From stick to screen: The best TV and film video game adaptations
With a dishonourable mention to the works of Uwe Boll
The Last of Us has dropped, and has already been lauded by critics as a major success. It somehow manages to do something that few TV and film video game adaptations have managed to achieve. And that’s to actually be a good watch.
While video games have long offered rich storylines and characters perfect for the big screen, these live action retellings have often festered like a dirty sock, rather than aged like wine. For every great story of humankind’s strife to persevere in a brutal world, there are dozens of Assassin’s Creed. For every Joel and Ellie, there is an agent 47. We only want a good film, instead we get Alone in the Dark (more on that later).
The Last of Us might also be the fuse point for a golden age of video game adaptations. Borderlands and Gran Turismo will soon be hitting cinemas. Movie adaptations of BioShock and Metal Gear Solid already have their directors, even if they’re not being developed just yet. God of War, Fallout and Gears of War have all been greenlit for TV . By intention, this is the only time we’ll mention the second Halo series.
While the field for video game tie-ins is not so crowded anymore, the quality has not been great either. But there are many diamonds in the rough.
Additional copy by Tom Morgan-Freelander and Sam Kieldsen
Sonic The Hedgehog
The original trailer for Sonic The Hedgehog will forever live in infamy for the critically online and seething, ‘true to the source material’ anoraks. It infuriated fans and Sonic creator alike – “It is shocking that bare hands are white,” said Sonic father Yuji Naka, after witnessing what his creation had become. For the casual onlooker, it was mostly hilarious. Still, the blue hedgehog we know and love looked like an experiment gone wrong. It resembled the secret child between Sully from Monsters Inc. and Gary Busey. The studio were forced to fix the problem with all the urgency of a diplomatic emergency.
After that, few had hopes for the Sonic film franchise, and it was almost destined to be thrown on the dumpster fire of terrible video game adaptations. But it wasn’t. It was, in fact, one of 2020’s best films. Sonic is a colourful and energetic delight that was cheeky, but avoided the cringe-factor. Jim Carrey called it a “genius meets total self-loathing” tale, which might be a bit far as it was mostly about a very fast hedgehog.
It might follow the story of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse more loosely than hardcore gaming fans might prefer, but the animated Netflix-exclusive Castlevania series is a delight to behold for new and veteran fans alike. Crammed with absolutely superb voice acting talent, there’s not a single character who isn’t perfectly cast. Standout performances include those from Bill Nighy, Richard Armitage, and Alejandra Reynoso, while the well-placed plot draws you in like a hypnotic vampiric stare.
While the over-arching theme of humans being just as monstrous as the evil creatures they detest isn’t anything new, it’s presented in a beautiful manner, with each episode more engrossing than the last. Perfectly blending dramatic undertones with action, humour, and a storyline where most things get resolved satisfactorily, it’s definitely worth committing yourself to all four seasons.
Arguably just as responsible for Cyberpunk: 2077’s resurgence in popularity as game developer CD Projekt Red’s campaign of post-launch bug fixes, Edgerunners is a phenomenal new extension of Mike Pondsmith’s dystopian universe. One or two cameos aside, this is a standalone story, set before the events of the game, sees street kid David trying to survive as a mercenary in tech-obsessed Night City.
The ten episode series is beautifully drawn by Japanese anime experts Studio Trigger, with almost every frame being recognisable as an in-game location. Like the game, there’s no shortage of gore and body horror, but there’s a human story underneath it all, one that’ll leave you shellshocked by the conclusion. The soundtrack is equally impactful – you’ll never hear “I really wanna stay at your house” in the same light again.
Remember: in Cyberpunk, there are no happy endings.
The 1995 Mortal Kombat movie pulled from great source material. The MK franchise has memorable characters, larger than life settings, sharp one-liners and enough blood and gore to rival Rambo. It’s almost custom-made for action movie fodder, which is what made the film all the more disappointing. Mortal Kombat was a symphony of gigantic wigs, a subpar Sub-Zero and fight scenes that looked like a playground scrap. That’s not to say a film where four armed beasts and lightning gods pummel each other needs to be intellectual, it just wasn’t the Mortal Kombat many wanted.
Mortal Kombat’s 2021 could have easily followed the same formula. But instead, we got a tale of revenge and penance, with all the macabre slapstick Mortal Kombat does so well. The fight scenes are wildly inventive – it’s the first time we’ve seen blood used as a frozen dagger before – and a light dusting of cheese and silliness echoes the games funnier, less head rippy offy moments.
