Adaptations are as old as the cinema itself. From Georges Melies’ La Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), filmmakers have continually scoured other media for stories suited to the big screen. This essay focuses on the phenomenon of films based on videogames, examining the reason why these films were made, how their production was influenced by aspects of the source media and the response with which they were met.

Films based directly on specific videogame series and franchises are a relatively new phenomenon – Super Mario Bros was the first such film, released in 1993. This may seem surprising given that commercially-available videogames were introduced in 1971 (Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space arcade machine) and that home gaming platforms such as the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System ensured that gaming was a popular and mainstream activity from the early 80s. Films were made which responded to the general phenomenon of video gaming: Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984) featured then cutting-edge computer-enhanced graphics; WarGames (1983) merged nuclear war fears with technophobia in a story where a teenage hacker almost starts world war 3; Joysticks (1983) placed arcade culture in the context of the popular teen sex comedy genre. However, despite the production of several videogames based on popular motion pictures – including E. T. (1982, game released the same year) – individual games and game franchises were not treated to a big-screen makeover. One reason for this may be the technological crudity and narrative simplicity of early videogames. As games are primarily an interactive medium, early videogames concentrated on playability. Limitation in memory meant that many early videogames contained patterns of repeating waves (or levels), which is not conducive to story or character development. What little narrative was present generally took the form of text displayed between levels or as an introduction (or “attract sequences” displayed between playing sessions). Despite this, the popularity of games led to a plethora marketing spin-offs and some characters did make an appearance on the small screen – Namco’s Pac-Man (1980) videogame was adapted into an animated series which ran from 1982-84. This activity, combined with the adaptation of other properties seen as appealing to a youth audience such as Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984) comic, adapted in 1990 and The Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, adapted in 1987, meant that – in economic terms at least – a film version of a videogame property was inevitable.

If it was only a matter of time until the commercial prospects for a direct videogame-to-film adaptation was produced it is perhaps also inevitable that the subject would be the most successful videogame. Super Mario Bros (1983), a co-production between videogame software and hardware publisher Nintendo, Cinergi Pictures and Allied Filmmakers, is based on the videogame franchise of the same name, a series of games beginning with Donkey Kong (1981) which have together sold 152 million copies worldwide[1]. The world of the Mario games has evolved over time but at the time of the film’s production the games were relatively primitive – Mario Bros (1983) is a simple platform game which requires the player – playing as either Mario or Luigi, his brother – to jump across platforms and onto enemies to defeat them. The film adaptation includes several elements which are present in the game series to this point and some from the subsequent entry, but understandable liberties are taken with the source material to allow a credible story to be constructed. In a more general sense, the film is more recognisable as a “videogame film” in its use of advanced (for the time) visual effects, elaborate sets and non-stop action. In this very first videogame adaptation we can see the elements which have come to characterise not just film adaptations of games, but a general critical observation of modern films of a certain genre (usually action films) to be “like a videogame”. This comment is usually a negative one and refers to excessive CGI, fast editing patterns and over-produced settings as pandering to an audience (usually young) who suffer from low-attention spans, crave violent entertainment and shun character and narrative development as boring. This tendency increased in subsequent videogame adaptations, with a wave of films based on videogames in the popular “fighting” game genre: Double Dragon (1994), Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995) and its sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997). These games, whose characterisation extends little beyond costume and contain no more narrative than the progression to a series of “boss” characters, were – and, still are – enormously popular, but contain a paucity film-like assets useful for adaptation. Certainly, from a critical point-of-view the films were seen as no more than an attempt to cash-in on a property which had a substantial in-built audience of a certain key demographic. A glance at scores for these films on movie review sites such as IMDB.com also shows that ordinary viewers have tended to assign low ratings, with only the first Mortal Kombat film achieving a score of more than five out of ten. Financially, the films follow a similar pattern with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter making a substantial profit and the other either making marginal profits or losing money. Mortal Kombat was the first visible success for a videogame adaptation, spending three weeks at number one in the US box office charts. That its more generously budgeted sequel made substantially less than 50% of its box office and was followed two years later by the lamentable performance of Chris Robert’s Wing Commander seems to have halted production of more videogame adaptations until the new millennium.

