The genre of films adapted from video games has a hard-earned reputation for being generally dismal.
Time and again, Hollywood studio bosses have attempted cinematic alchemy by converting much-loved game titles into credible films that even have aspirations to achieve more than just tidy box office receipts. Invariably, the only thing worse than the critical reception for these films is the revenue, as gamers and average punters stay away- burned too many times before by lazy, disrespectful offerings.
Two films being released next year are hoping to reverse this trend and, perhaps foolishly, people are beginning to convince themselves that they might not be irredeemably bad. Blizzard’s Warcraft fantasy series and Ubisoft’s Assassins’ Creed series are potentially going to be the first to offer up a watchable take on a popular game franchise. This is an impression that can be taken from an optimistic interpretation of the small amount that we know so far about each film.
In order for this not to be misplaced hope, these films will have to overcome the inherent constrictions of adapting a video game into a feature film. Perhaps the main problem holding back the genre has been that the games they are based on have dire stories to begin with, and when the interactive element of the game is removed, the world onscreen can often seem remarkably empty.
This is not surprising since the film makers are essentially trying to take typically the least interesting parts of a game, the cut-scenes, and expand them into a story which is supposed to engage a viewer all-too used to skipping impatiently through their hackneyed exposition.
Further to these meagre building blocks offered by a game’s story, the characters are often extremely limited, with the game designers again relying on interaction to keep a player hooked. Both of the anticipated films seem to have little to work with in terms of characters, instead creating new characters specific to the films rather than trying to bring to life already existing characters from the games.
To try and combat the limitations that left viewers scratching their heads after the cinematic incarnations of such beloved titles as Super Mario Bros and Doom, the studios have decided to deploy credible industry figures. This tactic failed spectacularly for 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time which could boast the involvement of Ben Kingsley, Mike Newell and a leading role for Jake Gyllenhaal. For the celluloid version of Assassin’s Creed, Michael Fassbender is starring as well as co-producing, and has also brought along many of the people he worked with on Macbeth.
Based around the Spanish Inquisition, it is hoped that Fassbender’s remarkably consistent track record is enough to suggest that this won’t be the usual insipid recreation of a gaming universe that fans are used to.
Similarly, it is hoped that the sci-fi ingénue Duncan Jones- responsible for the acclaimed Moon and Source Code– can transfer his knack for inventive, original storytelling to the big screen. The first trailer for Warcraft looks visually stunning which, for fans of the sprawling game series which spawned the wildly successful MMO World of Warcraft, is a pleasing notion indeed. Although the games are played by millions, their makers hope to create a compelling offering for those unversed in the games’ lore.
From the trailer, the prospects for Warcraft seem inconclusive, as aside from the film’s obvious visual lustre, there is the vague feeling that it’s a plot we’ve seen before: warring races and heroes that defy convention by uniting for a common goal. But with a strong cast of lesser-known actors and the touch of a director who hasn’t yet made a dud, it could be a pleasant surprise if the film turns out to be a success. If it is, then it will have vindicated Blizzard (Warcraft’s game developer) who, tired of the weak efforts from traditional film studios, was prompted to establish their own entertainment studio to make the film. With the rights to the monolithic Call of Duty franchise among others under their belt, any success could well spark a run of game adaptations hitting screens in the future. If these films have finally cracked the puzzle then game fans and studio bosses will have something to look forward to, but until then fans will remain wary of being lured in by another false dawn.
Image: joshua livingston; flickr.com