In a few months time Justin Kurzel's #AssassinsCreed movie will be released, an ambitious video game adaptation driven forward by an equally as ambitious cast and crew. But when the first trailer dropped back in May, we started to get a little bit concerned about the blockbuster.
Because Assassin's Creed isn't just adapting the already rich narrative that is the video game world of Assassin's Creed, it also faces the dreaded curse of the video game adaptation.
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It's not an exaggeration to say that a critically successful #videogame movie has never been done. The highest rated video game adaptation ever made is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, closely followed by — yes — The Angry Birds Movie at 43%. Every adaptation has been middling at best although many have been financial successes, with some, such as #ResidentEvil, spawning whole franchises.
We have to ask the question, in a time when so many video games present rich and compelling narratives for filmmakers to adapt, how does Hollywood keep getting it so wrong? Here we take a look back at some of the biggest flops and fails of the video game movie curse.
1. Super Mario Bros (1993)
- Budget: $48 million
- Grossed: $20 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 15%
If you've seen Super Mario Bros, you'll never forget it. But not quite for the reasons you'd hope. The weird take on #Nintendo's side-scrolling plumber platformer featured the late great Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, and was a box office bomb, not even making back half of its budget.
The Problem: According to Leguizamo, there was a divide from the beginning between directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel and the studio. While the directors wanted to do a more mature take on the story, the studio went for family friendly and cut a lot of the scenes from the final product, making the incoherent script make even less sense.
2. Street Fighter (1994)
- Budget: $35 million
- Grossed: $99 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 12%
How could a Street Fighter movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raúl Juliá, Ming-Na Wen and Kylie-fricking-Minogue go so wrong? Street Fighter was panned for everything from the martial arts to the dialogue, and barely scrapes a 12% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Problem: Capcom, the game's producers, were perhaps a little too involved in the production of the movie, requiring that every single aspect of the production underwent their approval first. They also pushed up the release date, leading to a rushed filming schedule and a script which was written overnight, according to screenwriter Steven E. DeSouza speaking on the Street Fighter DVD commentary.
3. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
- Budget: $115 million
- Grossed: $274 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 19%
Angelina Jolie as wank-bank icon Lara Croft, what could do wrong? A whole lot, as it turns out. Whilst Lara Croft: Tomb Raider might not be the worst of the bunch, the movies reliance on nonsensical action scenes and the flat plot let it down.
The Problem: Despite praise for Jolie's performance, and how fitting she seemed for the role, the plot and action scenes were called "senseless" by critics. Likely this was down to the numerous drafts and multiple writers which the film went through during pre-production, leading to five writers being credited for the final script. Too many cooks.
4. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
- Budget: $137 million
- Grossed: $85 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 44%
Despite the fact that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within holds the highest rating of any video game adaptation ever, most of the critical praise for the movie went to its visual effects and not to the story itself. Additionally, it's one of the looser adaptations on the list, taking not all that much beyond the title and very vague elements from the original world's landscape.
The Problem: Aside from the fact that it is barely recognizable as a Final Fantasy adaptation, there was an over reliance on the technical aspects of the movie (which were groundbreaking at the time), and a lack of attention to the plot and characters. While the technology was impressive, it wasn't quite able to bridge the gap created by the uncanny valley, and main character Aki Ross wasn't quite believable as human.
5. Resident Evil (2002)
- Budget: $35 million
- Grossed: $102 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 33%
The first Resident Evil movie spawned what is possibly the most successful video game franchise of all time, one which is coming to a close soon with the December release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. But despite massive box office success and love amongst fans, again the series felt flat when it came to critical opinion.
The Problem: Famous zombie-flick director George A. Romero was first brought on board to write the screenplay for Resident Evil; his screenplay based heavily on the gameplay of the first Resident Evil game and featuring Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine as lead characters. However, Capcom didn't like it, so sacked him and went to create what Romero described as a "war movie."
Paul W. S. Anderson was brought on board instead to write and direct, and said that the movie would not tie in to the games at all as "under-performing movie tie-ins are too common and Resident Evil, of all games, deserved a good celluloid representation." In the end, perhaps they went too far away from the games.
6. Alone in the Dark (2005)
- Budget: $20 million
- Grossed: $10.4 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 1%
Alone in the Dark is perhaps one of the lesser known games on this list, but it's movie adaptation is worth mentioning because it's just that bad. Directed by the infamously terrible filmmaker Uwe Boll, Alone in the Dark currently sits at a staggering 1% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was panned by critics, fans, gamers and casual moviegoers alike. Alone in the Dark is widely considered one of the worst films ever made.
The Problem: Part of the problem lies with the director, and it's unclear at this stage whether Boll is just trolling us or not. Alone in the Dark was originally envisioned as a thriller, but Boll made big alterations to Blair Erickson's original script, turning it into a more action focused movie. Erickson didn't shy away from expressing his disgust over this, as he said:
"We tried to stick close to the H. P. Lovecraft style and the low-tech nature of the original game, always keeping the horror in the shadows so you never saw what was coming for them. Thankfully Dr. Boll was able to hire his loyal team of hacks to crank out something much better than our crappy story and add in all sorts of terrifying horror movie essentials like opening gateways to alternate dimensions, bimbo blonde archaeologists, sex scenes, mad scientists, slimy dog monsters, special army forces designed to battle slimy CG dog monsters, Tara Reid, "Matrix" slow-motion gun battles, and car chases."
In this one case, at least, the fault may lie directly with Boll. Don't tell him that though, as he tends to respond to criticism by calling people "retards."