Until the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, videogame adaptations were taken from long-running game franchises designed for and running on primitive 8- and 16-bit computer hardware. The release of Sony’s Playstation and Sega’s Saturn in 1995 marked the debut of 32-bit technology in home console gaming and sparked a revolution in the kind of gaming experiences available. The improvement in graphical capability allowed the development of immersive 3D worlds and the use of CD-ROM for storage allowed streaming video to add narrative elements, CD-quality music and greater data storage for richer game content. The success of Sony, in particular, in marketing and supporting the Playstation leads to a demographic shift in the types of people playing games:

The effect of aggressive marketing campaigns employed by Sony to promote Playstation … has been a shift in videogame market demographics with the average age of players continuing to rise year on year. From the outset the Playstation family was marketed at late teens/early twenties and the success of these strategies has contributed to a shifting demographic that must force a reconsideration of the videogame as merely a child’s toy.[2]

This type of audience demanded more mature content and a number of games were produced which were more explicit in terms of violence or sexual content, but also in terms of the literate nature of plot and characterisation. The added graphical prowess of the gaming platforms had allowed developers to make games more filmic, with a number of genres developing which exploited the ability to move in three dimensions in a game world. So, when the time came to adapt these game franchises to the medium of film, filmmakers found a richer range of film-like assets to import: fully-formed characters with recognisably human behaviour traits and ticks; game world settings which either corresponded to the real world or presented a consistent fantasy environment; original, orchestral soundtracks; action and event-driven narrative approximate to existing genre film. It is a common feature of film adaptations of the new generation of games that they have quite often handled mature themes – many of them are in the “horror” genre and, with the notable exception of the Tomb Raider films, the majority have been shot for an “R” rating.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider stands as the most successful adaptation of a videogame to date in terms of takings at the worldwide box-office. However, in terms of return on investment – it is the second most expensive videogame adaptation – it is closer to Street Fighter than Mortal Kombat. It was generally disliked by critics and the poorer performance of its sequel would appear to have put paid to further entries in the franchise and generally to big-budget videogame adaptations released by major US studios. Since the release of Tomb Raider: the Cradle of Life in 2003, videogame adaptations have tended to mid-budget, with only high-profile failure Doom breaking the $50 million mark. The most expensive videogame adaptation of all time is a special case, in that Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within (2001) is not strictly an adaptation of a videogame (the Japanese role-playing game Final Fantasy has an entirely new storyline for each entry in the series), but an entirely original story which contains themes common to its nominal source such as environmental disaster, the destructive nature of humanity and standard fantasy tropes such as the importance of honour and loyalty. Its chief link to its source material is the nature of its production – it is an entirely computer-generated film, made with the similar technology as that used in the videogame series. Though the script has come in for criticism, few reviewers were unimpressed with the cutting-edge CGI used, in particular in the lifelike character models[3]. The film was a notable commercial catastrophe, however, and remains something of a cinematic anomaly. It also caused the dissolution of its Japanese production company “Square Pictures”, a branch of the Japanese company responsible for the Final Fantasy games.

The tendency of videogames to cross national boundaries (videogame series such as Tomb Raider – developed in the UK, Final Fantasy – developed in Japan and Doom – developed in the US, are successful all over the world) has led to international co-production in film adaptations of videogames. Tomb Raider, released by major US studio Paramount was made as a co-production with a German company and benefitted from German tax laws:

Germany allows investors in German-owned film ventures to take an immediate tax deduction on their film investments, even if the film they’re investing in has not yet gone into production … unlike the tax laws in other countries, they don’t require that films be shot locally or employ local personnel. German law simply requires that the film be produced by a German company that owns its copyright and shares in its future profits … In the case of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Paramount sold the copyright to a group of German investors for $94 million through Tele-München Gruppe … Paramount then repurchased the film for $83.8 million in lease and option payments.[4]

Further budget costs were offset with the use of some British actors and locations, which allowed the production to claim tax relief, and pre-sales of the “…distribution rights in six countries where the Tomb Raider video games were a big hit with teenage boys. These pre-sales in Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain brought in another $65 million.”[5] This partly explains the desire on the part of studios to persist in making films based on videogame properties, when the evidence is that they have had variable financial and critical success. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was trendsetting in its use of German co-production – Paul W. S. Anderson’s return to the videogame adaptation genre, Resident Evil (2002), was co-produced by German company, Constantin Films. It was also shot largely in Berlin.

