[In this new opinion piece, Justin Marks, the film and game writer who penned the currently filming Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li movie, as well as drafts of Voltron and He-Man films, steps up to discuss the relationship between games and movies - referencing films from his own to Halo.]
I remember when the new Street Fighter
movie was first announced. The internet went ballistic. And not necessarily in a good way.
On the very same day that someone was green-lighting a reboot of a franchise already believed to bear the mark of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation of Halo
, a daring game series, was being dropped
by the major Hollywood studios. Boy, these guys just can't get it right. They dump Halo
and give us another Street Fighter
Well, to quickly answer this criticism in biased terms, Street Fighter
isn't your ordinary game adaptation. It's a gritty, realistic character piece (if I don't say so myself) that just happens to use characters taken from a video game. All hype aside, it's going to be a very different game-to-movie adaptation and I urge everyone to go see it when it comes out next year.
Between Movies And Games
But I don't want to talk about Street Fighter
right now. It's worth discussing because I genuinely believe the producers on that film got it right, but maybe in another column. For now I want to address a much larger issue that faces the gaming community... how to deal with this perception that Hollywood is pissing all over our favorite properties.
The relationship between games and movies is a tough one. I've seen it firsthand. As a lifelong gamer who was fortunate enough to find a corner in the screenwriting community, I've often straddled both sides of this fence.
For starters, and I hate to say this, but the fanboys used to be right. There was a time when the movie business just didn't get video games. No one had yet grown up on them. Filmmakers saw games as inane and often shallow experiences that didn't deserve serious treatment.
Thinking back to the Double Dragon
or Super Mario Bros.
(shudder) films, it's not hard to see what the problem was. The users of these games were pre-adolescent children (or teenagers who acted like them), so why should we make a serious movie for them?
But things have gotten better over the years. A lot better. Contrary to the message-board-driven fantasy that "Hollywood is screwing up my childhood," this mystical "Hollywood" is actually a real place, filled with executives and creative people who are now young enough to have grown up during the Golden Age of Nintendo.
I know this because I work with these people every day and play with them on Xbox Live every night. I call it the Nerd Hollywood. They're genuinely smart people. And they genuinely want to make good movies.
Holding Back On Hollywood
For an analogy, think about the state of comic book movies a little more than ten years ago. Before the film Blade came out, nobody believed that comic books could be taken seriously. Now we have franchises like X-Men and Batman Begins. That's because the people making those movies grew up on comics and knew they should be considered an adult medium. The new generation had taken over.
And that's what's ready to happen in the world of game-to-film adaptations. I'm not saying you should expect "Mario Begins" in theaters anytime soon, but the time is upon us for some hot and heavy game movies.
And yet here's the rub. The gaming world isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Fans (and publishers, to some extent) are still resisting Hollywood with territorial reluctance, thinking that if they give away a game's rights to a studio, Hollywood will inevitably "piss all over our childhood."
Part of this is because there's been a past pattern. That's fair. But it's also because the game community fundamentally believes filmmakers just don't understand why games are so great, and if they would only directly and literally translate a game to film, it would succeed beyond all expectations.
Frankly, in the case of most games, this is just not true. We all need to take a long look in the mirror and realize that there are very few mainstream game franchises that could stand next to the best comics of the 1980's, or the best movies ever. And yes, Shadow of the Colossus
are hands-down better than most anything out there, but no one is playing those games. What is the mainstream audience playing? Halo 3
So let's talk about Halo
The Halo Effect
First of all, I love the Halo
franchise. Master Chief's action figure is sitting on my desk right now as I type. For any doubters out there, simply click here
is the gold standard for our community. Ethereal, epic, with great setpieces and some wonderful aesthetics. We should all be so lucky as to make a game as good as that.
