Last week, Microsoft announced that Gears of War would be getting a movie adaptation. To be fair, the same announcement was made nearly ten years ago, so there’s a chance the movie will never happen.
But I think it pays to be optimistic, and I’ll always root for a movie to be good no matter how high the odds are stacked against it. To better the chance of Gears of War being a great film, here are five lessons we can learn from the failed video game adaptations of the past.
1. Don’t make it a generic ‘assembly-line’ movie
If Gears only followed one lesson out of this list, it would have to be this one.
Above all, don’t use your adaptation of a popular and/or beloved source material just to make another cookie-cutter movie.
We are all too familiar with this kind of film-making from Uwe Boll and his oeuvre of mess-terpieces, but the most egregious example might be 2014’s quickly-forgotten Need for Speed.
By no means the worst video game movie, Need for Speed still managed to fail from the moment it was greenlit. Honestly, the game series barely has an identity of its own in the first place — a loose collection of car-culture ideas that has been rebooted more often than Spiderman.
The few consistencies in the Need for Speed series are entirely based around play: the chasing, the drag racing, the thrill of illegal driving. The reason this works in a video game is that players can act out scenarios they had previously only seen in the movies — and you’ve probably already guessed where this is going.
So let’s get real. Executives almost certainly saw the ‘play car chases just like the movies’ problem as an opportunity. They would have known that the bar for what Need for Speed is, when you take away the interactivity, had been set so low that they could crap out anything remotely car-chase adjacent, slap on the name and call it an adaptation. In doing so, they could take advantage of the millions of well-meaning fans who feel attached to the brand name Need for Speed.
To their credit, the producers turned out a film that isn’t utterly terrible. As an exercise in transferring a video game IP to the big screen though, it did fail, because in the end it was ‘just another car movie.’
Microsoft and Universal — if nothing else, please don’t set the bar that low for what Gears means to fans. Don’t assume that anything with a chainsaw-gun can be called Gears of War. Don’t short change fans by putting a good name on an assembly-line movie. Don’t make ‘just another military action movie.’ We have plenty of those, thank you.
(special thanks to Adam Speight for his suggestion of Need for Speed)
2. Don’t try to follow a trend in style
Chasing a trend is what Hollywood does best. Eighties movie reboots? Everywhere. A young adult book gets split in half for the final movie? Of course. Marvel’s shared universe making a truckload of cash? Make everything a shared universe.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the form of your movie franchise. If you told me that Gears of War was going to be split into three movies like The Lord of the Rings, it really doesn’t matter, as long as they’re good. However, Hollywood can also fall prey to this trend-chasing with tropes and cliches.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was, like Need for Speed, not the worst video game adaptation by a long shot. Where Prince of Persia dropped the ball in relation to its source material was caring less about the game’s interesting universe and more about making the next Pirates of the Caribbean.
A blander, sandier version of Pirates of the Caribbean, without Johnny Depp.
No one is going to argue that the story of the games was the best part, nor the characters deeply nuanced, but that’s exactly the point. Making a movie, you have to infuse the story with meaning and make the characters deeper. In Disney’s Prince of Persia, the characters are no more interesting than they were in the game, but the action and magic is less interesting. The story lacks in energy and the characters lack in depth because the film makers’ eyes weren’t on elevating the game; they were too focused on manufacturing the next mega-franchise to replace Pirates. Incidentally, given the relatively diverse core team in Gears of War, it would be a shame if it was also as whitewashed as Prince of Persia.
Guardians of the Galaxy showed a rag-tag team against incredible odds, and Edge of Tomorrow‘s sci-fi action was great. That doesn’t mean we want a pale imitation of either of them. Just let Gears be Gears; it’s the only movie that has to be.
3. Start with the most interesting part of the story
George Lucas knew when he was writing Star Wars that the last thing people wanted to see was the slow buildup of unrest in the Old Republic, because “who really wants politics in a space adventure?” (Though it seems he forgot about this by the 1990s.) Instead of going all the way back to the start, Lucas jumped right into the middle of the action.
1977’s Star Wars introduced audiences to a few key characters, hinted at the broader background, exploded a lot of stuff and then got the heck out. The counter-example to this is, unfortunately, a film I didn’t hate.
