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Metal Gear Solid and the gaming cinema curse

Friday, 31st August 2012 08:48 GMT By Brenna Hillier

The history of game-to-movie adaptations is littered with corpses. Why are so many promising projects abandoned, and why do so many survivors just plain suck? Brenna Hillier investigates.

The most successful adaptations are those who pay the least heed to the “real” canon of the licenses they exploit. If you want to wring a pretty penny out of a gaming property you need to shuck off most of the trappings of established narrative and personalities and focus instead on a few core takeaways.

Hideo Kojima made an announcement yesterday which shook the industry – unfortunately, some of it was shaking with laughter. Metal Gear Solid, still one of the most cinematic games ever created and certainly the release which kickstarted a more film-like approach to gaming, is going to be made into a movie.

Or is it? Although the project was announced with fanfare – plenty more than the usual Variety Magazine blip – it’s still clearly in the early stages. Columbia Pictures has signed on, and Avi Arad’s enthusiastic, but when the producer took the stage to chat with Kojima it became apparent that no director, writer or talent is on board yet.

The MGS movie’s embryonic, and game-to-film projects have a habit of quietly dying (or disastrously hitting roadblocks) before they ever enter production. In an interesting coincidence, Arad’s last high profile gaming production was to be based on Capcom’s Lost Planet, with a script written by David Hayter – the voice of Solid Snake. It never got off the ground.

This is a familiar story. Although the vast majority of licensed movie deals never go anywhere, the phenomenon is particularly egregious with games. Even a very brief survey of announcements of the last few years reveals a startling number of failed attempts to bring games to the big screen. With a bit of desultory digging I turned up 33 unreleased projects – the vast majority of which have ran aground, or, in some cases, quietly sunk without a trace.

That’s not to say the same fate awaits Metal Gear Solid. As many have pointed out, a movie is almost redundant; the narrative is already consciously cinematic. With a troop of colourful characters just begging to be brought to life and plenty of excuses for special effects blow outs, it’s not going to take a heck of a stretch to put together a decent treatment. Just don’t hold your breath. Kojima’s announcement has reignited my interest in a number of interrelated questions about Hollywood’s troubled relationship with gaming properties. Why are games, an increasingly mass market entertainment medium, apparently so difficult to adapt to film? Why do movies based on games have such a bad reputation? Why do we even want or need movies based on games? Who are they for?

Top 10 grossing game movies

01) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Worldwide: $335.1 million
US domestic: $90.7 million

02) Resident Evil: Afterlife
Worldwide: $296.2 million
US domestic $60. million

03) Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Worldwide: $274.7 million
US domestic: $131.1 million

04) Pokémon: The First Movie
Worldwide: $163.6 million
US Domestic: 85.7 million

05) Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
Worldwide: $156.5 million
US domestic: $65.6 million

06) Resident Evil: Extinction
Worldwide: $147.7 million
US domestic $50.6 million

07) Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Worldwide: $129.3 million
US domestic: $51.2 million

08) Mortal Kombat
Worldwide: $122.1 million
US domestic: $70.4 million

09) Resident Evil
Worldwide: $102.4 million
US domestic: $40.1 million

10) Hitman
Worldwide: $99.9 million
US domestic: $39.6 million

That the latter two questions are so difficult to answer goes some way towards explaining the first two. Nobody seems entirely sure which audience is being targeted with a game-to-film adaptation. If a film faithfully reproduces a game it’s going to be of little value to franchise fans, but it’s going to alienate them if it departs from established canon. If it’s not targeted at the fans at all, why attach a gaming property, something that still carries a stigma despite gaming’s growing social acceptability as an entertainment medium?

Back to the drawing board
Interestingly, the most successful adaptations are those which pay the least heed to the “real” canon of the licenses they draw on. The Resident Evil films are among the highest-grossing video game movies; while critics find little to admire in the spectacle-heavy adventures of Milla Jovovich’s specially created character, Alice, each of the film ranks in the top ten earners of game adaptations, making most of their box office earnings outside the US. Silent Hill, which notably hails from the same production team and is soon to spawn a sequel, did less well internationally but is in the top ten for US domestic earnings. These movies tend to be rubbished by fans of Capcom’s horror efforts, because they throw out established plots and characters in favour of new interpretations. They remain informed by particular themes, motifs and icons of the games, but make no effort at fitting in with the rules of the universe inside your console.