7. Silent Hill (2006)
- Budget: $50 million
- Grossed: $97.6 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 29%
Hand on heart, I loved Silent Hill. The aesthetics capture the creepy tone of the series with violent and monstrous creatures ripped directly from the games themselves and good dose of moralizing to go with it. But again, the plot lets it down, and it didn't perform very well critically (but at least it did better than the sequel, of which we shall not speak).
The Problem: Whilst Silent Hill received high praise for its aesthetics, it was criticized for its vague and confusing story and an overuse of exposition. Budget concerns posed an issue during filming, causing several scenes to be rewritten and simplified as they couldn't afford the choreographer to be on set for filming. Budget and time constraints also changed the climactic ending scene, with director Christophe Gans writing in the new ending involving floating barbed wire.
8. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
- Budget: $150–200 million
- Grossed: $336 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 36%
Prince of Persia seemed like a prime series for adaptation, but The Sands of Time got off to a bad start from the get-go — catching flack for casting the very white Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian Prince Dastan, and very white Gemma Arterton as the Iranian Princess Tamina. It made a hell of a lot of money, but garnered mixed reviews across the board.
The Problem: The movie was six years in production, and went through several script iterations interrupted by the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike. Whilst The Sands of Time received some praise for its visuals, the performance of the lead actors was criticized, with Roger Ebert calling them "not inspired." It was intended to lead to a mega-blockbuster franchise the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean — but perhaps short sightedness caused problems in the long run, as a sequel was never green-lit.
9. The Angry Birds Movie (2016)
- Budget: $73 million
- Grossed: $347.1 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 43%
Bet you never thought we'd see this, but yes The Angry Birds Movie is a thing, and it's the second highest rated video game adaptation ever. That kinda says it all, doesn't it?
The Problem: Well, it's Angry Birds isn't it? Not exactly a series known for its strong narratives. But perhaps that's why it was more successful, less source material means more room for interpretation. Also the target audience differs vastly from the majority of other video game adaptations, with it being aimed at a younger and less complain-y demographic.
10. Warcraft (2016)
- Budget: $160 million
- Grossed: $433.5 million
- Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 28%
Warcraft was one of the most highly anticipated adaptations of the past few years, with Moon director Duncan Jones at the helm, an impressive cast and extensive marketing in the run up to release. It's currently the highest grossing video game adaptation ever, but was still a critical disappointment.
The Problem: Warcraft was ten years in production, originally planned for a 2009 release, and was initially supposed to be set during the Orcs and Humans era of Warcraft. This idea was later shot down by Blizzard, as they didn't want the setting to be too similar to that of Lord of the Rings. Jones later made more changes to the script, as he disliked "the stale fantasy trope of, humans are the good guys, monsters are the bad guys." But while Warcraft wasn't well received critically, it sits at a comfortable 7.1 rating on IMDB. Like many other adaptations, fans enjoyed it regardless of critical reception.
What Can We Learn From This?
It's curious to note that the most successful adaptations, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Angry Birds Movies, were both very loose adaptations of the games themselves. One from a franchise steeped in narrative history, and one based on a mobile game where you throw birds at pigs. So, is stepping away from the game the right move?
In the case of Assassin's Creed, you wouldn't think so. The franchise spans nearly a decade: nine main-series games, many more spin-off games, comic books, novels and animated movies. The stories of the world are so vast, Ubisoft even released a thick encyclopedia to keep track of all of it. There's massive scope for adaptation there, and a rich narrative to draw from. But many other video game franchises have had the same in their source material, and still the outcome has been disappointing.
And then there's the The Last of Us movie which is currently in development — though also currently stuck in development hell. The movie itself seems somewhat superfluous, as the game itself is almost a cinematic experience. When the story is told so well through the game, it's very tricky to top that with the movie adaptation — especially when you have the conflicting interests of movie studio and game developers in the mix (a-la Street Fighter).
But on the other hand, adapting a game into a movie does open the base story up to a wider audience — e.g. non-gamers. While some purists might claim that this dilutes and therefore destroys the source material — and the gaming industry is rife with such gatekeepers —it does boil down to a case of, if you aren't the target audience, feel free not to consume it.
The problem does perhaps lie with defining the target audience. Warcraft was met with derision from gamers due to the fact that it didn't remain faithful to the game itself, which consists of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with an even more massive, and passionate, community. Some fans, due to the long-lived emotional connection they have to the games, see movie adaptations as a threat to something they love, which makes the thin line of translation even more difficult to navigate.
Such was the case of the now-infamous interview with Duncan Jones, in which journalist Adam Rosser attacked him to the point where Rosser — not Jones — became so agitated that he walked out of the interview. As Jones said, he wanted to create a movie for fans beyond those of the video game, and despite mixed to negative reviews, the movie was a massive box-office success.
Because blockbuster adaptations don't merely target fans of the games, they have to appeal to a wider audience. Because if they aren't expected to make money, they'll never get the money put into their production in the first place. It's difficult ground to navigate. Perhaps this is why some of the best fan adaptations are done via Kickstarter, like The Freeman Chronicles, a fan-made and fan-funded series of shorts based on Half-Life franchise protagonist Gordon Freeman.
But in the end, maybe there aren't answers. Maybe video game adaptations have just had a bad run of it. Maybe what critics think doesn't matter. Maybe we're just too sensitive to see the stories we love removed from the games we love and twisted to fit the mode of Hollywood. Maybe games work the way they do because they're a mode which doesn't stand up to interpretation. Maybe Assassin's Creed will be the first adaptation to be critically acclaimed. At least on that last point we'll have an answer soon, as the movie releases December 21, 2016 in the US.
Which is your favorite video game adaptation, and which is your least? Sound off in the comments below!