Duncan Jones’s enormous Warcraft movie came out earlier this year to cries of not just “meh” but of active disdain. I quite enjoyed it myself, despite its many flaws, but the greatest of these was its bizarre choice to start all the way at the beginning of the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.
No one really needs to see a $160 million movie try to wring pathos out of an early 90s RTS game. It bears repeating that I liked the movie, but this vague outline of a story didn’t have to be the basis for a blockbuster by any means. Warcraft III‘s narrative might be little better than its predecessors, but at least the stories of Thrall and Arthas are easier to connect with on an emotional level. The story of Warcraft III also had a direct impact on the background of World of Warcraft, and included some of the most interesting and exciting events in Azeroth’s history.
To come back to Star Wars, the events of the Warcraft movie could have easily been summarized by Orgrim “Obi-Wan” Doomhammer as he passed on Durotan’s lightsabre — I mean, tusk — to an already adult Thrall.
For Gears of War, we don’t need to see the detailed origins of the Locust Horde for a whole movie before we even get to Marcus Fenix. Give us the action, mystery and broken beauty that typifies Gears, not a history lesson of planet Sera.
4. Don’t be afraid to change, but have a good reason to do so
Love ’em or hate ’em, the Resident Evil movies have become one of the most successful video-game-to-motion-picture franchises out there, much to the chagrin of fans of the games. This isn’t about dumping on the series, either — plenty of people unironically enjoy the RE movies. Paul W. S. Anderson and co made some bold and efficient changes when they were making their movies that probably helped the series on its way to success, including the addition of a new main character.
Think about it: you love the Resident Evil cast because of the goofy writing and the awesome cutscenes. But when the player takes control, it doesn’t matter whether you are Chris, Jill, Leon or Claire, they all become the same jumpy, fumbling automaton who checks every single cupboard they walk past, even when being chased by an unearthly horror. This has improved in recent entries, and other franchises including Zelda and Tomb Raider have made great strides in conveying character through gameplay, but for classic Resident Evil it makes a lot of sense to have a new character be the protagonist.
Where Resident Evil faltered was going too far in that direction, completely sidelining the series’ tone and original cast. The story became so focused on Alice and her magic powers that everything interesting was happening to her alone.
This is almost as bad as making a generic movie. If you have a good reason for inventing new characters and storylines, go for it — but don’t do it like Resident Evil and imply that what fans care about most isn’t important.
Also, don’t try to fix this later by paying lip service to the games when you’re four movies in. That just makes people mad.
5. Have a high quality script first
Some Hollywood movies can go into production without a full script. They might evolve as they’re made, like Iron Man. They might only truly work once the reshoots are done, like Thor: The Dark World. These examples aren’t widespread, and they don’t happen often. Most of the time, to make sure a movie has the best chance of not-sucking, it needs a good script first.
Don’t even take the chance with a video game movie.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is not an awful film, though it certainly suffers like Resident Evil did by not really feeling like the games that it’s based on. Not feeling very Final Fantasy is bad, but its worst failing is a lack of convincing storytelling.
Its characters have all the charisma of an emotionless race of aliens wearing human skin. The dialogue comes off like it was written by a middle-schooler who just discovered New Age spirituality (not that I would know). Several times throughout, the movie flat out contradicts itself.
Can this really be blamed on the language barrier? Its problems in writing and tone are entirely different to those of the games from around the same time. Say what you will about Final Fantasy‘s protagonists, they could never be accused of being emotionless. No, these problems aren’t about translation — The Spirits Within as a film needed fixing as early as the script stage.
Writers, try to think it through: is this or that necessary? Do the characters sound like human beings? Will any of this make sense in the logical progression of the plot?
Working on the storytelling basics, The Spirits Within might at least have been more coherent. Sure, some movies are made up on set, but they are usually once-in-a-lifetime flukes. Gears of War — scratch that, all video game movies — deserve more than throwing something together and hoping it works. Don’t rush the movie and risk producing a wishy-washy, sub-par Gears story.
Give the film makers a fighting chance, by putting your effort where it counts and starting with a good script.
Most of these lessons apply to all five examples, because video game movies are always making the same mistakes. Hopefully, by learning from the past, a movie like Gears of War can break the cycle and actually be good, if not great.
Are there any other problems with video game movies that you’ve noticed? Have you seen any movies that manage to improve their source material? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading OnlySP.