Video games and films, at their basic level, have something very familiar in common. They both offer the consumer an escape from reality and are a form of entertainment. So, it should come as no surprise that in recent times, Hollywood seems to be ramping up it’s video game adaptations. Uncharted is set for 2021, Minecraft: The Movie is set for 2022, a sequel to 2020’s hit Sonic the Hedgehog is also set for 2022. These are just a few of the huge game adaptations coming to the big screen. But why have so many previous adaptations been such big flops at the box office? 

Well, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the first film adaptations of video games. In 1993 Super Mario Bros became the very first film to be adapted from a video game. It was of course based on Nintendo’s popular Mario video game series. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good start for the film and video game relationship as the film was, financially, a failure. The budget for Super Mario Bros was $48 million USD and only managed to recuperate a mere $20 million USD. Critic reviews were all in agreement, although the special effects and production design was above average, the writing and story was simply too lacklustre to keep the audiences’ attention. 

Two years later, Hollywood made a second attempt at reigniting the flame in the relationship and released Mortal Kombat in 1995. The film spent a total of 3 weeks at number 1 at the US box office, and made a healthy return of $122 million USD worldwide, whilst also spawning a sequel and two spin off television series. So, why did Mortal Kombat outperform Super Mario Bros so drastically when they were released within a couple years of each other and were both well established video games? 

The first possible reason for this is likely down to the choice of director, Paul Anderson took charge for Mortal Kombat and is now well known for his film adaptations of video games, such as the Resident Evil series, Alien vs Predator, and last years Monster Hunter. Anderson clearly has a passion for video games and was able to bring that passion to the big screen for his first adaptation. Another reason for the film’s success was the appeal to fans of the original game, multiple test screenings were carried out and the film went through extensive reshoots based on the feedback from fans.

But Mortal Kombat was sort of the beginning of the end for the film and video game relationship, because it’s been a rocky road in the 25 years since Mortal Kombat was released. We’ve been graced with some classics such as Goldeneye (1997), and some…not so classics, like Doom (2005).

So, what exactly are the reasons that so many adaptations of video games have flopped either financially or with critics and fans? 

Although both forms of media are often seen as a way for us to escape reality, the method in which these mediums are consumed are entirely different. Films are a passive way of consuming the art form, whereas video games are much more interactive. The difference between the two is simple, video games give the player something to physically do and control, while the viewer simply has no control over a film and can only observe what is put in front of them. Video games are able to offer the player a first person perspective of the character, and inturn, immerse the player through the characters own eyes. Whereas, most films are in the third person and offer less immersion because of this, apart from films such as Hardcore Henry. This could be one reason why the two forms of media don’t translate well, some video games are too interactive to translate into a film, such as Minecraft. Whilst other video games, although still interactive, rely heavily on the story and could easily be adapted to the big screen, such as The Last of Us.

When adapting a heavily driven story game, such as The Last of Us, it’s important that the story and characters not be tampered with too much to avoid angering the fans of the original series. There of course has to be some change compared to the games, or for those that played through the PlayStation classic, it can just come across as a simple rewatching of something they’ve probably played through multiple times already. Obviously, finding the middle ground between keeping the original story intact and creating something new for audiences can be tricky, and is quite possible why a lot of adaptations don’t go down well with fans. 

In more recent times however, Hollywood’s relationship with video games seems to have struck a new bond and reignited that on-again, off-again flame. So, I’ll skip the middleman and we’ll get right into the recent Hollywood video game releases. 

We’re talking strictly post 2016 however, because the adaptation of Assassin’s Creed starring Michael Fassbender is, in my opinion, something I’d like to forget exists. Even a star studded cast, having the assassins creed name attached, and a budget of $125 million USD still couldn’t save the overly confusing and outright boring adaptation. But since then, Hollywood has started to up its game, starting with the reboot of Tomb Raider in 2018, followed by the hugely successful Detective Pikachu in 2019, and then just before the world went into chaos, fans were treated with a fantastic Sonic the Hedgehog film at the beginning of 2020. 

I suppose we have no choice but to discuss that iteration of sonic that appeared in the first trailer for the film, we’ll let it slide though because we got to see another over the top comedic performance by Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik. However, it’s safe to say that the re-design of the titular character definitely helped boost the marketing for the film and led to a much wider audience not only talking about it, but also heading to cinemas to see it. We can definitely put the re-design of Sonic down as part of the film’s success, but there are other reasons that Sonic the Hedgehog performed so well at the box office. The film was released in the UK at the beginning of the school holidays, which of course will have helped it’s success at the box office. But for the fans of all ages, the film also features various Easter eggs that don’t disrupt the plot of the film, but serve as a humble nod to the original fans of the games. With a sequel for Sonic in the works, could this mean the relationship between films and video games is finally ready to settle down and take things seriously? 

The future is definitely looking bright, with production of Uncharted starring Mark Whalberg and Tom Holland in full swing, set to hit the big screen this year. As well as the TV adaptation of The Last of Us finally finding its director in the Oscar nominated Kantemir Balagov. 

Myself and many other fans are a bit concerned regarding the casting choices for Uncharted, I personally wouldn’t have picked a juiced to the gills, ex-rapper in Mark Whalberg to portray Sully but my fingers are crossed he can bring something special to the performance. Tom Holland also went on record to say that Uncharted brings something that other video game movies don’t have, and that thing was an origin story. Holland argued that Uncharted will be great for the fans of the games and for those coming in blind, because both parties will be experiencing something new as Uncharted is set some years before the first game. 

Personally, I’m really hoping this is the start of something great, especially considering Sony’s CEO announced at CES 2021 that Uncharted and The Last of Us was just the beginning for video game films. So, please, we’re all begging…don’t fuck it up.

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Kyle Knight
24 | Coventry | Film and Television Graduate

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