Super Mario Bros.
“This Ain’t No Game” screamed the tagline, and this adaptation of Nintendo’s premier franchise is visibly hesitant to fully embrace its source material – hence a hip-hop infused soundtrack, the Mushroom Kingdom reimagined as a rowdy post-apocalyptic urban wasteland and a scenery-chomping Dennis Hopper as a curiously human-looking Bowser (or King Koopa as he’s known here). In what might be the most game-accurate part, Mario and Luigi Mario (yes, that’s their surname) are Brooklyn plumbers who find themselves sucked into Hopper’s dastardly plan.
And yet, there’s something oddly charming about this action-comedy, a cinematic artefact that couldn’t have been made at any other time in history. A few years before, and the idea of adapting a video game would have had you laughed out of any movie executive’s office; a few years later, and a much richer and more culturally powerful Nintendo, would have insisted that Hollywood treat its biggest IP with a bit more respect.
The Last of Us
While The Last of Us may have only dropped on HBO Max and Sky Atlantic today (16 March), we’re already calling it as one of, if not the, best screen adaptation of a video game ever. For those who’ve failed to experience the sorrow, brutality and tenderness of the video game, The Last of Us charts a tale of two people – Joel and Ellie – who must not only survive a fungi-caused societal meltdown, but help cure it.
In the series, Pedro Pascal stars as Joel to Bella Ramsey’s Ellie. Naturally, comparisons to The Walking Dead is to be expected, yet The Last of Us manages to breath new life into what is an overly explored theme in both TV and gaming.
The Witcher may have had its detractors, which is not unique given its rich history and dedicated fanbase. But The Witcher was different, or so Netflix told us. It would be big budget and true to the video game, which in turn was true to the books, therefore pleasing everyone. Further faith came in the news that Henry Cavill was playing the singular Geralt, a character who roams the land dispersing mythical beasts with sharpened swords and supernatural abilities. Cavill is a major fan of The Witcher, and whose love for the series shows in his performance.
The Witcher met middling reviews on its release, but news that its Geralt (and future Warhammer TV series producer) Cavill had departed the series was testament to how good a job he did. Will the show live on without him? Probably. The spin-off, The Witcher: Blood Origin, has extended the Witcher lore beyond the original series. For Netflix’s well-known penchant for cancelling TV shows after two seasons, The Witcher getting a third series shows its success.
Comedy in video game adaptations are rarer than Fortnite’s Mythic Goldfish. Sure, many try to be funny. Audiences laughed at Max Payne and Rampage (and maybe the forthcoming Tetris movie), sure, but perhaps not in the way the filmmakers had hoped for.
Starring I Think You Should Leave’s Sam Richardson, Werewolves Within takes after the Ubisoft title of the same name. Werewolves Within is a classic whodunnit, or rather a weredunnit, that follows a small community who are being bumped off one by one by a ravenous werewolf. It’s high on the horror tropes, yet offers a charm and humour that is sparse in so, so many video game adaptations that favour soundbites and fan coddling over an actually decent watch.
A dishonourable mention to the works of Uwe Boll
No one man has done more to besmirch the concept of a videogame to film adaptation than Uwe Boll. The German director-turned-restauranteur-turned-director-again is infamous for his poorly-received movie versions of popular (and often unpopular) titles, including Far Cry, BloodRayne, House of the Dead and Dungeon Siege. Even the controversy-baiting Postal games somehow got a look-in, but the lowlight has to be 2005’s Alone in the Dark. The Christian Slater-starring stinker holds an abysmal 1% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is regularly voted as one of the worst films ever made – of any genre.
Boll somehow managed to convince multiple A-list stars to sign up to his projects, including Jason Statham, Elisabeth Moss and Ben Kingsley (yes, him wot played Ghandi), which rarely ever made their production budgets back at the box office. As a result, he’s only the fifth ever recipient of the “worst career achievement” prize from the Golden Raspberry Awards.
Thankfully by the time bigger franchises were thinking about making the jump to the silver screen, rights holders had cottoned on. Blizzard outright refused to sell the rights to its Warcraft titles, and when industry whispers linked him to a potential Metal Gear Solid movie, series creator Hideo Kojima said flat out “It’s impossible that we’d ever do a movie with him.”