Home > Movies, Storytelling, Video Games, Weekend Feature > Warcraft movie may succeed where other video game adaptations failed

Warcraft movie may succeed where other video game adaptations failed

Blizzard World of Warcraft Burning Crusade races

With Duncan Jones attached to direct and Fall 2013 as the target date to begin filming, the movie adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s wildly successful Warcraft franchise is suddenly becoming a very real possibility. But where all other video game movies have failed, can Warcraft be the first to successfully leap from gamers’ hands to the big screen?

The track record for video game adaptations ranges from mediocre to downright atrocious, but the story-focused Warcraft franchise may be uniquely positioned to avoid the pitfalls that have stripped up so many others.

In every video game adaptation so far, the director has taken the gun or the sword out of the player’s hands and handed it to an actor. They’ve transformed an interactive, singular character experience into a passive act of observation. Attempts are made to replicate elements of the game, but ultimately, video game adaptations have always failed because they try to make you watch someone else do what you’re used to doing yourself.

The history of disasters goes back as far as 1993, when the godawful Super Mario Bros. put Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo in overalls and sent them down a pipe after Dennis Hopper. Super Mario Bros. obviously didn’t have a clue how to adapt an admittedly ridiculous premise into a two hour narrative.

Bob Hoskins John Leguizamo Super Mario Bros. movie film

Seriously, why do these plumbers have robot boots?

The arcade fighter craze spawned the second wave of film abominations. First came Jean Claude Van Damme in 1994’s Street Fighter, followed by punch-up adaptations of Double Dragon (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995) and, later, Mortal Kombat: Konquest (1997). Needless to say, these movies were pulling from paper-thin source material. Mortal Kombat ambitiously featured a formidable roster of arcade faves, but it – like Street Fighter and Double Dragon – was universally panned. These movies were poorly written, poorly acted and poorly adapted from button-mashing fighting games.

Arguably, the high water mark for video game movies came in the early 2000s, when Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Resident Evil (2002) combined guns and sex appeal to bring teenage boys to summer movie theatres in droves.

The success of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was built largely on the star power of Angelina Jolie. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider made itself a sexy, superficial Indiana Jones by isolating all the game elements of a summer popcorn flick and translating them to the screen. The movie was light on story but heavy on guns, jumping, puzzles, and boobs.

Angelina Jolie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider sexy

Lots of boobs.

Resident Evil succeeded in large part due to the pre-existence of the zombie movie genre. Add special effects, fight choreography and Milla Jovovich in a red negligee and you’ve got a video game movie built on the shoulders of George A. Romero.

Milla Jovovich red negligee Resident Evil movie

Are you seeing the pattern here?

Since those first two mild successes, there have been only greater failures. The Resident Evil sequels have become zombies themselves – horrible, dull-eyed films with increasingly eroded plots and outrageous enemies. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life fell short of the first film’s take, so Paramount pulled the plug on the franchise and blamed the simultaneously released Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness game for the movie’s failure.

Other franchises have tried at adaptation, but by and large they have been hamstrung by small budgets, bad casts and second-rate writing.

Nobody saw – or will admit to seeing – Hitman (2007).

The low budget BloodRayne (2006) adaption put Terminator 3‘s Kristana Loken in vampire fangs and a cheap corset and sent her chasing after Ben Kingsley with Michael Madsen at her side. The film was, in Madsen’s words, “an abomination… a horrifying and preposterous movie.”

Silent Hill (2006) failed to replicate Resident Evil‘s zombie-killing success.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) blew its large budget on an all-white cast of Hollywood stars and tried to convince us that Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton were Middle-Eastern. Alec Guinness looked silly doing it in Lawrence of Arabia, and 50 years later, it looks no better.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time video game movie adaptation

Spray tan, the great racial equalizer.

The Doom (2005) film was thoroughly unwatchable, except for the short end sequence where we get to see a live action adaptation of the first person shooter experience. It feels like a dizzying theme park ride, but after enduring 2 hours of the movie’s “creative reinterpretation,” it’s a hell of a lot of fun to see the familiar game perspective.

The Doom FPS experiment shows just how desperate the film was to find that unique video game movie formula. They tried to solve it by giving audiences the video game in the movie, but that’s the exact opposite approach they should be taking.

A video game movie shouldn’t be about the gameplay. It should be about the story from the game.

That’s why Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft can work. It’s been a real-time strategy game (Warcraft and Warcraft II), a roleplaying game (World of Warcraft), and a hybrid of both (Warcraft III). The gameplay and the characters have varied, but Blizzard has always kept story at the forefront. Blizzard – also creators of StarCraft and Diablo – is particularly well-known for its incredible character dialogues and cinematic cut-scenes. Their games are often cinematic, making the transition to movie cinemas seem organic.

Video game movies so far have tried to replicate gameplay and have had a protagonist and specific characters in them. That limits what they can do and how they can do it. But with a franchise like Warcraft, there is no single story to tell, no single established hero, and no single set of gameplay expectations. It has a history of large-scale armies and small-scale character adventures, and it’s always given equal narrative attention to its various warring factions. There are plenty of stories to take from the game’s history, but there’s also huge opportunity to write something original.

Arthas Menethil Lich King on the Frozen Throne with Frostmourne World of Warcraft WOW

Arthas Menethil, a.k.a. the Lich King, turns from noble prince to evil undead ruler in Warcraft III.

This movie can and should be about good and evil, about orcs and elves and Tauren and Worgen. It’s certainly not going to be about making peons, farming gold, rushing early or getting phat lootz, because those mechanics are only the nuts and bolts of a franchise defined by its storytelling and immersiveness.

A Warcraft movie would snare plenty of World of Warcraft addicts, but if it’s done in a fantasy-heavy Lord of the Rings style, and given the proper budget and script, it can draw audiences beyond its core fan base.

There is a sea change brewing. Today’s generation of film makers grew up on video games like the 19 year-old Warcraft series. Two decades ago, video game movies were made by disinterested parties trying to capitalize on a popular commodity. Now, true video game lovers are in positions of influence in Hollywood, and they can bring video game movies the proper treatment they’ve lacked for so long.

Many video game properties have been toiling in development hell for years. Halo had Peter Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson attached at one point, but it went nowhere. There have been Bioshock whispers for years and, more recently, Mass Effect, Half-Life and Portal movie adaptations have joined the rumour mill.

If someone can figure out how to make a truly great video game adaptation, the floodgates will open and more of them will start pouring out.

Comic book adaptations were once considered risky. It wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that Batman and Superman were given a shot, and studios didn’t start taking risks on lesser-known heroes until the 2000s. Now we’re in a golden age of superhero movies, with Marvel and DC Comics frantically scrambling to get all of their properties on screen.

Could the video game movie become the next uncharted franchise maker in Hollywood?

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  1. April 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm

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