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the most dangerous game

3 Reasons Why Video-Game Movies Still Have Yet to Score

The Need for Speed video-game franchise has sold over 140 million copies, but this weekend’s movie adaptation stalled, earning less than $20 million domestically and finishing in third place behind two box-office holdovers. As Hollywood continues to mine other lucrative source material like comic books, fairy tales, and young-adult novels, the video-game industry still hasn’t provided a successful movie adaptation that can stack up against Iron Man, Alice in Wonderland, or The Hunger Games, even though we’re in a boom time for gaming: On its first day of release, the recent Grand Theft Auto V made a whopping $800 million, the kind of figure few films can reach over an entire lifetime. When the best that Hollywood executives can offer us is a middling Max Payne movie or a Resident Evil franchise that has to rely on foreign markets to turn a profit, what’s holding them back from truly cracking the video-game code? Here are three stumbling blocks that still persist.

Game companies haven’t figured out how to work with Hollywood

You can’t blame video-game companies for wanting to retain a measure of control over their film adaptations: Just compare the movies made under the creative aegis of Marvel Studios (including success stories like The Avengers and Iron Man) to the movies derived from Marvel properties that other studios control (like duds Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). But Marvel Studios is run by Kevin Feige, a well-liked creative executive with almost fifteen years of producing experience; by contrast, many of the video-game companies that throw their hats in the Hollywood ring aren’t used to dealing with actors and directors, and their inexperience shows. Just ask Sam Raimi, who was attached to the World of Warcraft movie for years, but clashed with Warcraft developer Blizzard from the outset.

“I read a screenplay they had that was written by the guys at Blizzard, and it didn't quite work for me,” Raimi told Vulture last year. Instead, Raimi pitched a new story that Saving Private Ryan writer Robert Rodat would script, a take that Blizzard greenlit with only a few reservations. “Only once he was done did we realize that Blizzard had veto power, and we didn't know that, and they had never quite approved the original story we pitched them. Those reservations were their way of saying, ‘We don't approve this story, and we want to go a different way,’ so after we had spent nine months working on this thing, we basically had to start over ... Honestly, I think it was mismanagement on their behalf, not to explain to us that the first story was vetoed long ago. Why did they let us keep working on it? Were they afraid to tell me?”

Other game companies aren’t afraid to make their needs known, but they have little understanding of how those stipulations may compromise the final product. There were plenty of reasons why 1994's Street Fighter: The Movie didn’t work — as Polygon’s recent longread on the subject made hilariously clear — but director Steven de Souza laid most of his blame at the feet of game-maker Capcom, whose reps insisted on adding more game characters to the movie even as casting had begun to conclude. "There's a reason there's seven dwarves," de Souza noted wryly after the cast began to balloon. Once Capcom had swollen the movie’s character roster to fifteen, de Souza barely had enough time to fit them all into a 102-minute movie.

Microsoft attempted to circumvent studio interference when adapting its biggest property, Halo, but they quickly learned that Hollywood doesn’t play that game. In June 2005, Microsoft executives arrived in Hollywood with a hot hand: They had already financed and completed a Halo screenplay by 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland, which they delivered to movie studios via armored couriers dressed like game hero Master Chief. You could hardly engineer a splashier setup, but the terms attached to a potential deal were even more eye-popping: Microsoft was demanding a massive $10 million sale, complete creative approval of the movie, and full merchandising rights. The game-maker thought it had plenty of leverage, but studios balked at those stipulations, and instead of generating a quick deal with multiple bidders, the showy offer landed with a thud. Months later, Fox and Universal finalized a distribution agreement for Halo at far less than Microsoft’s asking price, but when the studios couldn’t renegotiate the massive profit participation that Microsoft and producer Peter Jackson had written into their contracts, they pulled out of the deal in 2006. After years in development hell, Microsoft has been unable to revive the property, despite an ongoing game series that is one of the industry’s biggest.

Their timing stinks

Film development can take years and years — especially for a big-budget project that needs plenty of prep and post-production — and often, when a video-game movie is finally released, the series it was adapted from has lost all its cachet in the interim. Take Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a misbegotten action flick that arrived seven years after the main game that inspired it: The Prince of Persia video-game franchise had run out of juice by the time the movie was released in 2010, and no new games have been released in the series since that year.

