When it comes to the adaptation of different forms of storytelling to cinema, novels have remained a popular source of inspiration and comic books and graphic novels now dominate the box-office and streaming services. Interestingly, an equally as visual yet more immersive medium – videogames – has yet to make that leap to effective feature films. Since the dawn of the art form, filmmakers have tried and failed repeatedly to make videogame movies that work. Although we may be inching closer to the point that tips over into success, what we’re left with currently is nearly 30 years’ worth of films in a mixed-bag graveyard.
Super Mario Bros (1993) is considered the first live-action videogame to movie adaptation … and coincidentally one of the worst. Starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi respectively, the film was a commercial and critical flop with the filmmakers setting out to capture the darker tone of ‘lighter’ source material that was popular at the time with Tim Burton’s Gothic vision of Batman (1989) and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). The production itself was troubled, going over time and over budget, with the movie releasing theatrically during a period of increased anti-videogames sentiment among parents and consumer bodies. The rest of the decade didn’t prove any more fruitful, with the list following Super Mario Bros just as cursed: Street Fighter (1994), Double Dragon (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995), Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) and Wing Commander (1999). Although critically panned, both Mortal Kombat movies were box-office hits and remain two of the most successful videogame adaptations to this day.
It was enough to fuel the following decade, which saw the number of videogame to film adaptations more than double with the likes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Doom (2005), Silent Hill (2006), Max Payne (2008) and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010), It was also the beginning of the Resident Evil franchise, directed by Mortal Kombat’s Paul W.S. Anderson for the first film in 2001 and continuing right through until Resident Evil: The Final Chapter in 2017. It became the longest running videogame movie franchise with a 16-year run and the most successful, with a gross of $1.2 billion at the international box-office (despite rarely, if ever, connecting critically). While other videogame movie franchises tried to get going – Silent Hill had a sequel, Hitman had a few attempts – the Milla Jovovich-led series endured even into the new decade. Need For Speed (2014) tried to crack into the market The Fast and the Furious had so carefully parked itself into, with only mild success, while Warcraft (based on World Of Warcraft) and Assassin’s Creed both dropped in 2016 to disdain from film commentators. Warcraft was considered a “huge disappointment” by io9 critic Germain Lussier, yet it still managed to claw its way to $433 million globally (off a $160 million budget).
Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, was far from the world of orcs and mages and aimed to take its source material as seriously as the fans of the beloved game. That meant a cast of esteemed actors in Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Essie Davis and Michael Kenneth Williams. It flopped at the box-office but was considered of higher quality than most other videogame adaptations with Jake Wilson of The Age saying: “Films based on video games are often derided as hackwork - but Assassin's Creed is the most daring film yet from the Australian director Justin Kurzel.” Tomb Raider (2018) with Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander at the head and Detective Pikachu (2019) were considered actually good and steady box-office earners. Both have been greenlit for sequels, all slated among a schedule that’s drowning in further attempts like Monster Hunter, Uncharted, another Mortal Kombat, Minecraft, Gears of War, Fruit Ninja and Call of Duty movies. In 2020, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog movie surprised everyone with the biggest ever opening weekend box-office haul of a videogame movie, dethroning Detective Pikachu's previous record.
The phenomenon of the Angry Birds game spawned two movies – The Angry Birds Movie (2016) and The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019) – which were animated features targeted mainly at children, with solid box-office earnings on the first and mediocre on the second. Both were poorly received. What seems to have been more successful is adapting videogame traits for film, rather than movies based on specific games. Both Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010) are deeply rooted in videogame culture and later spawned successful games based off their cinematic legacies. The Last Starfighter (1984) and Last Action Hero (1993) do much the same thing with characters sucked into fictional worlds, albeit a decade apart, while Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010) incorporated videogame mechanics such as a mana bar, coins and bonus lives into the movie with cult success. The reality of a videogame-to-film adaptation that ticks all the boxes isn’t quite here yet, but it’s closer than ever. Probably.
– Maria Lewis