Two other top ten entries, Tomb Raider and its less successful sequel The Cradle of Life, took a similar approach. Lara Croft, never a steady characterisation even over the course of just one of her multitudinous releases, was reinvented for the films. The adventures she undertook and the characters she encountered were likewise far removed from anything the games established. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has the highest worldwide gross of any video game adaptation to date, and, again, it played fast and loose with the characters and story of its parent IP; don’t even get me started on what they did to Tahmina.

These examples suggest that if you want to wring a pretty penny out of a gaming property you need to shuck off most of the trappings of established narrative and personalities and focus instead on a few core takeaways. This is understandable: a lot of what makes a game so compelling fails to translate to less interactive media. Our most-praised epics (Mass Effect, for example) are divided into short, episodic arcs suitable to a play session, which add up to an overall narrative too long for a standard film. Our most iconic heroes (Master Chief, the early Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman) are deliberately empty, every-man types we can all individually adopt as we play – but with little to recommend them as protagonists for 90 minutes of passive observation. Turning games into films means dropping a lot of what makes them special to their fans.

Why license?
Hollywood, like the games industry, is increasingly focused on smaller numbers of bigger hits, and is building towards a reliance on series and franchises, à la the recent success of Marvel. Launching a new property on a Hollywood budget presents the same kind of investor-unfriendly risk as launching a new gaming IP, so it’s understandable that a studio would consider adapting an established, successful gaming brand.

Maybe that’s what David O Russell planned to do with his generously loose interpretation of Uncharted; tack the name onto an exploitable genre – heist films – while maintaining the lip service of a few core ideas.

Movie announces ’07-’12

Including cancelled, stymied and MIA.
List almost certainly incomplete.

Area 51, Army of Two, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, Broken Sword, Castlevania, Cold Fear, Clock Tower, Dante’s Inferno, Dead Space, Driver, Duke Nukem, Everquest, Fatal Frame, Fear Effect, Gears of War, God of War, Guitar Hero, Halo, Joust, Kane & Lynch, The Legend of Spyro, Lost Planet, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, Mortal Kombat 3, Onimusha, Soul Calibur, Splinter Cell, SpyHunter, The Suffering, Uncharted, World of Warcraft

Given what we’ve discussed about the success of easily mutable properties and their potential advantage to a Hollywood project, it’s easy to guess what kind of games are going to be most attractive when shopping around producers and studios. You want something with immediately understandable film themes – Resident Evil’s corporations and monsters, Tomb Raider’s globe-trotting gunplay. You want characters flexible enough to mould into an audience-relatable protagonist. You want a story which fits nicely into a typical 90 minute arc.

Otherwise, you want a licensee happy to see you throw all this out and start again under your brand name, and games companies are less and less happy with that kind of arrangement, as they become increasingly aware of how cheap licensing waters down a brand with the potential for transmedia. Sony scuttled Uncharted when it started heading south; Epic and Irrational have both demurred when their properties, Gears of War and BioShock respectively, didn’t inspire agreeable treatments; Ubisoft has locked down Assassin’s Creed; Blizzard is guarding World of Warcraft so closely that, devastatingly, Sam Raimi gave up and wandered off to do Oz.

Where Hideo Kojima is all enthusiasm, other licensees have learned to be wary in their quest to take franchises mainstream. It’s difficult to translate the magic of games to films in way that captures the mass market and pleases core fans; it’s hard to avoid cheapening a property in the process; and it’s hard to sell movie-goers, gamers and investors alike on adaptations after years of Uwe Boll’s deliberate, tax-evading flops. It’s no wonder gaming properties so rarely make the jump with significant success.

Avi Arad says games are the new comic books, and in a year or two we’ll all be heading into cinemas to watch Metal Gear Solid and its ilk the same way we did The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America. We’re hedging our bets.

Thanks to freelance game and film critic James O’Connor for acting as a sounding board during the construction of this piece.

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17 Comments

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  1. Freek

    Succesfull comic book films have had high profile, quality filmmakers, with a great cast to back them up. The people writting and directing them grew up with the property, had a strong passion for the franchise they worked on and got the studio onboard with their vission.

    That has NEVER happend to games. Nobody cares about the adaptation and nobody understands them. Not the studio, not the people making it, not people starring in them.

    The closest we got was Silent Hill, a well intentioned failure.

    Untill that changes, game adaptations will continue to suck. Just another license to exploite rathen then a project with a good idea and passion for the characters.