The Prince of Persia games had never been the industry’s most lucrative, which made the Prince of Persia film all the more confounding: Hollywood was finally spending through the nose on a giant video-game movie made with quality actors and a top-flight director, and they’d picked this one? Meanwhile, movies based on the biggest video-game franchises, like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, continued to languish. (The latter almost came together in 2011 in a package that would have starred Eminem, but Grand Theft Auto developer Take-Two wouldn’t agree to the pitch.) The Need for Speed movie wasn’t greenlit because its game series was hotter than ever — sales have been declining for years, in fact — but instead because it would make for a low-cost Fast and Furious knockoff.

Even the two Tomb Raider films, which were among the more high-profile video-game adaptations, were hamstrung by timing. The first Tomb Raider film came out in 2001 just as the previous game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, had killed off its main character Lara Croft owing to diminished fan interest. The second Tomb Raider film opened so disastrously two years later alongside a new, buggy Tomb Raider game that Paramount exec Wayne Lewellen sniffed, “The only thing we can attribute that to is that the gamers were not happy with the latest version of the Tomb Raider video game, which is our core audience.” Last year, Tomb Raider got a well-received video-game reboot; the reboot of the film series, however, continues to languish.

As games become more like movies, new challenges emerge

You would think that video games would be easier candidates for adaptation today then they were in the early, anything-goes era of the industry: How was a Super Mario Bros. movie ever supposed to work when it’s based on a joyfully nonsensical game that features Italian plumbers jumping on turtles while gobbling up size-granting mushrooms and riding dinosaurs? These days, games are far less Dadaist and now soberly focus on telling an immersive story with high production values and convincingly voiced dialogue. The line between games and movies is now so porous that a big star like Michael Fassbender, who’s signed to star in a film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, has already cut his teeth voicing the villain in the game Fable III.

And yet, as games continue to ape movies, that presents its own problem. The popular series Uncharted has been hailed for delivering a riff on Indiana Jones, but once you try to get a movie from it, won’t it just seem like a lesser version of its inspiration? Director David O. Russell was once tasked to helm Uncharted and tried to sweeten his stew with a host of brand-new elements — most notably, widening the focus from his Indy-like protagonist Nathan Drake by giving him a Sopranos-like “crime family that metes out justice in the world of art and antiquities” — but fan backlash was swift and severe, and Russell left the project. John Woo flirted with adapting the classic Nintendo series Metroid a few years back, but the bare-bones narrative of a lone female warrior going up against a host of parasitic monsters and their queen alien was so heavily influenced by the Alien franchise that Woo tried to introduce new plot points and characters; when Nintendo wouldn’t sign off on those changes, the project fell apart.

Meanwhile, after you play a heavily cinematic game like The Last of Us or Mass Effect, you might wonder whether a movie is ultimately superfluous. These games are essentially interactive movies anyway, and go on for far longer, and with more freedom of vision, than any adaptation ever could. Fans of comic books and young-adult novels can’t wait to see those heroes and adventures on the screen, but if you’re a video-game fan, you’re already used to it. A movie can offer little more than a visual experience that skirts the uncanny valley a bit less, especially if demanding fans and game-makers prod the movie studios to adhere closely to a narrative that’s literally been played out.

Still, Hollywood remains committed to figuring out the games industry, and you can feel its outreach in unusual ways: The current yen for long, unbroken takes in projects like Gravity and True Detective is, I’d argue, subconsciously influenced by the persistence of version in first-person shooters and adventure games. Need for Speed was a relatively cheap risk, and the bigger tests will arrive over the next two years, when the Fassbender-led Assassin’s Creed, the expensive adaptation of Warcraft (with director Duncan Jones stepping in for Sam Raimi), and a Sony film based on Angry Birds will all vie to become the first bona fide critical and commercial smash. If Assassin’s Creed and Warcraft flop and Angry Birds arrives too late in 2016 to capitalize on its fly-by-night success, Hollywood will likely retreat from making those big-budget gambles. But despite all the pitfalls still inherent in adapting a video game, you have to expect they’ll keep trying: We’re now living a world full of veteran gamers, and there’s no challenge out there that someone can’t eventually conquer.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson