Opinion: Does every video game need a TV adaptation?

You know this is a worthy question when there’s a “Netflix adaptation” meme ridiculing just how badly the streaming service can butcher beloved franchises. This has been ameliorated somewhat by their take on CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher but gamers aren’t exactly thrilled about the recent announcement that Netflix will be taking on the Resident Evil franchise.

“Wesker kids?! Wesker doesn’t have any kids!” you can almost hear fans scream internally. And yes, we’re aware of Project W but this seems to suggest it’s Albert Wesker’s children, the most recognizable name in the franchise.

Alarm bells like someone hit the Spencer Mansion self-destruct button has been ringing ever since his post. In a single tweet, Netflix was able to cast a massive shadow of doubt over their efforts to port the zombie-survival series from game to television.

Maybe it will still be good (big maybe) but it’s clearly a departure from the story fans have wanted since the first Resident Evil film of the early 2000s: a straight-up adaptation of the first game. Why do great characters like Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield keep getting pushed to the sidelines in favor of new characters?

This isn’t rocket science, Resident Evil is after all known for its campy dialog and simple storytelling, but it follows a worrying trend that all streaming services or movie studios need to do is throw even a half recognizable name at gamers and let the cash roll in. The recent history of game adaptation is mixed with some successes like Sonic the Hedgehog and many more forgettable takes like Doom, Rampage, and Tomb Raider.

And yet, despite 2016’s Assassin’s Creed earning an 18 percent approval on RottenTomatoes, it still brought in $240 mil at the worldwide box office. There is money to be mined from the pockets of gamers, the studios greenlighting these projects know this, but is it too much to ask that what they make be actually good?

There is reason to hope against hope, however. When gamers got their first look at the character design for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie the entire internet lurched to a halt. A disaster was in progress but thankfully the studio had enough foresight to splash some water on the fuse attached to the keg of dynamite they’d just lit. After overhauling the CGI, no doubt at great expense, they saved the movie and it went on to gross an insane $306 mil.

This begs the question of why there can be such a discrepancy between the quality of a game and the resulting adaptation. A good guess would be that movie people aren’t gaming people and vice versa. It remains to be seen if a good filmmaker can make a good game and a good game maker a good film.

We’ll get to test that hypothesis when HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation makes its way to the network but there are serious doubts about that project after reports that Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann is involved with the script.

The Druckmann helmed Last of Us Part II caused quite a bit of controversy when it debuted in June, becoming something of a critical darling but falling flat with most gamers. Disappointed by a muddled story and bland characters, all but diehard fans and critics still rally behind the game. What should have been a slam dunk PS4 exclusive has barely sold 5 million copies when projections once foretold up to 15 million. Goes to show a good story matters in the gaming business as much as the movie business.  

The one thing that seems to flow between game and adaption is this question of quality. I’ve heard good things about Netflix’s Castlevania and can personally vouch for The Witcher but what plagues so many of these projects is squaring the circle of taking a medium you experience by playing into something you enjoy watching.

Why so many projects are dead on arrival is simple: the creators don’t ask themselves this question of how to properly translate game to film. At first glance, the Monster Hunter adaptation looks like it will have next to nothing to do with the game. Maybe it will have a monster in it, who knows.

It has Milla Jovovich in it, an actress that’s made her career out of game-themed projects. It’s even being directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the man who helmed the Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat films.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly Anderson said “lots of books get adapted and the adaptations don’t work, but no one is saying book adaptations are cursed.” Fair enough point but Monster Hunter just doesn’t look very good, and it’s because it doesn’t seem to do justice to its source.

In a perfect world, the director and writers would be huge fans of a game before taking on a project. When they aren’t it tends to show. These creatives dive into their task with only the concept of the game, an outline of its story, and primarily drawing on what they know about film rather than the game to finish the project and get paid.

Now I was not in the room for the Saint’s Row movie pitch meeting (and yes, they are making a Saint’s Row movie) but I’m sure they asked themselves questions like “can this director handle a shooting schedule? Can he do action? What other movies has he done?” rather than, “has he played the game? Is he a fan?”

The studios feel like they’re doing a paint by numbers to make their projects just barely passable with gamers. Their targets are: 1. make an at least tolerable product with a big, recognizable name attached. 2. Find a director that likes a payday and doesn’t mind having a game-movie on his resume. 3. Make money.