                         The highest profile German production company in the field of videogame adaptations is undoubtedly Boll Kino Beteiligungs GmbH & Co., whose founder Uwe Boll has written, directed and/or produced a total of nine such films as of 2010. Almost universally loathed by fans and critics[6], his films and the man himself have a high profile in videogame and genre film press because of the perceived shoddy nature of his work. Critics complain that his films are badly made, with atrocious casting, confusing scripts and badly shot and edited action scenes. Fans of the videogames he adapts complain that he shows little fidelity to their stories, characters and spirit. Boll’s films are responsible for all but one rating below 5/10 on IMDB.com for theatrical films based on videogames since Wing Commander in 1999[7]. Despite his films’ terrible box-office, Boll continues to make films through the same exploitation of German tax laws as those used by Paramount in the production of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Much of the criticism is centered on the financial details of production of Boll’s films, with critics alleging that Boll intentionally makes films with no consideration of quality because he is compensated for losses under the deal. [8] Boll’s films tend to do better in non-US territories and generally perform well on DVD – in fact, several of his productions have become direct-to-DVD franchises, with sequels to House of Dead, BloodRayne and Alone in the Dark all bypassing theatres. Boll has been criticized for being more of a businessman than an artist, but in interviews he seems to indicate that the difficulty in making videogame adaptations is partly down to lack of business sense on the part of property holders:

Boll believes that part of the problem with convincing Hollywood that game movies are a good idea is down to game publishers themselves. He argues that Marvel, for example, are very good at cross-promoting movies based on their properties – whereas videogame companies simply sell off the license and then forget about it. According to Boll, he’s fallen foul of this on more than one occasion. “Sega did nothing for House of the Dead, and Atari did nothing to support Alone in the Dark. They developed Alone in the Dark part 5, parallel to my movie, and then they closed the LA facility and never finished the game. And I was standing there alone in the rain with my movie…[9]

In general terms, it seems surprising – given the cross-marketing possibilities – that more direct videogame tie-ins are not developed for simultaneous release with features films based directly on videogame franchises. This practice is widespread for films not based on videogames, with recent years seeing simultaneous releases of games to coincide with theatrical release of films such as Quantum of Solace (2008) and Cars (2006). There are two potential reasons why this does not occur often occur for films based on videogames. Firstly, it is difficult to synchronize the development and release schedules of two different industries. When one property is delayed, costs are incurred in either delaying the release of the other or missing out on the marketing opportunities of a planned simultaneous release. When this takes place within a vertically-integrated media company which owns (or has a direct financial arrangement with) the film and game studios this pain can be lived with. However, this is not usually the case with films adapted from games, where the source properties tend to be made by established independent game studios. In the case highlighted by Boll, his company was ready with their adaptation of Atari’s game, but delays in the production of the game led to a loss of cross-marketing potential which he argues harmed the game. As the game was designed to introduce changes in character and setting to a long-running and popular franchise the film was criticized for not following established game franchise canon. The game appeared three years after Boll’s film, in 2008. The second reason takes the form of a high-profile cautionary tale: the disastrous reception of the videogame Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. The game was released in tandem with the feature film sequel Tomb Raider: the Cradle of Life in 2003, which opened in fourth place in the box-office charts and went on to mediocre business:

Paramount says, it’s the fault of the latest Lara Croft video game. That’s the excuse offered by Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen, who told Reuters, ”The only thing we can attribute that to is that the gamers were not happy with the latest version of the ‘Tomb Raider’ video game, which is our core audience.” As it turns out, ”Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness” has been a big seller since its release on June 20, Reuters reports, but critics have complained that the game has so many bugs that it’s nearly impossible to play. [10]

The Angel of Darkness, which has a metacritic score of 49/100, was rushed into release to coincide with Cradle of Life which exacerbated problems the development team – Core Design – were experiencing with the new Playstation 2 games console. The early days of videogame-to-film adaptation had seen the release of a number of game tie-ins, but subsequent to the Tomb Raider fiasco, Doom the movie and Doom 3 remains the only significant simultaneous videogame/film release.

