A recent exchange with Total Film and Channel 4 Film via Twitter once again raised the bitter topic of movie adaptations of computer games. Why have they been, to date, so uniformly terrible? Is it even possible to successfully adapt a game into a movie? The debate was started by Richard Cobbett over at Tech Radar, with an amusing overview of cinema’s computer game forays to date that is well worth a read and a chuckle. What Richard didn’t have space for in his article was an examination of the hows and whys, not to mention the ifs.
The key, fundamental stumbling block that perpetually gets in the way of a good game movie is purely generational. Filmmakers simply don’t know games: they don’t play them, they don’t understand the history of games, they have no knowledge of games’ relationship with pop culture and they don’t know what can make a game great (or terrible).
Computer games only truly came into existence in a global, widespread manner in the early 1980s and even then they were generally limited to the arcades, with home computers limited in scope. After a decade of fumbling and innovation the games industry run blindly into the 1990s having established an early form of two dimensional language, with new genre titles that hadn’t been encountered in any prior entertainment medium – platformers, shoot-’em-ups, point’n’click adventures, beat-’em-ups. The 90s then saw the painful introduction of the third dimension, a technological learning curve that mirrored the steep climb faced by visual effects in the same decade; a long, slow ascent through feeble attempts at realism and a real struggle to evolve the fledgling game language to encompass the new possibilities.
By the end of the 20th century they’d just about figured it out and the 2000s have witnessed a gradual and determined diversification and polishing of the form. Game design has shifted from guttural, expressive grunts and shouts to discovering its own grammar and structure. The problem, at least for movies-of-games, is that this means that games have only really existed in their current form for about 15 years. People born towards the end of the 70s and beyond grew up with the new medium and have a good grasp of what it means; go further back and things get hazier, with children of the 50s, 60s and early 70s occupied with their own cultural revolutions.
The end result is that most people working in Hollywood aren’t of Generation Game. It’s not their fault, it’s just the cards that they were dealt by history. They all had their own toys as well, whether it was rock’n’roll, comics or VHS.
Comics are a good example, in point of fact. For decades they were treated abysmally by Hollywood, with only a couple of exceptions – Superman and Batman – which appear to be flukes rather than anything else, judging from their increasingly awful sequels. Why? Because most comic book movies were being made by people that had no knowledge, love or reverence for the medium. How else could The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell be so ridiculously misunderstood? The only explanation is that those in charge, whether it be studio execs, producers or directors, simply couldn’t comprehend the material.
Fast forward to the 2000s and X-Men arrives. Sure, it changes things around a fair bit, but it keeps the core intact. Then Spider-Man swings into town, directed by Sam Raimi, a man who read Spidey comics as a kid and knows the character inside-out. It all culminates with this year’s Watchmen adaptation which, while far from perfect, was nonetheless clearly crafted by a team that adores the comic and wanted to see it done to the best of their abilities. That such a film received massive studio funding and support and attracted such impressive talent from all corners of Hollywood speaks volumes about how the Watchmen book has infiltrated culture: comics have come of age, at last. The people making movies are the people that grew up with comics, they are crucially kids that never stopped reading them.
Game don’t have that luxury position yet. There are very few directors young enough to be truly surrounded by gaming history, who have grown up with games as an accepted and natural form of entertainment. There are even fewer producers with that mindset. As for high-up studio executives? It’s not gonna happen.
Not yet, at least. Give it ten years. There might be one or two exceptions in the interim, as with Superman and Batman, when young filmmakers manage to sneak the material past the censorious gaze of the moneymen, but otherwise there’s going to be a long wait for the years to tick by, the old guys to retire, and the new blood to take over.
None of this even starts to approach the question of whether it’s even possible, artistically, to make a good movie adaptation of a computer game. That discussion I’ll leave for another article at a later date…