Going back to Resident Evil for a second, considering how well known that series is, it ultimately boils down to a numbers game of how many fans are willing to pay for a movie or TV show based on their favorite franchise. At that point, the project is guaranteed at least a recoup on investment.

Given the massive awareness, there is around some of these games, studios hardly need to advertise their movie or tv show. Even as Resident Evil shapes up to be a departure from the story of the games, a certain percentage of fans will still watch. It could be a six-hour interpretive dance rendition of Resident Evil 4 with all the parts played by Albert Wesker and at least someone would be in the audience.

 It’s worth mentioning the writer of the first episode, Andrew Dabb, only has a few writing credits on Supernatural to his name and the director, Bronwen Hughes, has one episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead to serve as her zombie bonafides. She did however direct the Ben Affleck/Sandra Bullock romantic comedy Forces of Nature, which I’m sure will come in handy for her take on Resident Evil.

Snark aside, this roster does not inspire me with confidence that Netflix is concerned with hiring the kind of people gamers would want making their media.

Then you have something like the Amazon original series based on Fallout. Amazon has hired the creators of HBO’s Westworld to bring the post-apocalyptic franchise to TV. Jonathan Nolan (brother to Christopher Nolan) and Lisa Joy will be trying their hand at bringing the world of vaults and super mutants to our televisions.

Say what you want about the later seasons of Westworld but season one is fantastic and no other major gaming franchise is more ripe for adaptation (well, maybe with the exception of Bioshock). It’s worth noting Nolan and Joy likely did not come cheap. The only question remains if they’re gamers themselves and how well do they know the franchise?

This raises the question of should the developers be involved with the show or movie and to what degree? While not a direct example, it was recently reported the original Avatar: The Last Airbender creators exited the Netflix live-action adaptation over creative differences, much to the disappointment of fans. Is something irretrievably lost if the creators don’t have a seat at the table? Or is it just a matter of the skill and experience of the writer or director?

The right answer lies somewhere in between. Writers, directors, and showrunners should be well-versed fans but in the case, they aren’t they should bring on advisers to help bridge the gap. These advisors, however, should understand that while building an actual vault for a tv show would be really cool it would be a bit too expensive.

To cap this piece off I want to pitch a few of my own ideas for movies and tv shows based on games with the kind of directors I think could really nail it

System Shock – Ridley Scott

Scott is the man who gave us Alien and Blade Runner, he could direct the hell out of a System Shock movie. All the hallmarks are there, outer-space terror, rogue AI, and plenty of action. Given Scott’s impressive filmography I can’t think of anyone better to tackle a legendary franchise in gaming.

Gears of War – James Cameron

The man’s influence can be felt through both modern gaming and modern action films with legendary titles like Aliens and Terminator on his resume. Though he’s been working on his Avatar franchise for what feels like decades now it would be nice to see him go back to basics and really kill it at something he knows inside and out.

Grand Theft Auto – Guy Richie

The British director helmed such gritty crime classics as Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and while his later work took a more Hollywood turn with the Sherlock Holmes films it would be nice to see him return to form with a crime flick oozing with style.

Control – Darren Aronofsky

Aronofsky has made some pretty weird movies (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) but also some rock-solid classics like The Wrestler and Black Swan. His surreal and sometimes disturbing take on his stories makes him ideal to translate the bizarre world of Control for audiences.

Half-Life – Lily and Lana Wachowski

The minds behind The Matrix would be perfect to take on the reality-blurring world of Half-Life. The only question would be to start at Black Mesa or skip to City-17? The only thing not up for debate is who should play Gordon: Bryan Cranston.

Destiny - Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Vogt-Roberts is a name to remember because he seems to be the prototype for the Hollywood director/gamer. He directed the live-action spot for Destiny 2 back at launch and he’s been pursuing a Metal Gear Solid film. Of gaming and movies, he told the Hollywood Reporter: “For me as a gamer, and the world is changing so much, but I just remember so vividly when I was younger marketing campaigns hadn't figured out how to be respectful and loving to the actual people playing games in their basements before gaming was cool.”

He gets it, clearly. Roberts has Kong: Skull Island on his resume so he can definitely handle big action CGI blockbusters. While not a Destiny player himself he spent time with the developers at Bungie headquarters in Seattle and immersed himself in the game before getting to work.

Fun fact, the Destiny 1 live-action trailer was directed by Jon Favreau. Favreau could be another contender to helm a “Destiny” project given the amount of good he’s been able to do at places like Marvel and Lucasfilm as the showrunner for “The Mandalorian”.