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Warcraft And The Problem
With Video Game Movies

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Despite Huge Fan Followings And Movie Studio Support, Video Game Film Adaptations Like Warcraft Perpetually Pale In Comparison To The Source Material


By Michael Sallustio
Modern Times Magazine

June 20, 2016 — All the factors were there to make history.

Warcraft is a huge video game franchise with millions of loyal of fans the world over, and managed to get a talented science fiction director, Duncan Jones, to helm the project. Jones was coming off two critically-acclaimed films. His first, Moon, was a favorite in the indie film world, garnering 24 awards, including a BAFTA. His second film, Source Code was beloved by critics and was a moderate box office success. With that in mind, it would seem Warcraft had all the ingredients to break the disastrous pattern of poorly-received video game films.

As of its opening day, Warcraft was a 32/100 on Metacritic. The score hasn’t changed in the week or so since since it opened. U.S. audiences agree as box-office has stalled below $50 million domestically. The only saving grace for the $160 million bank-breaker is that it is a huge hit in China. The film will likely break the $300 million plateau there.

Video games have a long history of making a go at the box office. It began with the 1993 film Super Mario Bros starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. The $48 million film would go on to be critically panned and bomb at the box office despite being based on one one of the most popular videogame franchises of all time.

It wouldn’t be until six months later that video games would get their first “hit” in theaters with the Jean Claude Van Damme led Street Fighter. The $35 million film went on to make $99 million, but, like Mario Bros, Street Fighter was absolutely destroyed by critics.

This is a trend that continues into the present day. To date, there has not been a theatrical release based on a video game franchise that has a Rotten Tomatoes score over 44%. That award goes to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, historically the first photorealistic computer-animated movie.
Still Hollywood is slated to produce over 49 new video game based movies over the coming years, according to Den of Geek. Some of these films have also managed to attract some big names. Recently the trailer for Assassin’s Creed was unleashed on the public. Based on the popular platformer, the lead role is played by current A-lister Michael Fassbender. Like Warcraft, this film hopes to break the cycle of poorly received video game films, but is this type of optimism becoming delusional?

So why is it so difficult for Hollywood to make a good videogame movie when it has managed to adapt literature and comics so well? Turns out there are plenty of theories for this.

The trouble could stem from the type of games studios choose to adapt, Scott Steinberg wrote in a special piece for CNN. Steinberg founded GameExec Magazine and heads consulting game consulting firm TechSavvy Global. With money being the primary driving force behind which movies get made into films, studios might choose popularity over powerful storytelling or enriching characters.

As the film goes into production, screenwriters find themselves rushing to piece together a cognitive plot while still trying to adhere to the source material.

For instance, the official story of the original Super Mario Bros. video game is about an evil, magic wielding turtle/dragon hybrid that turns a bunch of mushroom people into bricks and steals their princess, according to the game’s manual. The Kingdom’s only salvation is two Italian plumbers who spend the rest of the game smashing the very bricks they are meant to save because how else are you supposed to get coins? With a plot like that, how can you blame screenwriters of the Mario Bros movie for changing the story to focus on two Brooklyn plumbers who accidentally fall into another dimension where dinosaurs and mushrooms have evolved into people and want to reclaim Earth’s Samantha Mathis as their own?

Maybe they should have stuck with the original one.

Another problem is the way video game stories progress versus what we find in literature or other traditional forms of storytelling, according to USA Today film critic Scott Bowles.

Story-based narrative is primarily guided by the three act structure as opposed to the goal-based narrative we’re accustomed to in video games. It might be utterly fulfilling to get the crystal that opens the magic door that leads to the most powerful sword in all the land, but it’s less exciting watching another character do it. Scavenger hunts make for a bad spectator event no matter how grandiose or magical they may be.

Finally, there’s the theory that video games add an extra layer to storytelling that literature lacks, Kirk Kjeldsen, assistant professor in the Cinema Department at the Virginia Commonwealth University, told USA Today. In a traditional book or comic, the characters or plot drive the story, but in video games, you do. You effectively are the character and the plot is whatever you make of it. If you want to spend 20 minutes firing thousands of lead rounds into a zombie’s tattered crotch, knock yourself out! But in terms of video game movies, there is no way to effectively transition this power over to film. At least not with current movie technology. Until then, we’re back in the passenger seat after being at the wheel, and who wants to be there?

Jones seems to have ignored these issues in his attempt to bring Warcraft to the silver screen. In an interview with International Business Times, Jones said, “That’s what I wanted to do with ‘Warcraft.’ Could I craft a movie that really works on two levels? Where fans of the game absolutely get all the things they hope for and expect from a movie like this and, at the same time, for people who know nothing about Warcraft, everything feels like it organically comes out of this particular fantasy movie.”

If we look through the history of films that have come out in the past, the answer to this question seems to be a clear no.

So where does this leave us with video game adaptations? Should Hollywood revise its strategies or should it give up on these films entirely? As long as some continue to make money, the latter doesn’t seem likely. Filmmaking is a business after all.

If we truly want to adapt video games into compelling stories, maybe we need to be far more selective with our choices. Rather than trying to shove a plot into a popular puzzle game like Angry Birds, studios should focus on titles where story is the main driving force. Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us look to be promising possibilities as they already have large cinematic influences. On the other hand, maybe we should also steer clear from large role-playing games like Warcraft that simply have too much going on to jam into a two-hour movie.

In the end, filmmaking is a business that will always hope capitalize on popular franchises. Since the money trail has proven to be the bad predictor in gauging a successful video game film, it’s clear more care is required in adapting these titles. Perhaps gamers and filmmakers need to be more vocal about the type of games they can effectively bring to the screen and work together to influence Hollywood to not focus solely on dollar signs.
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