.S. Anderson series to “Welcome to Raccoon City” in 2021 and the 2022 Netflix series—has quite captured the spirit of the games. While built on the horror genre, they contain a sense of self-awareness and darker comedy, making them both scary and fun to play simultaneously. A balance is established between those two tones, and it’s why the games have succeeded this long, including the recent remake of “Resident Evil 4” and 2021’s “Resident Evil: Village.”

They also deviate significantly from the established storytelling of the games, which conceptually isn’t an issue. Still, nothing more is added to make it stand out more prominently or give it meaning. This is particularly noticeable in movies such as “Need for Speed” (2014) and “Assassin’s Creed” (2016), the latter being a significant failure for both fans of the games and audiences, as it told a different story that while maintained a visual sense of the games, was far from the rich lore and character work that it was built on. Instead, it opted for a more generic storyline involving a shady organization and some rather obvious villainous setups that left no surprises for anyone.

Recently, one of the more successful adaptations to come out of the woodwork is HBO’s take on “The Last of Us,” based on the two-part game franchise. Season 1 covers the entirety of Part I, following the story of a man named Joel who has to transport a girl named Ellie across the country as she may be the key to a cure for a virus that has wiped out almost the entire world. While the show follows the main story beats of the game faithfully, it also expands and builds upon storylines and character perspectives the game could not explore as vividly, particularly in the episode “Long, Long Time,” where we get a full character story for Bill and Frank–Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, respectively–whom we don’t spend much time within the original play. Audiences were very receptive to the show, and it maintains some of the highest ratings for a video game adaptation ever made.

The Last of Us” is hardly the only such success story in recent years. Netflix’s adaptation of the League of Legends franchise, “Arcane,” was a massive success, winning several accolades as well as a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Animated Program” in 2022. The show expanded on the game’s lore while changing many aspects and expanding on the characters, particularly its two leads, Vi and Jinx (Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Purnell, respectively). Netflix’s adaptations of “Castlevania” and “Cyberpunk 2077″—the prequel show “Edgerunners”—have been praised significantly. It’s clear that much of the success of these adaptations comes from understanding what makes the games work first and foremost. It is also why the two recent “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies (2020, 2022) were more positively received, as they don’t follow the games’ DNA exactly but manage to contain enough faithfulness to the world and its characters to allow everyone watching to enjoy.

With some exceptions, the majority of video game adaptations are now at the point where audiences are finally more excited to see them and see the characters that were once pixels on their screens rendered and brought to life in more realistic and cinematic ways. It is also why many are already clamoring for a sequel to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” barely a week after its release. Understanding how to break a curse was the hard part, but with that behind us for some years now, it is time to retire the line of questioning for now. It remains to be seen if it ever returns, but audiences, for now, can take solace in the fact that there is better to look forward to in the future.

What do you think of the recent rise in video game adaptations for the big screen? Which one has been your favorite so far? Are there any video games you’d like to see made into a movie? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Shaurya and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @_ShauryaChawla

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