It seems that nowadays, if a property becomes even mildly popular, studios are primed and ready to adapt it to the big screen. The practice makes sense, as the established property comes packaged with a fan base and often some cultural awareness that makes it a safer investment than an original ip. There’s nothing wrong with books and comics being adapted to the big screen. Where would we be without classics like Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of OZ? There’s also no doubt that Disney and Marvel have benefited greatly from creating a superhero movie boom while shattering records with each new addition to their cinematic universe. Despite comics and books having had a history of success in making the jump to theaters, one medium has always struggled to please droves of die-hard fans and also find box office success, video games.
Where adaptations are making mistakes
On the surface adapting a video game into a feature film looks easy. Video games often thrive on larger-than-life characters rallying against the odds to conquer evil or save the princess. Early attempts to adapt video games into movies stumbled with the limited plots and paper-thin characters of early titles. 1993’s Super Mario Bros. took the beloved Nintendo property and spun the sparse source material of the NES superstar with original characters and a completely new story. The result was an unfortunate mashup of elements from the classic series and original ideas that did little to please young fans or the average uninformed audience member. Mario and Luigi were present, alongside princess Daisy and King Koopa, but the joy of the original game was nowhere to be found.
Modern video games have evolved narratively, utilizing the inherent interactivity, immersion and elements of audience agency to weave intricate personal tales. Technological leaps have provided graphics that turned characters from plumbers represented by a handful of sprites to near-lifelike 3D models. Players are able to dump more of themselves into these characters and the worlds they inhabit, creating an opportunity to tell much more complex and emotional stories as well as reach a level of investment that film can not touch.
Are we finally getting it right?
Recent movie releases based on video games have much more to work with than in the early days of the medium. Still, the struggle to be compelling to newcomers while capturing what fans love about the source material remains a massive problem. June saw the release of the Warcraft movie. Blizzard’s fantasy juggernaut, best known for the incredibly popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft, comes packaged with some of the most passionate and knowledgeable fans in gaming. Director Duncan Jones, who made his mark directing 2011’s Source Code, had a tall order on his hands from the get go. Reviews highlight the fine line between pleasing fans and capturing a new audience, either praising or damning the film for its heavy fan service. Warcraft chose to be faithful to the original fan base in some interesting ways that made the movie fun to watch if not a strong film in its own right.
Here I have to out myself as a Warcraft fan. I no longer play the massive time suck that is World of Warcraft, but I have a large place in my heart for the franchise. I spent countless hours of my high school years raiding dungeons and questing all over Azeroth. I’ve made friends and memories in the game that make the cities and castles almost feel real. When I finally saw the Warcraft movie I knew not to expect much. The plot is a winding snooze fest and some of the performances (meaning almost all of the human characters) were horribly flat, but the one thing that the film nails is the world of Warcraft itself. The film tosses a myriad of small references or lines that show a true respect and knowledge for the depth within the Warcraft universe. These small nods made the movie a blast to watch, but not something I will come running back for.
Stay true to the world of the game when taking it to the silver screen
Video games are a ripe medium for adaptation. They come packaged with all the trappings of a successful Hollywood franchise such as an established fan base and a knack for spectacle, but they also come with a number of narrative and performance challenges that have proven to make adaptation difficult. The Warcraft movie leaned into its fan base not only domestically, but also internationally. The international market has become an increasingly important target for filmmakers when looking to establish a cash cow franchise. Warcraft has a massive following in China and the film played remarkably well there. Subsequent Warcraft films could ride the franchise’s international success alone and make more than enough money to justify the steep CGI-laden budget. As fans we have to come to enjoy these video game films for what they are. We can’t expect every adaptation to be true to the emotions and joy that the games themselves create. Often it has to be enough to see the world itself play out onscreen rather than our personal experience in it.