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(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Film

Why video game to film adaptations are impossible to get right

@Russellisation

Video games have come a long way since the release of Pong in 1972, growing decade-by-decade to hastily become the most profitable entertainment industry by quite some way. Reaching a global revenue total of $179.7 billion in 2020, the video game industry is thriving as it takes advantage of customers who would prefer to stay in the comfort of their home rather than take a trip to the cinema to watch the latest movie. Whilst the likes of Sony and Microsoft thrived during the coronavirus pandemic, cinema suffered one of its worst years on record, and now Hollywood is turning to video games for assistance. 

Of course, the video-game-to-movie adaptation is no new concept, with the phenomenon starting with the release of Super Mario Bros. in 1993, sparking interest in a whole collection of content Hollywood had been leaving untapped. The likes of Mortal Kombat followed in 1995, as well as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001 and Resident Evil one year later, though as fans of each respective franchise quickly learned, none of these films were any good. 

Despite this, video-game adaptations remain a popular Hollywood exercise to this very day with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Rampage, Monster Hunter, Mortal Kombat and Werewolves Within having each been released in the previous decade, with Sony’s action-romp Uncharted also just around the corner. Yielding consistently lousy critical reviews, in spite of the quality of the original video games, why is it that video-game-to-movie adaptations simply do not work?

To understand this, we have to delve into just what it is that makes a great video game, taking something like Bioshock by 2K games into consideration, a property that was once primed for a film adaptation from Gore Verbinski back in 2009. Telling the story of an intense underwater dystopia created by scientists for the rich and intellectually superior, Bioshock descends into a horror nightmare that puts the player at the very forefront of the action and core subtext. 

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On the surface, Bioshock may seem ripe for a cinematic reskin, with grand subaqueous vistas Guillermo del Toro-inspired creatures and an epic storyline, though the key to what makes the game work (and indeed any video game for that matter) is the interactivity that one has with the world around them. Where audiences experience the world of Avatar’s Pandora as a passive experience, allowing the chaos to unfold in front of their eyes, someone navigating through Bioshock’s rapture is controlled by their own emotions and instincts. 

Video games are not a passive artistic medium, meaning that areas can be explored, dissected and enjoyed for as long as the player sees fit, allowing themselves to be totally submerged in the universe around them. On the other hand, where video games are regulated by the personalities of a player themselves, films are designed and constructed through the interpretation of the studio, putting the viewer on a set path of discovery where characters, worlds and decisions are predetermined to be experienced in one particular way.

It is this gameplay experience that Hollywood studios so often forget, focusing on the mere bare-bones concept of games such as Assassins Creed rather than its rich history and lore and preferring the fabricated characters of Need for Speed rather than its heart-thumping intensity. Whilst characters and stories certainly play a substantial part in some of the greatest games of all time, it is the experience of playing a game that makes it truly unique to the wider world of entertainment. 

To truly adapt a video game in all its glory is almost an impossible task, particularly when something like Bioshock is made up of so many moving parts that to bundle all of them together would result in a tedious four-hour slog. Adaptations can succeed, however, if the filmmakers embrace the true spirit of what makes a particular video game so great, considering more than the key plot points and character names of a game to allocate the true heart of the gameplay experience.

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