Why Can’t Hollywood Stop Making Bad Video Game Movies?

Resident Evil - Sony Pictures

Source: Sony Pictures

Ever since video games have entered into our culture, movie studios have been trying and failing to adapt them into feature length movies. It’s a history that dates all the way back to 1993’s patently awful Super Mario Bros., and continues on even today through franchises like Resident Evil (going on its sixth and supposedly final installment). On the docket for the next few years are even adaptations for Angry BirdsWarcraftMetal Gear Solid, and Sonic the Hedgehog, continuing the quest to create even a halfway not bad movie. So why have attempts by Hollywood failed virtually across the board to do this successfully?

It seems like it should be simple enough. For most video games, the story is laid out throughout hours of cut-scenes and gameplay over multiple versions, giving a screenwriter tons of material to work with. Much of the time, the source material is rife with characters and intriguing story arcs practically begging for a full-on screen adaptation.

But more often than not, these movies end up being jumbled, disjointed messes that fall short with both critics and audiences alike. It’s a phenomena that many have failed to explain, yet some still try. In an interview with USA Today, assistant professor Kirk Kjeldsen of Virginia Commonwealth University had a theory of his own.

With video games, the player is really the star of the movie, directing the actors, deciding what plotline to follow — and most importantly for most games, whom to shoot down to get to the next level. When this aspect of the game is missing, viewers no longer feel like part of the action.

Kjeldsen goes on to observe that “translating a non-linear narrative into a linear three-act structure is like making a song out of a painting or a sculpture.” The story structure of many video games follows along with what makes for the best gameplay, rather than the most cohesive story. Things like plot development and characters, while seeing increased focus in recent years, are still complementary elements to playability. Story touch-points for a video game don’t necessarily follow the screenwriting formula, designed to play out over hours and days of gameplay rather than 90 uninterrupted minutes on a screen.

One other factor that likely plays a role is how games are chosen by studios to adapt. Most (if not all) aren’t taken on the strength of their stories as much as the popularity of the game itself. Whether or not it has a cohesive plot is generally irrelevant. As it is and always has been in Hollywood, it’s solely a question of cherry-picking game franchises with large built-in audiences, independent of story. Co-founder of Sekratangent Productions Corey May confirmed as much in an interview with CNN, admitting that “movie studios frequently choose to make films based on the franchises that sell the best, not those with the most cinematic potential.”

This all isn’t to say there isn’t some semblance of hope on the horizon for the genre. The first trailer for Assassin’s Creed puts the considerable talents of lead actor Michael Fassbender on display, while reuniting him with Macbeth director Justin Kurzel. The game itself offers tons of intriguing story elements to borrow and adapt, and if everyone gets their ducks in a row, it could end up being the best video game movie we’ve ever gotten. That, along with the plans to adapt Borderlands into its own cinematic franchise, paint at least a tentatively positive picture for the future.

Without paying even a little credence to things like “cinematic potential” though, we’re left with studios butchering popular game franchises in movie form, more often than not leading to box office flops. Gaming audiences aren’t going to want to see something that doesn’t do justice to their passion, and mainstream moviegoers won’t fork out $15 to see a poorly made flick about characters they’ve never heard of. In the end, everybody ends up losing, and will continue to until Hollywood starts to care less about the dollar and more about telling a story.

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