Master Chief has been trying to make it to the big screen for a few years now. I've read the scripts. Some of them aren't bad. But Hollywood, even Nerd Hollywood, has failed to green-light this film. And it's not like they're throwing a bunch of hacks at it. We're talking about Peter Jackson. He's no slouch. If they won't make Halo
with Peter Jackson producing, clearly Hollywood is just out of touch with what the world wants, right?
Think of how great a Halo
movie would be if they made it exactly like the game was (which is part of the deal Bungie has fought for). Imagine showing up to the theater on Friday night to see the first showing. Fade in. Outer space. A giant star cruiser sails into frame, dropping from it a flying convoy that descends into an alien planet's outer atmosphere.
We touch down in a foreign world and the door slams open. Badass space marines jump out, pulse rifles locked, cocked, and ready to rock. They engage in some funny banter, then march into a futuristic complex built by a community that's since disappeared. After a few suspenseful minutes of "what the hell happened here?", the creatures start appearing. Nasty aliens, who don't take no for an answer, begin to tear the space marines apart. A wild gunfight ensues.
Sounds like a pretty cool movie, right?
That's because it already was a movie. I just described the opening hour of James Cameron's Aliens.
Ready for some heresy? As great a game as Halo
is, and as much as it deserves to be a true benchmark for this industry's success, when you take away the awesome gameplay and reduce it to character and story, we've really seen it before.
Don't start screaming on the message boards yet. Take a long, hard look, because this is true of a lot of popular games out there. On a story level, they often take place in familiar worlds and lack the character work (read: compelling enough to make a movie star want to be in the movie) that would elevate them above the level of a good genre film.
What Would Jackson Do?
Peter Jackson probably has a bold vision for Halo
, but he's going to have to do some bold-re-envisioning to make it work. The standards that make a good game (complex sci-fi world, silent hero, more emphasis on repetitive action) are not the same standards that make a good movie. Neither standard is inherently better or worse --- they're just different.
That means a film adaptation can't just be a carbon copy of its source material. It has to be inspired, sometimes with new ideas. To inject these new ideas, the filmmakers risk pissing off fans who want the movie to be exactly what the game was. And thus begins message board backlash. Hence the catch-22.
Why does the movie have to reach more than just the gamer audience? Because movies cost an awful lot of money to make. Halo
alone would cost roughly $200 million. To gain its gross back, you'd have to generate about half a billion dollars' worth of revenue. Halo 3
, the game, made $170 million in 24 hours.
Break that down and it comes to roughly 2.8 million rabid fans lining up to buy it. Multiply 2.8 million fans by the average cost of a movie ticket, 10 dollars, and you have an opening weekend of $28 million.
Let's even be generous and say half those guys brought a date. $40 million opening weekend. Spend $200 million dollars on that and you're looking at one of the biggest flops since Ishtar. People lose jobs. Game over.
were to be a success --- and Peter Jackson's a smart guy, he knows this --- it's got to be more than a genre film. It's got to appeal to a much bigger audience than just us hardcore gamers. Girls have got to see it. Our parents have got to see it. They've got to see it twice. And take the whole family.
The Way Out
So how do we solve this problem?
We've got to look at adaptations as what they are... an opportunity to adjust the source material to suit it to a new medium. A chance to take a great game and make it into a great movie. That means as a game community, we've got to be open to new ideas being applied to properties that we consider perfect as-is. And as a film community, we've got to be willing to take more risks. To believe that a game should be considered art, and that a movie should honor that.
A new generation of filmmakers is emerging, and this generation takes the medium seriously enough to realize all game adaptations don't deserve to be treated like Alone In The Dark
. But it takes time. And patience. And maybe the corpses of a few experiments gone wrong.
So as a young filmmaker speaking to the very gamer population that birthed him, I say - please hold on. The best is yet to come, and we all need to be patient because the right formula isn't as obvious as we would like to think.
And hey, I may be biased, but I think the new Street Fighter
movie is the right start. Maybe in a future column we can talk about other qualities I believe would make for a good game-to-film adaptation. For now, just consider me a self-promotional jerk.