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The Fall and Rise of Video Game Movie Adaptations

The Fall and Rise of Video Game Movie Adaptations

Ever since the immortal line, “Shall we play a game”, was uttered back in Wargames, Hollywood has been savvy to the appeal of the video game to moviegoers.

Although we never got a real-life Global Thermonuclear War game (talk about a missed opportunity), this ‘80s thriller showed the power of video games in film and their appeal to the masses. Whilst “Wargames” and others like it (“Tron”, “The Last Starfighter”, “The Wizard”) were not direct adaptations of a video game, it wasn’t long before Hollywood made a play for such properties.

It’s taken a while to get to a point where games and movies combined make for a winning formula. From failed first attempts to some disappointing star-powered reboots later, the genre is now finally on top form.

In true video game fashion, let’s level up, analysing how the genre has gone from a low to a high score!

video game, adaptation, Tron


Level 1: Game Over at Early Attempts

A particular boom time for the video game industry was the early ’90s. Sega and Nintendo dominated the pixel landscape. The internet existed but was more for uber-geeks sitting on their Apple Macs. Therefore, consoles reigned supreme above all else.

Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were the biggest video game franchises on the consoles at the time. All received star-studded big-budget movie adaptations. With the added weight of globally recognised video games, producers believe the brands would practically sell themselves when it came to box-office returns.

Despite the cash cow possibilities of each of these heavyweight titles, none of them lived up to fan expectations. Receiving a truly sub-zero reception, they arguably killed the genre before it even had a chance to power up.

Hitting the pause button at this point, the huge flops led to the whole genre coming to a halt. Fans sent a clear sonic boom message to all Hollywood producers…that they would have to try harder at adapting video games if they wanted them to fill cinemas.

video game, adaptation, Super Mario Bros

Super Mario Bros

Level 2: Powering Up with A Reboot of The Genre

Thing’s stayed quiet for a while until the early 2000’s when Sony’s PlayStationenergised the video games market. Film producers headed back to the genre, snapping up multiple properties. They bravely started making more gritty adaptations aimed more at the mature gamer audience that Sony’s console had generated.

Legendary film-maker Uwe Boll made a career out of this, although many would argue his efforts are arguably the worst video game adaptations of all time. His resume includes “Alone in the Dark”, “House of the Dead”, “In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale”, “Postal” and “Bloodrayne”.

All five of these movies aren’t lacking in big-screen names, boasting A-List stars including Christian Slater, Jason Statham, and Michael Madsen among others. Yet, they still flopped spectacularly on the (few) big screens they managed to secure a release on.

video game, adaptation, Bloodrayne


Uwe Boll wasn’t the only filmmaker guilty of this. Other gritty mature video game movies in the same period such as “Doom”, “Silent Hill” and “Max Payne” equally suffered, despite their big star names.

What does this tell us? Securing a big star and trying to appeal to adult gamers alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a huge return. Unlike some other source material, video games themselves can have extremely inventive, ingenious and multiple creative storylines, which demand more.

The fact is, if you want to compete with this type of source material, you need more than just star power to keep fans of this genre interested, or else they will just stick with the original games. It wouldn’t be until the last decade that filmmakers finally started to hit a truly high score.

video game, adaptation, Silent Hill

Silent Hill

Level 3: Smashing a High Score and Winning at Box Office Gold

So, what does it take to make a truly successful video game adaptation? Well, some movies in more recent years have proved it is possible to do this. The best showing that there is still hope, with much to look forward to in this genre!

“Tomb Raider” may have had a few misstarts with several earlier adaptations featuring Angelina Jolie. The latest reboot, however, starring Alicia Vikander, demonstrated that bringing the franchise back to a more real-world, almost “Batman Begins” style storyline, can rejuvenate a series.

Avoiding the cheesy dialogue of the Jolie entries, it very much presented the character as still learning and making mistakes. This undoubtedly connected much better with audiences than previous efforts.

video game, adaptation, Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

More than doubling its budget at the box office in terms of profit, it already has a sequel greenlit, provisionally titled “Tomb Raider: Obsidian”. The first draft of the script has been completed as confirmed by director Misha Green on her Twitter this week. It will hopefully start shooting once restrictions ease.

Paul W.S. Anderson had his fair share of video game movies of varying quality. Delivering multiple “Resident Evil” movies in the ’00s and beyond, they had a mixed reception. He has proven, however, that even with a somewhat maligned reputation in this area, he can still bounce back.

Last year, he delivered the surprise hit, “Monster Hunter”. Although critics were not great fans of it, devoted players of the game lapped up the over-the-top action, thrills and spills, that were shown on screen.

video game, adaptation, Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter

Anderson is a big video games fan himself. Whilst he continues to be involved in the industry, he will no doubt continue to champion the genre, paving the way for more adaptations to be made.

