Gamers have wanted their favorite video games adapted for film and TV ever since all three mediums have existed, and it looks like Hollywood is trying to claw back as many properties as possible. Video game adaptations are rapidly growing in popularity, as are comic books, and yet many still fail to capture what makes the games so great in the first place.
Sony recently announced a Horizon Zero Dawn show on Netflix, a God of the war show on Amazon Prime, and a Gran Turismo film directed by Neill Blomkamp. What should be exciting announcements for fans often turn into cautionary tales due to video games’ terrible reputation for adaptability. For each sonic the hedgehog movie, there are a dozen abominations like the Super Mario Bros. 1993 movie.
Confusing creative decisions made on these various video game adaptations call into question who these movies and shows are made for. A perfect example is the notorious debacle of Ugly Sonic the Hedgehog in the original movie trailers, as Sonic’s first look so disrespected the original’s iconic design that fans complained en masse until what they modify it. Giving Sonic human teeth and more realistic proportions was a huge miss that the creators should have known no one wanted. Thanks to the fans, Sonic The movie is one of the greatest video game movies ever made.
Another great example is Paramount Halo TV show, which completely changes the timeline from one of the most popular first-person shooters in history to dodgy sci-fi cliches instead. The show commits the cardinal sin of constantly showing Master Chief’s face throughout the season, which the games never revealed. The fact that Master Chief repeatedly removes his helmet misses the thematic point of why games never show his face to begin with and only satisfies people who have never played video games and most likely have little interest in Halo to start.
These narrative twists prove that most creators working on video game adaptations don’t understand what made the source material so beloved in the first place. For Sonic, it’s the colorful cartoon world and high-speed action that fans love, not the photorealistic renderings of modern Earth animals messing around with a bunch of human characters. For Unexplored, it’s the charisma and dynamic relationships that these seasoned treasure hunters have, not horribly ill-cast actors who are more concerned with looking cool than bonding together. While both movies get some aspects of their franchises, they miss the mark on the bigger picture that made these video games so appealing.
Adapting a video game into a movie or show is a form of translation, and another problem encountered is that many adapted video games are not suitable for adaptation. Movies and TV are passive, story-driven pursuits with no interactivity, while many video games succeed solely through that interactivity. Gran Turismo is a video game franchise based on the simple desire to drive real cars in virtual space. Without being able to interact with real cars in the future Gran Turismo film, any purpose in an adaptation is defeated.
Unexplored is a successful game franchise because it allows people to play through their own Indiana Jones –like adventure. When it’s translated into a movie, it just becomes another forgery IndianaJones film because it was the interactivity that made all the difference. That being said, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of the war are highly narrative video games that have the best chance of thriving on the TV scene. A good creative mind can find success in adapting video games with the right time and care.
It’s no coincidence that video game adaptations of movies and comic books translate much better than film and television adaptations of video games. Video games are one of the rare art forms to combine writing, music and visuals with interactivity, which elevates them above a purely audiovisual medium. The loss of respect and interactivity is what makes film and film adaptations turn sour. Hopefully the film and television industry can learn from its mistakes.