Over the past few years, translations of video games to movies have seen quite a bumpy process. While Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Assassin's Creed had plenty of starpower to support them, they didn't quite have the same amount of heft as the games that they were based on. And the same could easily be said about disasters like Super Mario Bros.: The Movie and Street Fighter (and, yes, Mortal Kombat Annihilation, dare we say it).
But there's something fascinating about the process that goes into getting video games translated to movies, and they remain as relevant as ever, especially with Tomb Raider featuring Alicia Vikander hitting theaters next month, and Dwayne Johnson's Rampage coming shortly thereafter.
That's where author Luke Owen comes in, as his book Lights, Camera, Game Over!: How Video Game Movies Get Made delves deeply into how these enter production. Owen spoke with a number of folks involved with these productions, including director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat), who provides the foreword; Simon West (Tomb Raider) and Steven e de Souza (the man behind the 1994 "epic" Street Fighter). He discusses a number of topics about the book.
So we sat down with Owen to see what motivates him about video games translated into films, as well as what's to come with Tomb Raider and Rampage:
The Inspiration -- Super Mario Bros.?
First off, what inspired you to write Lights, Camera, Game Over? A late night viewing of Super Mario Bros: The Movie, perhaps?
Well I've always had a love obsession with the Super Mario Bros. movie! And I suppose that's where it stemmed from. I was lent a copy of The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes – which is a great book – and wondered why there had never been a book like that but about video game movies. It's quite a niche genre, but I was a bit surprised. I did some research and spoke to a few people but never did anything else with it. A few years later I read Blake J. Harris' Console Wars and there was a section in that about the Mario Bros. movie and the idea came back to me. I mentioned it to my girlfriend and asked why this book didn't exist, and she just said, 'Well, why don't you write it instead then?'. Seemed like a good idea! I then started to put together some other research and spoke to as many people as I could about Super Mario Bros., and it just snowballed from there!
How did you go about putting your resources together? You talk with a great many that have been involved with these productions.
I initially wanted to cover every video game movie ever made in the book, at least theatrical releases. From there I made a hit list of the people I wanted to talk to from each of those films and reached out for interviews. I was genuinely surprised at how many people came back to me! And if I couldn't get enough interviews for a chapter, I just removed the film from the list. Doom is an example of a chapter I wanted to do, but couldn't get any interviews for it. And I felt that if I couldn't get any first-hand experiences then it wouldn't be in-keeping with the rest of the book to keep them in. After a while I had a complete chapter list and I kept mining from there, trying to find out as much as I could. I didn't plan on doing the Tekken chapter, but during an interview with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider writer Michael Collery he mentioned that he'd done a draft for a big screen version starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan. So I started doing some more research and that became a full chapter – and one of my favorites. The Pac-Man chapter came from my chat with Michael, actually.
Steve de Souza was a great interview – he's got so many amazing stories and is happy to talk about most things! Same with Simon West. I feel he's gotten a bad rep from the stories about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – same with Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel on Super Mario Bros. – so it was good to get their side of the stories in print. I don't know who to believe, but it's good to hear both sides. Paul W.S. Anderson was obviously a huge help too. If he didn't give up so much time to speak with me, I wouldn't have had the Mortal Kombat or Resident Evil chapters – and that would have really hurt the final product!prevnext
Why Can't Hollywood Get (Most) Video Game Movies Right?
What do you think the general disconnect is with Hollywood getting a video game movie "right?" Do you think they just believe they can gain a new audience from a popular game theme, or something different?
In the early days it was very much a case of studios purchasing popular IPs with the idea that moviegoers will pay money to see it because they recognize the name. It was amazing the amount of people I spoke to who would say, 'Well, there's no story in the game so we just made one up'. Which, as gamers will know, simply isn't true. Even 16-bit generation games had stories and characters to them. They may have been basic, but there were stories. So because studios made their own movies that happened to bear the name of a popular video game, fans were left cold as it wasn't the game they recognized on the big screen. But they still tried to connect themselves to the games with references and Easter eggs, which just confused non-fans. So no one ended up serviced!
It was really interesting speaking with Scott Faye (Max Payne producer) who is very close with video game developers, who told me that because of movies like Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, Wing Commander, etc. they were wary of selling off their movie rights because there was a fear it could damage their brand. Tom Kalinske, former Sega of America president, told me the reason Mattel cancelled their Barbie movie in the late 80s was because they were worried the actor paying Barbie could be caught in a drink, sex or drug scandal which would then be tied to the toy brand. So there's a distrust on both sides. That's why the likes of Ubisoft and Blizzard launched their own movie studios. At least then they could be in charge of the output.
Has there ever been a time, you think, that a video game movie has gotten things right? I can't help but think Mortal Kombat isn't too bad. (Annihilation is a different story, obviously.)
