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Lost in Medium Translation

Exploring the maladroit relationship between film and video games

As an enthusiast for both films and video games, I hardly found myself frustrated over the lack of an established film adaptation of a game. The experience of a video game isn’t synonymous with that of a film; one relies on the interaction of the audience while the other plays itself out. It’s apparent that both mediums have taken notes of the other’s aesthetics and incorporated it to their own. This allowed for the heightened tension of cinematography within certain films and the intricate narrative focus in video games. While the elements within each respective medium have been applied to the other, there’s still that upper-level demand to craft the perfect combination of the two. With the recent announcement of a big-screen adaptation for The Last of Us and the polarizing reaction to it, I decided to dive deep into the difficult relationship between film and video games.

Being adapted to another form of media obviously isn’t mutually exclusive to video games. There have been tons of video game adaptations for movies; some easy for one to pick up, while others you just want to throw out in a New Mexico landfill. In fact, the first involvement between gaming and film was a movie-licensed video game some 30 years back called Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is based on the first Indiana Jones movie of the same name. Released on the Foreman grill-esque home console Atari 2600, this was the first ever video game adaptation of a movie. The second video game tie-in of a movie was released a month later and was conveniently based on another Spielberg-directed film, E.T. It was also released for the Atari 2600 and was critically panned. Today it stands as one of the worst games of all time and is often accredited to playing a central role in the video game crash of 1983.

Luckily, amidst the 30 years of cross media marketing, there have been a few decent video game tie-ins. Spider-Man 2, Goldeneye, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and the triple crossed marketed Lego series video games – these are all fairly established game titles that emerged triumphantly from the rubble of tie-in failures. It took years of trial-and-error to develop some sort of successful video game tie-in that’s critically accepted within the community. Developing a prominent movie-tie in for a video game, however, proves to be a struggle today.

The gaming community and even some film fanatics loathe over the mention of film adaptations of video games whether they be from the past, present, or future. Japan has been releasing tie-ins of their acclaimed franchises (Super Mario Bros., Pokémon, Street Fighter, etc.) since 1986. The first movie based on a video game was the straight-to-VHS Japanese-animated Super Mario Bros.: Peach-Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! released in July 1986. I put it upon myself to watch the animation to get an idea of how it would’ve been received back then. Needless to say, I didn’t get too far, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the few pieces of the movie with a childhood sentiment. The animation predates the notorious live-action Super Mario Bros. movie by seven years. The first of its kind, this live-action adaptation was regrettably released in the US in May 1993.

Super Mario Bros. was a one-sided critical and commercial failure. However, that didn’t stop good ol’ Hollywood from trying to bring video games to the big screen (and in some cases straight-to-DVD). In the following years up to today, there have been a handful of live-action film adaptations: Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, to name a few. Some animated adaptations have come around as well, though less popular outside of their respective fanbase: FFVII: Advent Children and Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. If you stretch it long enough, the live action Super Mario Bros. is pretty influential in a bizarre way. This was a huge failure of a movie but yet people decided to capitalize on its market premise because it had a certain potential. There have only been a few film tie-ins since then that were commercially successful: the two Lara Croft movies and the Resident Evil series. Although they do succeed in the box office, these movies fail miserably in the critical department. Part of the reason why these movie tie-ins are terrible is simply because of the source material.

There’s a healthy amount of articles and individuals out there that give Hollywood flak for constantly barraging the consumer with bad adaptations. Now, is this an issue within the adapted source material or is it Hollywood’s habit of making things, well… “Hollywood?” Looking at the history of film adaptations in regards to playwrights and novels would yield interesting results. There have been tons of brilliant film adaptations like The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on and so forth. These are films that didn’t do much chopping of the source material in transition to the big screen. Sure, the films I’ve mentioned are older films that were back in Hollywood’s silver screen heyday, but film adaptations of recent time have been almost been, if not equally fantastic. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Road, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo definitely hold up to the source material without straying too far off. Don’t forget that most decisions made by upper-levels are always about money. It’s hard for us to call these films cash-grabs because they do the transition from the novel to the big screen so well. We’re left to wonder why the same thing can’t happen to our beloved video game franchises.

When you look at the stories of video games, they wouldn’t bode well as classic examples of literature. Most stories we play end up on par with average action-adventure titles or even B-movies. Of course, that’s not what most of us want from video games and it’s certainly not why most developers make them. Yet somehow these above or below average stories just work in the form of a video game because of the interaction. The biggest advantage to the gaming medium is the interaction between the player and the progression of the 10 to 12 hour journey. Shoehorning the premise of a video game into a 2 to 3 hour non-interactive experience just wouldn’t work and it’s why it hasn’t worked all of these years. It works the other way around too: the reason why most video game tie-ins of movies don’t work is because with film, we’re supposed to sit down and watch how things play out – not play it out ourselves.

I can see where devoted Last of Us fans are coming from. This is a story that should be experienced within the medium it was developed for. We can argue for a completely different story set with characters we haven’t seen before. However, doing just that would strip its nature as a “video game adaptation” and end up being more of an expansion to a video game canon.

Writer of the novel Cloud Atlas (which had been adapted into film), David Mitchell said, “Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable.” There’s a certain sentiment that leaves many gamers concerned whenever their favorite game comes under the Hollywood spotlight. Games aren’t supposed to be experienced in this Hollywood-manner on the big screen; specific tones, reactions, and stories are exclusive to the gameplay experience. To some fans, taking the name of an established game and translating it to another medium would strip it of its unique nature.

The desperate struggle to marry video game source material to the big screen seems pointless to many. Studios already bonded the aesthetics of cinematic storytelling to video games with a unique flair; The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid both come testament to this narrative talent. The aesthetics of video games have been merged with film cinematography as demonstrated in Elysium and the two latest Star Trek films. As a lover of both gaming and film, it’s great to see both forms of media prove beneficial to each other. I’ll admit I don’t think there is a need for an established film adaptation to a game, but I’m not going to dismiss the fascination I’ll have once that comes around.


Chad Patrick is a freelance writer who actually enjoyed Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. Follow him on Twitter and IGN.

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