Press reset: Hollywood's struggle to make a winning video game film

Angry Birds, Assassin's Creed, Minecraft and more. Comic books may be cool, but the next big movie trend is the video game adaptation. But can Hollywood do justice to the games?

Studios look to cash in with fresh wave of game-inspired adaptations

The majority of video-game movie adaptations thus far have functioned as cinematic junk food, but with Angry Birds, Assasin's Creed, Minecraft and more on the way, Hollywood's next big thing is definitely the video game movie adaptation. (Buena Vista Pictures/Associated Press)

Up until now, the majority of video-game movie adaptations have functioned as cinematic junk food: a lurid mix of fast action, bad acting and disposable story lines.

The first era of game-inspired cinema began at a low point with 1993's now infamous Super Mario Bros

You'd think the memory of Bob Hoskins battling shrunken-head Koopalings would have frozen the trend for good. But Hollywood is rushing back to the arcade faster than Sonic the Hedgehog, with producers already working on big screen versions of titles ranging from Missile Command to Centipede to Tetris.

Yes, Tetris.

What's fuelling the fad? Audience envy. In 2015, the global box office revenue from movies was $38 billion US. Meanwhile, the video game industry racked up $91.8 billion and many expect it to total $100 billion by 2017.

A Razzies Hall of Fame

When it comes to video game adaptations, however, Hollywood sorely needs to update its methods.

From Need for Speed to the recent Ratchet and Clank, there's been a naive assumption that simply launching game characters onto the silver screen will result in a rain of golden coins.

From Need for Speed (starring Aaron Paul, seen here) to the recent Ratchet and Clank, there's been a naive assumption that simply launching game characters onto the silver screen is good enough. (Melinda Sue Gordon/DreamWorks II/Associated Press)

Max Payne. Hitman. Uwe Boll's Postal (Shudder). Double Dragon

The list of game-inspired films reads like a Razzies Hall of Fame. Part of the problem has been a lack of respect for the audience. Producers assume gamers to be so flattered to see their favourite characters onscreen that they'd overlook significant plot holes and atrocious acting. 

Whether we're talking Street Fighter or Tomb Raider, every video game adaptation faces the same basic problem. Putting aside budget or impressive casting, these movies lack the very thing that make games so immersive: the player interaction, according to video game developer Sagan Yee.

Losing interactivity: why games are hard to translate to film

6 years ago
Duration 0:27
Game developer Sagan Yee explains a key difficulty in adapting video games for the big screen

Veteran Canadian producer Don Carmody has created a series of successful game-to-movie adaptations with his Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises. But he discovered the danger of potentially alienating fans — even receiving death threats — when his team decided to make a core change to a character from Silent Hill.

Death threats and outrage: Don Carmody on making movies for gamers

6 years ago
Duration 0:41
Don Carmody, producer of Silent Hill and Resident Evil films, on managing fans frustrated over video game adaptations.

Perhaps these challenges are why, until now, the genre's best films have been those that were inspired by, but not actually based on real titles.

Wreck-It Ralph gleefully lampooned the genre, but its story was really about the title character's rehabilitation as a video game bad guy. The neon light cycles of Tron captured the sweaty-palm experience of '80s-era arcades (with the 2010 remake falling into the guilty pleasure zone). Meanwhile, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World invoked the visual vocabulary of side-scrollers while telling its zany love story.

Wreck-It Ralph, which turned out to be a $471-million US smash hit for Disney, featured cameos from classic video game characters but had the advantage of not being tied to a single title. (Disney/Associated Press)

Game-inspired movies level up

A new wave of upcoming films suggest the tide is turning and Hollywood is beginning to take video games seriously. 

June will bring Warcraft, a CGI-heavy adaptation directed by Moon's Duncan Jones and inspired by World of Warcraft, the globe's most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Tom Hardy is said to be suiting up for Splinter Cell, while Alicia Vikander is taking a break from her Oscar victory lap to don Lara Croft's short shorts for a new Tomb Raider film. 

If it's old-school arcade action you're after, Dwayne Johnson is reteaming with San Andreas director Brad Peyton for Rampage, based on the game where giant monsters compete to see who can smash the most skyscrapers. If there's any justice, the film will end with a 50-foot tall version of Johnson as The Rock, giving the People's Elbow to Ralph.

Night at the Museum's Shawn Levy was originally set to direct the upcoming Minecraft movie, but left over creative differences with game creator Mojang. The film's new director, Rob McElhenney, has promised 'something strange and wonderful.' (Mojang AB)

Perhaps the most promising game-to-movie adaptation in the works is Minecraft. Rob McElhenney, creator of dark TV comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has signed on to direct a film adaptation and promised "something strange and wonderful." Similar to The Lego Movie, Minecraft and its mutable world of blocks seems to lend itself to a big-screen treatment.

Meanwhile, video game publishers flush with cash are also working at beating Hollywood at its own game.

Ubisoft, the maker of titles as varied as Splinter Cell, Rayman and Just Dance, launched a film division in 2011. First out of the gate will be Assassin's Creed, a time-travelling thriller starring Michael Fassbender. Having enlisted the screenwriters of Exodus: Gods and Kings and ponied up a budget said to be close to $200 million, Ubisoft is looking to build Assassin's Creed into a movie franchise that could give Batman a run for his money.

Even Nintendo, the granddaddy of console gaming, has entered the fray. The company recently announced it will invest in filmmaking, with projects featuring "characters everyone knows," according to president Tatsumi Kimishima.

A $73M gamble

Lest you think a game based on flinging feathered creatures at swine-infested structures doesn't lend itself to a cinematic treatment, the makers of this weekend's Angry Birds are eager to prove you wrong.

In perhaps the first case of a feature-length film inspired by an app, Angry Birds is catapulting onto the big screen. The glossy new movie features the voices of comedy stars Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon.

Rovio, the creator of the Angry Bird app, has bankrolled the movie version to the tune of $73 million US. (Sony Pictures/Associated Press)

Sure, it's simplistic and silly, but Angry Birds the movie succeeds on its own terms. The animated feature has an appropriately cheeky tone, while providing enough feather-powered destruction to satisfy fans.

Rovio, the creator of the Angry Bird app, certainly believes in the film's potential. The Finnish company spent $73 million to bankroll the movie version. 

If the Angry Birds movie manages to attract even a fraction of the three billion users who downloaded the original app, expect to see many more Hollywood producers rushing towards the "start" button.


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.  


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