    But look to Youtube. It’s full of quality shorts that faithfully adapt games. If you can do it in a 5/10 min short, you can do it for 120 min aswell. Just so long as you have people making it that actually give a shit.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. friendlydave

    #2 2 years ago
  3. mojo

    #1:
    “Succesfull comic book films have had high profile, quality filmmakers, with a great cast to back them up”
    and still most of them suck.

    and silent hill wasnt bad.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. freedoms_stain

    From that list there on the right, Spyro could actually make a decent kids film.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. TheBlackHole

    The answer to this question is actually incredibly simple. They give the greenlight to terrible directors because they don’t ask for much money, and they refuse to let good directors take them on because they ask for too much.

    The only three adaptations with genuine potential were:

    Halo – Pete Jackson, Neill Blomkamp.
    So, apparently, the MULTIPLE OSCAR WINNING director of Lord of the Rings and director of District 9 aren’t the right fit for a fantasy sci-fi epic. Erm, right.

    Bioshock – gore Verbinski.
    I’m not his biggest fan, but he does big-picture action well and he wanted to make the film a hard-R. Hence why he’s no longer attached.

    Uncharted – David O Russell
    Another Oscar nominated director (maker of Three Kings and The Fighter), who dropped out due to the Studio wanting to inact their own ‘vision’.

    Instead, we get Uwe Boll and Paul Anderson.

    Fuck you Hollywood. Seriously, fuck you.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Freek

    Halo got killed because the deal coulden’t be made. The creative team was fine but it was a multipell studio deal that ran into financial trouble.

    Same with Bioshock, the studio wanted a PG13 or a low budget.

    David O Russel’s Uncharted would have been total garbage. It was some wierdo family heist movie with freaking Marky Mark in the lead and Robert De Niro as his uncle. A train wreck that needed to be canned.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. TheBlackHole

    @6

    1 – the multiple studio deal was fine until PJ wanted 10% of gross receipts.

    2 – So the studio had no interest in a film that was either in line with the game’s tone/horror elements, or wanted to make a cheap movie about an underwater city.

    3 – The ‘Marky Mark’ insult is old hat. Watch Three Kings, The Departed or Boogie Nights and then tell me he can’t act. Sure, he makes some shit, but under a decent director he can produce.

    Traditionally, good directors make good movies. Bad directors make bad ones. It sounds obvious, but generally it’s true. Hollywood just ignores this and goes where the money is. Why make a well received movie and receive half the revenue, when we can make a poorly received one that people will still watch and receive 90%.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Freek

    He’s had some okay roles, but he is completly wrong for the part of Drake and dumping all of the Uncharted storyline and characters for your own story, as Russel was doing, is pointless. We should be thankfull that one got killed.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. OrbitMonkey

    I blame that Mario movie with Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper. It tainted Hollywood’s collective conciousness when it come to videogame adaptations. :-S

    #9 2 years ago
  10. mojo

    9:
    lol thats by far the most irritating movie ive seen in a long while..
    happened to see a bit of it just a few weeks ago..
    OMG what a, well, what?!

    #10 2 years ago
  11. CPC_RedDawn

    Without a doubt the best video game – movie adaptation is Silent Hill. Sure it was nowhere near groundbreaking, but at least it stuck to the source material and veered off here and there to do its own thing. At least the acting was great, the story was there, the special effects were awesome too. Not like most of the game movies we get, the prime example being Resident Evil, I fuckin LOVE the games, they seriously are some of my fav games. But Paul.W.S.Anderson has fucked them up beyond belief. They had the perfect formula for a great horror film, a small squad of police officers get lost in the woods and fine refuge in a mansion… All they needed to do was mix it up a little and create their own set pieces to surprise the audience… but no… Anderson thinks he has to think of weird and “sexy” ways in which to slap him wife on screen wearing leather, or jumping around with nothing on (yea sure shes hot but still!).

    Sorry… rant over. I really did like Anderson after he made the excellent horror movie Event Horizon. But after Resident Evil, Three Musketeers, he has well and truly destroyed his reputation!

    I think it is a great idea for Sony to start making some great high budget blockbusters. I think they are getting jealous of Marvel and all their success with comic book movies. Sony has a film company, and they have a games company… I think we might start seeing more and more games movies… Lets just keep EVERYTHING crossed shall we!!

