Limousines and luxury SUVs still outnumber hybrid cars outside fancy premieres, but you have to concede that Hollywood has a genuine interest in conservation. Why else would it eagerly recycle so many different things into movies?
Hollywood's many efforts to reformat video games as cinematic spectaculars have been especially prone to glitches.
Comic books, bestselling memoirs, old TV shows, journalistic exposés, action figures, Norse epic poems, board games — all have been turned into films. Who can blame producers for limiting their risk by exploiting something that's already succeeded in another medium? The trouble is, elements that made the original so well loved have a tendency to get lost in translation.
Hollywood's many efforts to reformat video games as cinematic spectaculars have been especially prone to glitches. Why they're compelled to hit their heads repeatedly against this particular wall is easy to understand: new installments of game franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Halo out-gross all but the biggest blockbusters. Surveys indicate that more Americans play games regularly than see movies. There's little question now about the video game's supremacy over the silver screen.
Cinema can still captivate viewers en masse — the Avatar phenomenon was proof of that. Yet the movie industry has been wobbly during the current recession, and higher prices for 3-D and Imax tickets have papered over problems with falling attendance. The pressure is greater than ever for Hollywood to horn in on the game world's success. Indeed, they want it in the worst way, which may be why movie adaptations of games aren't getting any better.
These competing platforms have a long history together — the process of turning movies into games dates back to the days of the Atari 2600 and playable incarnations of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1982, Disney and Bally Midway simultaneously launched Tron in arcade-game and film forms — and it was the movie that flopped.
Through the '80s and '90s, movie and gaming talents became increasingly involved in each others' worlds — an early example arrived in 1983, when former Disney animator Don Bluth helped create the pioneering laserdisc game Dragon's Lair. But those on the Hollywood side developed the foolhardy conviction that hit games could become hit movies with only the most rudimentary tweaks.
Having been the bestselling video game for more than two decades, Super Mario Bros. was a natural pick for Hollywood. The Nintendo classic already contained two iconic characters, a simple quest narrative and many memorably monstrous opponents. Yet the 1993 film was a disastrous failure. Starring Bob Hoskins and a young John Leguizamo, the film was criticized by gamers for deploying a darker tone than the cheery original. Non-gamers just ignored it.
Super Mario Bros. had many of the elements that made future game adaptations such a chore to watch: simplistic characters, an incoherent narrative, cluttered visual design and hectic, incomprehensible action sequences. Worst of all, it denied the consumer the one thing that made the original enjoyable: control. The experience of watching the film versions of Street Fighter (1994), Doom (2005) and Max Payne (2008) has been akin to watching someone else play a video game — and how boring is that?
Despite their generally poor box-office performances, game adaptations have continued to stream forth from Hollywood. Over the years, the dreariness has only been alleviated by the occasional demonstration of visual panache (Mortal Kombat or the first installment of the Resident Evil franchise) or the stark realization that a new low had been reached (usually by hack supremo Uwe Boll, maker of House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark).
Big stars mostly stayed away from such projects, even if Angelina Jolie did establish her cred as a female action star by playing Lara Croft in the 2001 adaptation of Tomb Raider. Like the original game franchise, the movie version recycled clichés that were better employed in the Indiana Jones series. Nevertheless, it was a big enough hit to become the world's highest-grossing video game adaptation for nearly a decade. It was recently surpassed by Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a movie so bland, synthetic and lifeless that it makes Tomb Raider look like a Palme d'Or winner.
Meanwhile, a handful of non-adaptations absorbed and replicated the aesthetics of video games in less overt and interesting ways. Thrillers like David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) and Mamoru Ishii's Avalon (2001) situated live-action characters in treacherous game universes. The Matrix essentially did the same, setting the stage for the dreamscapes of Inception. The imagery of first-person shooter games would infiltrate such movies as Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2005), which shows its young protagonists playing one such game before enacting a terrifying variant with real rifles at their high school.
Far more playful are the video game references that colour Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, a movie stuffed silly with gamer in-jokes. (The characters are even seen playing Ninja Ninja Revolution, a spinoff of Dance Dance Revolution that you'll wish really existed.)
It's possible that the best video game adaptation is one that never got made: Halo. Peter Jackson and his team spent years trying to bring Microsoft's mega-selling action franchise to movie screens. Indeed, the project seemed destined to revolutionize the oft-derided subgenre of game-spawned movies. Work continued after Jackson handed off the directorial chores to Neill Blomkamp, a South African-born, Vancouver-based filmmaker and FX wizard.
Production was halted when the studios financing the project could no longer see eye to eye. But much of the design and FX work originally developed for Halo can be seen in District 9, an original film by Blomkamp that has none of the flaws that typically plague video game adaptations. Instead, it was the most novel and satisfying science-fiction thriller to emerge in years.
Of course, Microsoft is still toying with a movie based on Halo. Knowing how much the odds are stacked against success, audiences might be better off with another adaptation of Clue.
Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.