Error in Translation: Films Based on Video Games

Television and film based on video games is coming into prominence with upcoming titles such as Assassin’s Creed, The Last of Us, and Ratchet & Clank films confirmed to be in production. It is a savvy business move by game developers, as it is likely both fans of the game and casual moviegoers can view the film as entertaining. It is a solid moneymaker in some instances such as the Resident Evil franchise getting four films spanning from 2002-2012 with a fifth installment in line. In general, these make a huge profit but are received poorly by critics. I will take a look at films such as Super Mario Bros., Max Payne, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to investigate how the films “betray” the game itself. Additionally, I will also touch on some troubles the upcoming films might have to deal it.

The film takes liberties to appeal to a specific demographic.

This particularly comes to mind in the 1985 Super Mario Bros. film. Husband and wife director pair Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel clashed with the cast, studio, and themselves in trying to create this quirky film. For people familiar with the movie, the directors desired a product that would appeal to an adult audience, implementing elements such as mafia, alternative dimensions, and romance between Luigi and Princess Daisy. For those familiar with the game, very little is associated with Nintendo’s most famous platformer. The result was a box office bomb that lost nearly 18 million dollars and a pop culture phenomenon. The attempts of the directors in attempt to appeal to adults and masses resulted in an odd cyberpunk film that alienated fans. Fun fact, the directors wanted to cast Tom Hanks as Mario and later selected Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo (Luigi) were drunk for most of their scenes.

The film goes in an opposite direction than the game.

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This film hurts me quite a bit, as I had high expectations for it. The Max Payne series originally developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Rockstar. Max Payne is a down on his luck cop who vows to hunt down the killers responsible for the vicious murder of his wife Michelle and daughter Rose. The game is most famous for its art style, a type of neo-noir aesthetic and graphic novel with narrator Max. Along with the art style, Max can slow down time in a sequence known as, “bullet time” where he can dodge bullets and hop out of cover to line up the perfect shot on his enemies. The film generated quite the buzz with a strong cast (Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax) and director John Moore known for making poorly received, but high engrossing films.

True to form, Moore made nearly $50 million with the film in box office earnings but was panned by critics and producer of the game Scott Miller*. Miller’s complaints had to do with inconsistencies such as absence of key antagonist Jack Lupino and no clarification as to why Max is hell bent on revenge until halfway through the film. What Miller was most puzzled about was the incorporation of demonic creatures (absent from all the games). Max Payne had potential and a strong story and cult following to make a powerful noire film like Sin City but decided to implement a Hollywood touch to entice audiences. It obviously worked because of the success based on money, but it did not sit well with fans and betrayed the game.
*A small caveat: Money talks, Miller retracted his statements after the filmed debuted No. 1 on opening weekend.

The film has no resemblance to the game save for the title.

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Disney produced the film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in hopes they found the next Pirates of the Caribbean. The film was based (and I use that term loosely) on Ubisoft’s platformer. The game follows the protagonist’s unnamed prince on a siege of a city in India and the prince stumbles upon the sands of time and dagger of time. The prince is then tricked into opening the hourglass by the treacherous vizier and kills the entire court of Persia. The prince then embarks on a journey to undo his fatal mistake and fix all events that occurred during the siege.

Though I concede that the game’s plot could not remain stagnant and make a solid film, the film itself was confusing and disconnect between the general audience and fans of the game. Firstly, the prince is an orphan child named Dastan who was adopted by the king upon witnessing an incident in a bakery. Years later, Dastan is framed for the murder of the king and he ends up a fugitive. The prince later finds out that a strange dagger he acquired at a banquet where the murder occurred can rewind time and he is informed by love interest Tamina the dagger was created to wash away the sins of human kind and that it cannot fall into the wrong hands. A convoluted plot and attempt to make the prince a more sympathetic character lead to poor reception by fans, but the film is the highest grossing picture based on a video game.

The film cannot offer the suspense or experience the game can offer.

This instance is a potential problem in upcoming films The Last of Us and Assassin’s Creed. I will likely check out the films upon release, but have little expectations based on the quality of films based on video games and qualities the films cannot replicate. Take for example, The Last of Us. The powerful narrative and intense situations Naughty Dog puts players through instills a sense of urgency that makes it difficult to survive swarms of enemies will be difficult to copy in the movie. The sense of panic and distress I have witnessed players experience by trying to craft in the midst of battle or keep tabs on an influx of enemies will be challenging to replicate. If the director can transform this feeling into a film, more power to them.

In regards to Assassin’s Creed, some of the intriguing plot twists will likely be known by the audience. The conflict between Templars and Assassins is now well documented throughout the game and the sting of discovering the Templar Order still exists with the head being your Assassin mentor will not carry as much clout. The film might have to tweak the narrative in order to be as shocking and intimate as the games are. Please, for the love of goodness for whoever takes this project, leave all this Animus garbage out of the film. I would prefer the bland Desmond Miles be kept out of the movie and Ubisoft release a game where your only assassin target is pompous jackass Shaun Hastings. There will be more assassinations, but your only target would be Shaun (I know I am not the only player who wanted to plunge a hidden blade into him).

Ultimately, is Hollywood likely to change how video game movies are made to preserve the integrity of the original intellectual product? Highly doubtful since these films are box office successes attracting a casual moviegoer and gamer. It is nice to see future projects tailor to the fans, however. The upcoming Ratchet & Clank animated title will retain the animation from the game’s cutscenes and voice cast of the game. Also, TJ Fixman, the original writer for Insomniac Games, will be writing the game’s script. Ideally for future projects, the game developer themselves would have a bigger role in the creation of the film to ensure a product similar to the game.