RESPAWN: Can an Active Medium Translate into a Passive One?

RESPAWN is a monthly column exploring the intersections of video games and film by Millicent Thomas (featuring guests).

What is most important in any film is the story – the audience has to care about what is happening on the screen. It’s been a long-running joke that there is a curse on video game adaptations on film, and it seems this is the where they tend to go wrong. As Gretchen Smail writes in The Guardian, “When it comes to video game adaptations, the difference between what makes a film good or not seems to hinge on one central, simple thing: do the people involved actually understand and care about the game they’re adapting?”

And this tracks. Christophe Gans, director of 2006’s Silent Hill, spent five years trying to acquire the film rights to the iconic horror game. He eventually won them by sending the game developers, Konami, a video explaining how much the franchise meant to him. The final product was a deeply unnerving and atmospheric horror that made impressive use of the games haunting soundtrack. 2019’s Detective Pikachu also surprised critics and fans, with Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku insisting, “Detective Pikachu understands Pokémon. It’s why the film works.”

On the opposite end of that spectrum, Assassin’s Creed (2016) director Justin Kurzel admitted that he was unfamiliar with the games when signing onto the project and had never played any of them. Indeed, he hadn’t picked up a console controller at all since childhood, and the film was trashed by critics and audiences alike. Equally, Street Fighter (1994) director Uwe Boll is known for his disdain of the art form, and his copious videogame adaptations were continuously panned across the board.

Silent Hill (2006, Konami)

The common theme here in the failure of the video game movie is lack of passion. Coming aboard a project based on a game having no real interest in its mechanics, or why it’s so popular to begin with, is equivalent to coming aboard a sinking ship. But, even if the director has played the game hundreds of times, is it really possible to successfully take an active medium and transform it into an engaging passive one?

Bringing it back around to my first point, I’d say yes.

No matter how much agency the audience has in the telling of the tale, if they can care about what is happening then you’ve got them. When it comes to video games, there can be a misconception that it’s all mindless violence and shoot ’em ups. And whilst they can be like that (hey, it’s fun!), there is also room for some incredibly moving storytelling.

The multi-award-winning The Last of Us created a heart-wrenching journey across a dystopian America which sees a jaded father who lost his daughter learn to love again. The Bioshock trilogy has you play multiple characters as you dive into a fully realised under-water city that was built by a rich man trying to keep the classes divided. Neither of these games have films currently in the works, thought the rumour-mill has been turning for nearly a decade. My point being; the video game medium is simply another channel in which to tell amazing stories, and to reduce it to Fortnite and Fifa is to do it a disservice.

If Hollywood wants to transform these narratives for the big screen, they would do well to understand that the stories are worth telling to begin with, and take some real care in understanding why the fans put in so many hours in the worlds they create.

by Millicent Thomas

Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Dazed, SciFiNow, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm

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