Like most of the nerdoverse, I made my way in to the Watchmen with feelings comprised of equal parts anticipation and trepidation. While the prospect of seeing an adaptation of one of the seminal works of the comic book genre was thrilling, my cynical (or realistic?) side made me acutely aware that it could very well be a train wreck.
Thankfully, I found the film's themes remarkably faithful to the book, and its deviations from the source understandable and acceptable (albeit somewhat disappointing). As others would agree, the movie seems to be both a worthy ode to the book, as well as a commercial hit.
Of course, my mind tends to wander to video games, so I began thinking about why video game to movie translations are so dreadful, while comic book films often succeed. I have always thought of video games and comics as spiritual cousins in terms of their appeal and their fight for cultural legitimacy, and so the dearth of respectable video game movies strikes me as odd. After some thinking, I came up with five reasons comic book films succeed, and what video game adaptations could learn from them. Before I proceed, a word of caution: do not read into this too deeply. I do not mean to suggest that video games need to be made in to films, need to be more like films, or are inferior to either comics or film. Look at it as a light hearted thought exercise and a longing to expose a broader non-gamer audience to the works we all enjoy.
1. Hire Outstanding Actors
This may seem obvious, but the importance of talented actors cannot be overstated. Even when he finds himself in a bad film, RobertDowney Jr. can carry the sucker. Thankfully, Ironman was a fun time, but largely because Downey was able to create a unique, believable character to hook people in to a relatively unknown character and a story. If relatively niche video game franchises are to be made into movies, they need aDowney-esque actor to carry them. Sorry Freddy Prinze Jr., Wing Commander was too heavy for you to carry.
2. Hire Competent Directors
Seriously, no more Uwe Boll.
3. Know What to Cut
Here is where things start getting painful. Regardless of how much everyone liked the Tales of the Black Freighter and New York's death by mutant sea food, it is clear why these things were cut from the silver screen's Watchmen. The need to create a cogent story that appeals to those less knowledgeable while retaining a reasonable run time means a certain loss of content, and perhaps even sophistication.
As Watchmen demonstrates, this does not mean that the themes or essence of the story needs to be sacrificed. Would a film adaptation of Eternal Darkness that had five characters rather than twelve be that much worse? Yes, it would simplify the plot as well as disappoint some of the avid fans, but if this is the price for keeping the game's thematic integrity while also making a good movie, so be it. Which leads into the next point...
4. Stay True to the Source
The best thing about Christopher Nolan's Batman movies are their faithfulness to spirit of their source material. While he has had some mood swings, Batman is essentially a dark, brooding character who protects a city that serves as a metaphor for his damaged psyche. Nolan understood this, and thus his deviations from previous Batman stories were forgiven because of his adherence to themes respected by fans and understood by newcomers.
Video game movies seem to have difficulty sticking to the spirit of the source material. Take the Super Mario Bros. movie: the film tries to place the characters and settings of Mario in a real-world context. Bad sci-fi explanations of the Mushroom Kingodom and cheesy special effects leave fans disappointed and newcomers baffled. The problem here is not that someone tried to make a Mario movie; they tried to make the wrong one.
Why not embrace the psychedelic acid trip that is Mario's world and make it an animated film that does not have to justify the existence ofKoopas or fire flowers? Bowser already has an image problem, no need to complicate things with Dennis Hopper.
5. Choose Projects Wisely
Some comic books lend themselves especially well to film adaptations and require relatively little adaptation. X-Men is a prime example because every character has distinct, recognizable powers that complement their characterization. Wolverine fights like a beast and has metal claws; he is the surly outsider. Cyclops can sets his sights on evildoers and blasts them with pure energy; he is the morally upstanding captain. Professor X has nearly limitless psychic and intellectual abilities; he is the cerebral, all-knowing mentor.
When making a video game, people must be honest about how much source material is included in the game, rather than bestowed by the player. A protagonist like Link is beloved because of a combination of nostalgia and projection: his long history of silence has allowed players to concoct their personal back-stories and any film adaptation would do nothing but disappoint them.
Final Fantasy is a series with complex characters, but the scope of the stories and the emotional arcs take dozens of hours and hundreds of lines of dialogue to explicate. Distilling the experienced of Final Fantasy into a two hour ride is contrary to what the series stands for, and thus it should never be filmed.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gears of War seems like a logical choice for a solid action movie (as others have noticed). Incredibly buff space marines with attitude and badittude; the screenplay almost writes itself!
Again, I do not make theses suggestions to imply that film translations are necessary for video games to assert some sort of cultural credibility. I think it is only natural for folks to want to see respectful re-interpretations of their favorite art, and for capitalism to incline towards squeezing every last cent out of every cultural artifact it can get its hands on. I only suggest these two impulses need not be mutually exclusive.