Game to Film Adaptations and Why They Are Doomed to Fail

When it comes to film adaptations, we usually think of those adapted from books. Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Maze Runner  are all popular film adaptations. What about those that kick-started their fan base off in the gaming industry? It seems to be a trend that the game to film transition tends to end in tears, usually for everyone involved, including the fans. So what are some of the more famous video game adaptations and why is it that they often fail?

film adaptions

image via Youtube

Famous (or Infamous) Film Adaptations of Games

Whether you enjoyed these film adaptations or not can often depend on whether you were a fan of the source material. Fans tend to find that video game films don’t represent the aspects of the games that they loved so much or do justice to the characters. Yet people who haven’t played the games tend to have less interest in the films because they normally amount to a generic film with characters or story-line aspects that only fans will recognize. It appears that in most cases there is a grey area somewhere in the middle. In that area we find people who perhaps played the games but weren’t huge fans.

Character Development

film adaptions

image via TechnoBuffalo

Whether you’re a fan of Lara Croft, Assassin’s Creed or Max Payne, you know the characters within the game. We can spend anywhere between 10-40 hours (sometimes more) fully exploring the story-line of any given game. In that time, we learn character backstories, we see how they handle certain situations, and we are with them as they develop new skills or discover new aspects of themselves. You can’t fit that same journey of exploration into 2 hour-long film adaptations…or even three 2 hour-long film adaptations. Long story short: there is a bond between the player and the character which doesn’t happen in the same way in films.

Of course there is another aspect to this character development that we only get through the gaming format. These characters are in essence a surrogate of us (the gamer). We play as them but we lose ourselves in their world, in their life and ultimately in their story. We feel that we journey with them through their battles as they explore their world and conquer their demons. While we may find ourselves lost in the film, you’re definitely watching the story from the side-lines as a spectator.

User Immersion

film adaptations

image via Assassin’s Creed History Wiki

Much like Kevin and Sam Flynn or Desmond and the animus, there is a different level of immersion that one can experience when comparing a film to a game. That’s not to say that games are better or that films are better…but each has its advantages. For example, it can be incredible to watch a fight scene. Whether you’re talking Fight Club or Lord of the Rings, both are excellent forms of combat to see on the big screen. Yet being a part of these sorts of fights feels more immersive than watching. As such, the combat element you experience in a game might not convert to film in the way people expect.

I mean sure, you can watch Aguilar throw smoke-bombs, do a leap of faith and slit a Spaniard’s throat. But is that even remotely comparable to the strategic element provided by the Assassin’s Creed games? Would you rather watch an assassination or would you rather plot it yourself: avoiding guards, hiding in crowds, signalling allies, and using an array of weapons. All of this leads up to that final assassination that you and your character alike have been waiting for. Similarly, you can watch Dastan in Prince of Persia as he runs along walls and uses the Sands of Time. But it just doesn’t compare to knowing that you, as the player, have no Sands of Time left as you take a risky leap from an obstacle.

Horror games take this immersion a step further. Silent Hill was an incredibly entertaining game because it was terrifying. You felt scared and often intimidated by the situations the game dropped you in. If you’ve ever played the Slenderman games, you’ll know exactly how different the fear is when you are playing vs when you are watching.

Staying True to the Game

film adaptions

image via Youtube

Without a doubt one of the biggest problems that any video game adaptation faces is deciding what angle to take. Assassin’s Creed tried to be a part of the already existing world. Prince of Persia simply created a new story with the same basic themes. Need for Speed…had racing? My point is that there are many different approaches that one can take when adapting a game to the big screen. Each has its own problems.

Creating the exact same story just doesn’t work for all the reasons we’ve already covered. But, you can try and stay true to the original story. The Silent Hill films tried to essentially throw all the games together into two films (by merging them into one convoluted story) which came across as such. You have Warcraft, Hitman, Need for Speed, and Tomb Raider: all of which used very basic and generic story-lines but included the characters, scenes, and ideas from the games. The problem with this approach is that as you would expect, the film feels very basic. Throwing a time-travelling dagger into what is essentially the Lion King story (there is even a lion in it) doesn’t make it a good film.

Assassin’s Creed sums up the core problem mentioned at the start of this article. When you create a film based on a game series that is supposed to be a part of that universe, it creates a problem. Fans of the games feel undervalued as their experience in the games is abandoned in favor of making the film better suited to general audiences. All the history and the characters already explored don’t fit into the film’s narrative. Yet general audiences don’t enjoy it either because you can’t even acknowledge the events that have taken place across almost 10 games in 2 hours.


film adaptions

image via Leviathyn

When you’re watching a film, everything is already decided. You can’t change events in any way. You can’t explore the world or hunt for treasures. This is something that gives games an advantage. Even in the most restrictive game (in terms of story and map exploration), you still have a degree of freedom. You can choose your weapons, your gear, and how you tackle an obstacle. There are often secrets to discover or Easter eggs that nod to previous games. Some of these will only be found by a small percentage of players. In the game, you may stumble upon background information on characters or events. Some games even allow you to alter the outcome of certain events by making your own decisions. This can even lead to varying endings.

