All art feeds off of all other art. This is the natural order of things. Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels are inspired by a Robert Browning poem called “Childe Roland to Dark Tower Came,” which is itself inspired partly by a line in King Lear and partly by a French minstrel song from the 11th century (and partly from a nightmare Browning had, but that’s not important to my point). Browning’s poem also inspired a fairly famous painting by Thomas Moran. That’s one poem that was inspired by one play and one song that in turn inspired at least one painting and eight best-selling novels.
The birth date of video games is the object of some contention, so for my purposes, let’s just say it was the 1971 release of Computer Space, as it was the first game that could be played by the general public. Given that a new art form had been loosed to the world, it was only a matter of time until movies based on them started being made. Surprisingly, that time was actually 22 years. In 1993, Super Mario Bros. was unleashed on the public and… it sucked. It sucked really, really badly. My mom took my sister and I to see it in the theater, and even at 10, I hated it. I can only surmise what my mom thought.
Subsequent video game to movie adaptations didn’t fare much better. As of this writing, Hollywood has released slightly fewer than 30 big budget films based on video games. Nearly all of them are unwatchable dreck. If you don’t believe me, check out the late Ryan Davis’ video series, This Ain’t No Game, or TANG for short. He managed to watch every game-based movie made before his untimely death. The best of the bunch are still pretty mediocre, in the grand scheme of things.
The purpose of this column isn’t simply to excoriate lazy Hollywood adaptations of games they didn’t give a shit about. It’s to try to get to the bottom of why they don’t work. (Next week, I’ll look at why games based on movies usually don’t work, either.) The easy and snarky answer is “bad adaptation.” And that’s true, but it’s also lazy. I mean, yes, everyone’s favorite phrase when walking out of a movie based on a novel is “the book was better,” but that doesn’t always make the movie unwatchable.
One big thing is that video games, particularly those of a certain vintage, tend to have pretty thin plots. Take Double Dragon for example. It’s a good example, because a lot of the game is fed by classic genre films, creating some kind of game/movie Ouroboros. In Double Dragon, the game opens with a gang of thugs punching a girl in the stomach and carrying her off. The heroes then beat wave after wave of said thugs to death until they reach the gang leader, Machine Gun Willy. They dispatch him, save the girl, then fight among themselves to figure out who gets to kiss her before the end credits. The brothers are martial arts experts named Billy and Jimmy Lee. The two most common enemies in the game are named Williams and Roper, taking their names from Jim Kelly and John Saxon’s characters from Enter the Dragon. The NES version of the game introduced an enemy known as Chin Taimei, whose wild, unkempt hair and baggy pants make him a dead ringer for the evil Japanese killers in 1972’s King Boxer. And, of course, the brothers Lee dress like the titular characters in The Warriors.
To look at this game, it would seem ripe for adaptation. It’s a simple “rescue the damsel” martial arts story. So what on earth would possess the brilliant minds in Hollywood to turn this into some bizarre story filled with pseudo-Asian mysticism, heroes who run from nearly every fight and a bad guy who doesn’t have a machine gun? The film is spectacularly terrible, and while I’ve seen a lot of ill-advised championing of shitty video game movies on the internet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try to defend this one. The plot is boring and paper thin, something about a magic medallion that will makes the bearer(s) stronger and something something something.
Only the barest elements of the game are present. There’s two brothers named Billy and Jimmy Lee, but oddly, one is played by whitebread-as-fuck Scott Wolfe, who is kind of charming but not a martial artist by any stretch, the other by Mark Dacascos, who is actually Asian. There is a girl named Marian, but she’s no one’s girlfriend. There are gangs, but they’re all different until Robert Patrick with a Vanilla Ice haircut brings them all under his command after killing a woefully underused Michael Berryman. At no point does Robert Patrick brandish a machine gun.
In the film, Alyssa Milano’s Marian is the leader of the Power Core, who is a gang, but unlike all of the other gangs in the movie, they’re the good gang. They… I don’t even know, maybe they clean up graffiti or something? They fight a couple of times, but the fight scenes are not good. And on top of that, the Lee brothers run away from more fights than they get into. Anyways, lots of useless lip service is paid to the games, but almost no story elements come from them, which is sort of embarrassing, considering how simple the story in the game is.
So, this is what leads me to my theory of what, in general, makes game to movie adaptations so spectacularly bad: over-adaptation. Hollywood thinks games are too simple, so it pads out the stories in some kind of dumb attempt to make them more palatable to a mainstream audience. The problem is that doing this is essentially talking down to your audience while you destroy anything that made the source material appealing in the first place. I mean, just look at what they did to Super Mario Bros. A game about two plumbers jumping on turtles in a weird world of technicolor trees with faces got turned into some kind of Blade Runner-esque post-apocalyptic, parallel dimension-hopping, overwrought shitfest with Dennis Hopper playing a giant demon turtle, except not because fuck this kindergarten bullshit, amirite, guys?
I mean, if you want to draw in fans of a property, taking that property and shitting in its mouth probably isn’t the best way to endear yourself to its fans. King Bowser Koopa is a giant demon turtle. That is what he is. There’s no argument to be had here. He definite isn’t an old white guy who “descended from the T-rex” or whatever batshit nonsense those people wanted the audience to believe. This isn’t hard. But, hey, it happens a lot. Street Fighter is a video game about an exotic martial arts tournament. It’s basically Enter the Dragon the video game. So, hey, let’s cast Jean-Claude Van Damme as an American Air Force captain, make it into a military action movie about a warlord in southeast Asia and have as little street fighting as possible. Sound good? Ok, cool, let’s make a movie. That one is actually especially notable because then someone else made another movie like fifteen years later that appeared to learn nothing from the first one. (Side note: This article at Polygon does a great job of looking at what went wrong with Street Fighter.)
This whole rant puts me in the odd position of defending a Paul W.S. Anderson movie. And, man, I hate that guy’s movies. He has literally made only two movies that I even consider watchable. Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon. I’m talking about the former here, obviously. Yes, he also made a glut of Resident Evil movies that some people like, but I am not one of those people. Mortal Kombat, though? I mean, it isn’t great. But they got it. They took a bunch of completely ridiculous characters and dropped them in a fighting tournament and they fought each other and they killed each other and Johnny Cage did the splits and punched someone in the nads. Like, it’s just a ’90s update to Enter the Dragon, but with less Bruce Lee and more weird mysticism, but that’s fine. That’s what the game was. That’s what the game was designed to be, so that’s what the movie should have been, and, lo and fucking behold, it was. Yes, it has an undead ninja who looks like Ghost Rider. Yes, it has a four-armed half-dragon man. Yes, it has all of that and it should. The sequel, though? Ass. Avoid at all costs.
So, what can we learn from all of this? Mostly that maybe video games just shouldn’t be adapted into big budget films. I mean, there are a lot of game-based fan films on the internet that are solid works, but Hollywood should just stay out of it. But they won’t, so on the off chance that anyone thinking of making a video game movie reads this, I think what we should really take away is: Don’t condescend to your audience. If you’re adapting a story about two brothers who kick the shit out of a bunch of gangs to save a girl, then just make a story about that. Yeah, it’ll be heavy on action sequences and light on drama, but so what? So was The Raid, and it was the best film of its kind to come out in damn near a decade. Come back next week when we’ll try to figure out why game developers think making games based on movies is a good idea. I mean, besides money, because duh.