    #11 2 years ago
  12. diego-rbb-93

    #5 BlackHole:

    David O Russell redifined Uncharted breaking the main story completely, bringing us some modern “treasure hunter” family. Pure shit for this adaptation, maybe in another stand-alone movie would work perfectly.

    The bad news were about losing Joe Pesci and De Niro in the way, which sounded awesome. Good news? New script ordered by Sony. Nathan Fillion still can go in.

    About Halo, the production were still too expensive. Microsoft couldnt find any real Company Producer with enough eggs to produce a 250/300 millions project. Or you are James Cameron being produced by Fox, or you are fucked up.

    Lot of pre-production was done, we can still see it in the future, but millions and big FX advances will be needed.

    And Bioshock, more or less the same. 200 millions were needed for a movie that was going to be recorded on green screens and expensive water chambers. Too much cash for scenaries/FX.

    #11 CPC. Resident Evil 1, by Anderson, was an aceptable movie. It really broke with all canonic situations and characters, but it wasnt a bad movie. Zombies were well done zombies AND SCARING, and the make up was still awesome (in the next movies, its poor shit, well, maybe Apocalypse still did well), the Licker was amazing, the movie really did it well showing Umbrella labs installations, the characters were at least, a bit carismatic across the horrible situation and they were really fucked.

    The end was extremly promising (come on, that final image of Raccoon City destroyed, with the movie main theme done by M. Manson was so cool. THAT image, that was pure RE)… But then, Apocalypse came out. I liked it, but it was the movie that really redefined the rest of the saga, the base for all the stupid changes that Anderson took for the next scripts).

    Anderson is a direct with more to offer. But this shit he´s selling, its doing money. Its the only thing we can expect for the moment. The day he really pushes his mind in a non adaptation movie, we could see something interesting.

    About Sony, you shouldnt expect big blockbusters. Sony Pictures only bet money for their big franchises that reported secure money: Spiderman and Resident Evil, and the first one took a lot of money from Columbia. I hope to see them putting money for new big blockbusters, but right now, with all the economical problems on Sony entire company, I dont see this division spending 200 millions in something not called Spiderman. A lot of luck they already have with a shit franchise like RE doing a lot of millions for movie.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. diego-rbb-93

    About Metal Gear Solid, I´ve a lot of years thinking about how adapt it. And the only way I see it, its in two parts.

    See, you need to introduce Solid Snake as, from one hand, a strange and deadly soldier/spy need by the goverment. For the other hand, you must explain all the “shit” that happened in Outer Heaven and Zamzibar. That needs its time, man…

    Apart from that, Metal Gear Solid compilates a brilliant script full of big twisted plot points, betrayals, dramatic battles, extremly big characters, genetic experimentation points, politics, ect…

    Not everything can be there, but it should. Metal Gear Solid have one of the best scripts ever done.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. NiceFellow

    It’s hardly tricky to work out. Most games, much as love them are either:

    1 – pure games hence by defintion useless to base a film on (other than as a cash in on popularity)

    2 – hybrid games mostly focused on gameplay with a crappy plot mostly cribbed from film/literature/comics and by defination already below standard for a film

    3 – cinematic games that balance plot with gameplay. But even the best of these are essentially weaker copies of better films/literature/comics

    So the problem is simple, starting from a game – apart from the loosest elements that might be interesting such as setting or elements of characters – you’re starting from below par material for an adaptation when you take a game as the source.

    Pretty much every film based on a game is a mix of cash in perhaps with an element of vanity project. But despite some being decent I don’t see any ever matching their better sources.

    Sure you could make a film of Uncharted – but I doubt you’re going to top Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Romancing the Stone for that matter. The best to hope for is a competent film vs the classics in the genre.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Clupula

    As an absolutely huge fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, I have very little doubt that the MGS movie will be complete and utter shit. Directors have this weird hard-on for jettisoning what makes a game great when they make it into a movie. The Uncharted example is a huge one. I am so glad that one got killed. It had as much to do with Uncharted as Doom had to do with Doom.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. xino

    lolz
    i’m surprised Hit man made it to top 10 O_o

    #16 2 years ago
  17. CaptPierce

    The Prince of Persia film is the closest videogame film I liked. It followed the story enough for me to care, even if it only used the Sands about 4-5 times in the movie. Was it perfect? No, but it wasn’t complete dog shit like everyone said.

    #17 12 months ago