Directed by Duncan Jones, “Warcraft” scored a similar reception to “Monster Hunter”, polarising critics who mauled it against the general audiences who loved it. The movie proved the advantage of having not only video game fans but appealing to a whole other section of the geeky audience: the tabletop card playing variety.

Along with multiple comic books, novels, and Manga adaptations, the whole franchise manages to have a huge cross-section appeal of fans. Generating worldwide appeal, this created a shield against even the harshest critic. Scoring a huge return on release that would cast a spell over any Hollywood executives bank balance, this sword and sorcery mash-up proved to be an action-packed hit.

Knighted Media has revealed more sequel concepts are being discussed. You can bet your battle-axe that there will be much more orc versus human action in your multiplex to come with further giant returns to match.

video game, adaptation, Warcraft


It isn’t just new games that are getting hit adaptations though. The obscure 80’s arcade game, Rampage, provided the inspiration for the Rock starring movie of the same name in 2018. It was a pretty much forgotten about video game and didn’t exactly have high brand power when greenlit. It still managed to score an impressive 428-million-dollar box-office return, triple its original budget.

The concept of the original arcade game was pretty simple, with giant animals fighting and smashing skyscrapers aplenty. Filmmakers added more emotional resonance, spectacle and a tongue in cheek tone to connect with modern audiences, as well as appealing to original fans. Demolishing the competition with behemoth sized box office returns, there is no doubt that a franchise will be on the horizon for this video game property too.

Not all video games are so obscure though and Sonic The Hedgehog is arguably the second most recognised video game character of all time. Understandably expectations were through the roof for a movie when it was announced due to the legacy of the character.

Fans were originally shocked at the character effects in the first trailer, resulting in a drastic change before release. Producers showed that they took the fan’s criticisms seriously overhauling effects for the entire film at a huge cost. The gamble paid off when the movie made over 300 million dollars at the box office.

video game, adaptation, Sonic The Hedgehog

Sonic The Hedgehog

Making “Sonic” a wisecracking CGI creation, with no holds barred speed, and casting Jim Carrey in a superb comeback performance as the evil Dr Robotnik ensured the movie connected both with adult fans of the game, along with their own younger kids.

Director Jeff Fowler has already confirmed on Twitter that production on the sequel began in March this year, with the finished movie set to be released in 2022. It goes to show, that if you make a video game movie, the most important lesson of all is always listening to your fans!

Another neat trick that producers have wised up to is taking the video game property and making it have a more unique spin. Not many people could have predicted that “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” would prove to be a gigantic smash hit, but this film was exactly that.

Starring Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Detective Pikachu, the movie was based loosely on an actual Pokémon game. Only the most devoted Pokémon fan would be aware of the game’s existence but it still made millions.

Nintendo had for years steered clear of live-action movies since the disastrous Super Mario Bros movie in the ’90s mentioned further back. This surprise hit however gives hope that they may decide to experiment again.

Variety states there is already a Detective Pikachu sequel in the works, and Games Radar has also revealed there is a new Super Mario Bros animated movie due for release in 2022. Assuming it scores big at the box office, you can wager your biggest mushroom power-up that it will only be a matter of time before an even bigger live-action reboot will be shooting in no time.

video game, adaptation, Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Secret Level: The Next Generation of Video Game Movies

What does the future hold for this genre? Hits like these show its success is finally on the rise, and this can only be a good thing.

All of this video game adaptation success bodes particularly well for the upcoming “Borderlands” adaptation. Based on a series of games set in the future and featuring characters competing to gain rich alien technology hidden in a vault, the action is set in the fantastical world of Pandora.

Built-up of multiple video games, downloadable expansions, spin-off games, comics and novels, the franchise potential of this series, in live-action terms, is huge. Securing serious talent, Eli Roth is on board as director, with an all-star cast of Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jack Black amongst the roster of characters.

video game, adaptation, Borderlands


Speaking to Variety Eli stated, “I’m so excited to dive into the world of “Borderlands” and I could not be doing it with a better script, producing team, and studio”.

The script for the movie is also being written by Emmy Award-winning writer Craig Mazin. His storytelling flair was last seen in the highly acclaimed television series “Chernobyl”.

With the talent above, the existing cross-media fanbase of the video games, combined with the proof that no matter how crazy, obscure, well known or geeky a video game is, this is sure to be a success. This project is looking like it may be cinematic viewing of an epic scale.

Filming in Budapest at this time, the amazing locations and studio facilities the city provides will no doubt serve this project well. It could well cement the city as a future location for other video game adaptations also destined for success.

Having proven it can survive multiple setbacks (must be all the extra lives), the future is looking bright for the video game movie. As a genre, the “start” of true success has begun and it looks set to “continue” for years to come!

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