Again, this boils down to the idea of being a player vs being a spectator. We can look at Need for Speed as an example of this. The games aren’t successful because people watch races. They are successful because people can compete with their own customized cars. It is you, the player, who has created this machine that trumps all other racers. Film adaptations are never going to be able to replicate this level of involvement.

When it Works

film adaptations

image via Amazon

When you have a game like Tron, everything is pretty open. The original Tron game consisted of using motorcycles with tails to cut other players off. You don’t have any story element, characters, or an in-game history to handle. It’s such a simple game that there’s not really anyone to upset. I mean you didn’t see people outraged at the Pirates of the Caribbean films because they preferred the ride.

Fans rarely want their favorite games turned into films due to the track record so far. This is even truer when it comes to diehard fans. Even now, diehard fans of the Harry Potter books still voice outrage at many aspects of the films. This applies to games as well. I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, games should just stay games. It isn’t the same as books where you need to add voices to characters or images to settings, we already get all of that in-game.

The only time it ever works with a major game franchise is if the creators of film only target it to those audiences. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example: if the film had assumed you had played most, if not all, of the games then it would have worked better. Fans could experience a new chapter of the franchise being told in a manner that doesn’t rely on cheesy flashbacks, character explanations to provide backstory, randomly updated technology, and of course: plot-holes.  Of course this will never happen as it limits the amount of profit the film is likely to make.

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on movie adaptations of films? Are there any that have worked for you? Comment down below!

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Cammy Madden

Cammy Madden is a psychology graduate from Scotland. Currently living in Spain, he is pursuing a career in writing. Working as a freelance writer to pay the bills, he also manages several of his own blogs, contributes to others and works regularly on his own novel. You can find him on Twitter: @BakedHaggis

8 Responses

  1. 18cinemalane says:

    This was such a great article to read! I was wondering what your thoughts were about the upcoming movie Rampage? I’ve never played the original game, but I’ve heard that the game’s concept is very simple. Similar to Tron, it seems like centering a compelling story around this simple concept might work. Do you think that Rampage could be a video game adaptation film that actually succeeds?

  2. Excellent article. I would point out that the Tron game was actually spun off the original 1982 Disney film. I am convinced that someday we will have a really good movie from a video game. I always thought The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would have made a great movie. It had such a compelling story. But as you say, it would never have been as engrossing as the video game.

  3. I think resident evil should be included, they used the main game characters as secondary characters in the films and built the films around a new character while the world is inspired by the games. It’s a different kind of resident evil compared to the games, but it’s live action and cgi adaptations worked by delving deeper into character motivations and stories than the games, thereby expanding on the game universe. I agree with games being adapted into TV shows as was mentioned earlier in another comment as it’s difficult to compress a game into a couple of hours. Great post, gave me alot to think about.

  4. fivezero says:

    What about the first game to movie (I think), ever, Super Mario Bros.?! I haven’t seen it—though I did actually go to see Mortal Kombat (amusing in its own way).

    I am not a gamer and haven’t played most of those mentioned (a bit of Need for Speed and maybe a little Prince of Persia when I was a kid…I am not a young ‘un!). Yet I have seen a fair few of these movie adaptations. I enjoyed Doom, Prince of Persia (surprised at that one), was mixed on Need for Speed and Silent Hill, which were more technically interesting than actually enjoyable, and despised Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, and Tomb Raider, for various reasons.

    As someone who mostly doesn’t have firsthand experience with the games, I still enjoy some of these if they’re done well and seem to be in keeping with the spirit of the original game. But as it is with other formats, adaptations are highly scrutinized when the viewer is already familiar with the original. I personally rarely prefer a filmed version of a book I’ve already read.

    I’m still waiting for the Minesweeper movie, though.

    • Cammy Madden says:

      Very true. I found Silent Hill interesting but it wasn’t a good film. You’re completely right though, it’s the same as any form of adaptation: there is always going to be a high bar set by fans that is nearly impossible to reach.

  5. I wonder if a tv show adaptation would better suit video games? But yeah, any adaptation is always up for harsh scrutiny when compared to the source material.

    • Cammy Madden says:

      That’s a good idea! I think changing a game to a TV series would definitely work better! It would give them so much more time to go through the same character development.

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