Why big-screen video game adaptations are always doomed to fail

Joseph Coupe /
Aug 3, 2017 / Film & TV

Two of Naughty Dog’s undoubtedly biggest game franchises, The Last of Us and Uncharted, are being adapted into feature length films.

The reception, however has been mixed, with Naughty Dog leading man Nolan North himself having expressed that he “believes fans are not interested in seeing Hollywood’s adaptation” of the blockbuster-like video game series.

And Hollywood has reason to be cautious. Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed adaptation starring Michael Fassbender bombed at the box office, barely making back its budget and proving a huge loss for 20th Century Fox. On paper, the film should have worked –with Kurzel as director and the cast being altogether star studded – but it seemed that basic action-genre direction was just entirely disregarded.

Faith in the video game-film adaptation genre seems to be lacking for good reason. The 1995 Mortal Kombat proved to be a fun time for audiences, but suffered from a poorly constructed narrative, mediocre acting and a shoddy script. Prince of Persia suffered from a a similarly lacking adaptation, which provided suitable entertainment but an uninspiring cast and a story vacated of substance from every direction. It debuted behind Sex and the City 2. It was a bad film.

The video game industry is still very much in its infancy, and the idea of big budget narrative-driven games only really entered into mainstream culture in the 2000s. Film adaptations will rarely work unless a studio realises what they’re going up against. Where films tell passive stories, video games tell interactive ones and for the format to work on the big screen, everything has to be condensed; it makes sense, otherwise we’d be watching some guy kill zombies for an hour until we get any plot, which would, of course, be tedious. But there’s something to be said about whether or not these films are even worth the budget they’re given.

The divide between video games and films is far wider than between literature and film because, the interactive component of the narrative is entirely unique to the genre and contributes to their individual niche. Allowing players to take the story into their own hands – quite literally, via a controller – is integral to the experience and the magic gets somewhat lost when the switch to passive narrative happens.

One of the big problems is the sheer amount of content in video games. Unless you’re talking about adapting a video game that has no story at all, like Angry Birds for instance, there’s 60+ hours of content to dissect and condense. Games like The Last of Us and the Uncharted franchise are sprawling narratives which allow for a huge amount of detail which isn’t something even the best directors can tell in the runtime of a film. Even the Assassin’s Creed movie, which was originally intended as a trilogy, you’re still looking at 6/8 hours of insanely detailed stuff.

With such a time constraint, the finished product is either a film which tries its best to throw everything at the wall or one which foregoes the integral plot in order to tell a different narrative (like with Resident Evil) and either case is going to be met with shaky reviews from critics. There’s either a major issue with pacing, or an adaptation made for fans which ends up aggravating them for not staying true to the game.

One of the very few triumphs in the video game media crossover is the Pokémon series, which has now been in production for over 20 years. It’d be easy to put down the shows success to their excitable fanbase but both the anime series and films strike the perfect balance between original content and staying faithful to their source material. Pokémon is a huge worldwide phenomenon which has established its many facets well enough that they become their own thing rather than being rip-offs which are squiffy on the details.

Despite the expanse of video games which are seemingly perfect for adaptation, the transitions we’ve seen recently don’t allow for much hope for the Naughty Dog team. We’d much rather play the game in an immersive experience than giving the controller over to the director.

Words by Joseph Coupe

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