                        The idea of a “core audience” is key in understanding the appeal of adapting videogames for film studios. As games are an interactive medium it can be argued that they are naturally predisposed to encourage fan participation in cross-media spin-offs and in creating their own works based on game franchise elements (what Henry Jenkins terms “participatory culture”):

Fans have always been early adapters of new media technologies; their fascination with fictional universes often inspires new forms of cultural production, ranging from costumes to fanzines and, now, digital cinema.[11]

Jenkins is referring here specifically to those fans of the universe presented in the Star Wars film franchise and fan response to it, which has led to the use of home video and computer technology for the production of their own films. It’s apparent that there is an aspect of all adaptation to film that exploits existing audience knowledge and builds hype based on expectation and imagination. This can be a double-edged sword for filmmakers; audiences have their own ideas about such things as how a character should look, sound and behave and what their environment should look like. A century of adaptations of novels, short stories and theatre, though, has largely given audiences a context to mediate and understand divergences between expectation based on their experience of original texts and the film adaptation. This is complicated by the adaptation of an interactive medium, where the nature of the narrative admits what Janet Murray calls “agency”, the ability of the audience to actively and simultaneous dictate the course of narrative cause and effect in the game world. This may take several forms, one of which is simple movement:

One form of agency … characteristic of digital environments is spatial navigation. The ability to move through virtual landscapes can be pleasurable in itself, independent of the content of the spaces.[12]

Murray states that agency works to enhance immersion in a text. In the case of spatial navigation, this is exploited by such games in the horror genre – such as the Doom series – to enhance tension by providing the audience with the tools an author uses to build suspense and anticipation. Approaching the turn in one of the dark corridors of the space station in Doom 3, the game player is entirely in control of the way he encounters potential threats – from speeding directly around, guns blazing, to carefully peeping out in a stealthy manner. Replicating these kinds of experiences in film adaptations of video games has been problematic. The film adaptation of Doom, includes a sequence filmed from the perspective of the protagonist as he patrols the Olduvai research facility, which has been overrun by creatures mutated by a virus. Production design, practical creature effects, computer effects and staging of this sequence provide a very close facsimile of watching someone play the game Doom 3, while at the same time, only serving to remind that we are watching a film. Paradoxically, the sequence works to bring the audience (or, at least, an educated audience – the “core audience”) out of the picture. A similar tactic is employed in the opening sequence of Silent Hill (2006), where the protagonist’s walk into the titular ghost town is replicated with incredible fidelity by director Christophe Gans – camera angles, production design, creature effects and narrative event all work to create an extended quote of the corresponding sequence from the first Silent Hill game, published in 1999.

                        As of 2010, it seems unlikely that there will be an end to the adaptation of successful video game franchises, with a number of titles announced as in production. Even Uwe Boll, who seemed to have been given pause by the abject failure of his largest project to date – In the Name of the King: a Dungeon Siege Tale, in 2008 – has announced further videogame-related projects. While videogames remain popular and while film studios remain focussed on certain demographics, the appeal will remain. It remains to be seen whether further development of videogames as a mature art-form will render film translation irrelevant, as advances in graphical sophistication and processing power in a new generation of gaming consoles bridge the gap between Hollywood spectacle and today’s game worlds. In a few decades we may be looking back on the phenomena of films based on video games as a brief anomaly in the history of film and videogames. 

Filmography

Primary film texts

Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1993)

Street Fighter (Capcom Co. Ltd., 1994)

Mortal Kombat (New Line, 1995)

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (New Line, 1997)

Wing Commander (Carousel Picture Company, 1999)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Mutual Film Company, 2001)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Square Pictures, 2001)

Resident Evil (Constantin Film, 2002)

House of the Dead (Boll Kino, 2003)

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Mutual Film Company, 2003)

Alone in the Dark (Boll Kino, 2005)

Doom (Universal, 2005)

Silent Hill (Silent Hill DCP Inc., 2006)

Dead or Alive (Constantin Film, 2006)

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (Boll Kino, 2008)

Bibliography

Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press 1997

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture New York University Press 2006

James Newman, Videogames, Routledge 2004


[2] James Newman, Videogames, Routledge 2004, p.6

[5] Epstein, ibid.

[6] There is an online calling for Boll to sop working – http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?RRH53888

[7] The exception is Dead or Alive (2006), a Paul W. S. Anderson-produced martial arts film which attempted to replace R-rated violence with PG-13-rated fighting girls. It was a catastrophic box-office failure, but is still rated higher than any Uwe Boll film on IMDB.com at 4.9/10.

[10] Blame GameEntertainment Weekly, 7/29/03

[11] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture New York University Press 2006, p.131

[12] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press 1997, p.129

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