Oh man, I love Mortal Kombat! It's such a fun movie that gets the balance just right. It takes its source material seriously without taking itself too seriously. I would say that is one of the few movies to really "get it right". And that was down to the fact that the film's producer, Lawrence Kassanoff, was working closely with Midway on the story and characters from the get go. He saw the game when it was still being developed and bought the film rights there and then. He was invested in getting it right because he also wanted to make TV shows, live stage shows, music albums, etc. The film is a great translation of the game. Aside from a few things, it's a near-perfect big screen version. Annihilation is a totally different story! But at least Kassanoff is quite open to talk about that film's failings!prevnext
The State of Video Game Movies
What was probably the toughest part of the book that you had to write?
Because there haven't been a lot of things written about video game movies – other than thought pieces or scathing reviews – researching some films was very tough. I managed to find a lot of second-hand interviews to gather more information, but researching Wing Commander isn't quite like researching Alien in terms of information out there. Thankfully the video game community is so dedicated that there are loads of fan sites out there who have bits and pieces about film adaptations. I suppose the other difficulty was finding time to do the interviews. I was working a full-time job while writing Lights, Camera, GAME OVER! so I would finish that job, drive home for 2 hours and then jump on Skype to speak with someone in the States and then transcribe. Some of my calls with Paul W.S. Anderson – because he was deep in post-production on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – were at 3am my time because that was the only time I could get with him. I'd also just bought a house and was trying to redecorate! It was a crazy year looking back on it!
What do you think about the state of video game movies nowadays? We've seen Assassin's Creed come around, but with very little fanfare.
It's funny, when I was doing my interviews for the book it was about a year or so before Warcraft and Assassin's Creed came out, but they were a big talking point. A lot of producers I spoke to predicted them to be the turning points: movies made by the game publishers themselves, with big name directors and actors with blockbuster budgets. One producer even said to me that both films would kickstart the video game movie revolution – similar to how Spider-Man and X-Men re-started the comic book craze in the early 2000s.
Sadly, neither Warcraft or Assassin's Creed really hit the mark. I guess the subgenre is still waiting for its X-Men. I've not spoken to anyone about Assassin's Creed, but I did talk briefly with Duncan Jones at a Q&A for Warcraft about the troubled production he had on that film. So hopefully if I do a revised and expanded edition of Lights, Camera, GAME OVER! I can have a Warcraft chapter in there. I wanted to in this book as I was trying to get some time with Sam Raimi but our calendars never quite matched up.prevnext
Can the New Movies Turn Things Around?
What do you think about the next video game movies coming out? Do you think Tomb Raider and/or Rampage hold promise, or do you think they might suffer as well? Is Hollywood maybe finally "getting it?"
I saw both trailers get a lot of stick online, but I wonder if that's just because video game movies have that instant stigma about them? I thought both trailers were great! I love The Rock and I love giant monster movies, so I'm all in for that one! I haven't played the most recent Tomb Raider games, so I don't know if this new big screen movie has captured the spirit – but I know my wife is very excited about it! And I love Alicia Vikander so I've got quite high hopes for that one. Can they "break the curse" or be a turning point? I don't know on that one. I was so sure Assassin's Creed would so I'm hedging my bets now! There's also loads of other properties in development – like Detective Pikachu, Metal Gear Solid, Sonic the Hedgehog and a new Super Mario Bros. film – so Hollywood clearly hasn't given up the ghost of the subgenre yet!
If you had to pick your favorite video-game-to-film adaptation, what would you choose?
Hands down it's Mortal Kombat, But I do have a lot of love for Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter – particularly now I know the troubles the filmmakers had getting them finished. Street Fighter I can now look at through very different eyes. I actually quite enjoyed Hitman: Agent 47 and Warcraft too. It's a shame we're not going to get a sequel to Warcraft as Duncan Jones created such a visually captivating world. And I know Adrian Askerieh has some big plans for the future of the Hitman franchise, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on that.prevnext
Movies With Video Game Themes
What about movies with video game themes? Tron is a cult classic and Ready Player One looks to do pretty good justice to the book. Do you think Hollywood may want to follow a theme such as this instead?
I heavily considered this in Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!; doing chapters on movies like Tron or The Last Starfighter. I ended up doing Pixels because it had just come out in theatres when I was writing the book and found the whole thing fascinating. I was a big fan of the original short, so was curious about how that short turned into an Adam Sandler vehicle. Plus that's based around real games as opposed to Tron and Last Starfighter.
A lot of readers of the book got in touch with me after the release of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle saying it was the best video game movie they'd ever seen. As a purist I don't quite consider it a "video game movie" as it's not based on a video game (which I appreciate is a pedantic and silly view), but it is a fantastic movie about video games. It's so funny and enjoyable, and it nails certain quirks about video games like NPCs and life systems. I don't know if it would work for a video game movie based off an actual video game property, but I suppose nothing else has worked so far so why not!0comments
I'm also one of those people who can look past the flaws of Ready Player One and still love it. I am stoked for that movie!
Luke Owen's Lights, Camera, Game Over!: How Video Games Get Made can be purchased here on Amazon.prev