When British actor Bob Hoskins agreed to star in “Super Mario Bros.He didn’t know what he was getting himself into. The year was 1992, and although the title on which the film was based had sold tens of millions of copies, an adaptation from a video game to a live-action feature film had never been attempted.
The film’s tagline, “This is not a game,” reflected a self-conscious distance from its source material: an intricate plot of parallel universes. Hoskins himself had never even heard of the franchise. Nintendo, but when his children found out that he would play Mario, they showed him the game with enthusiasm: “This is you!” said one, pointing to a plumber with a pixelated mustache. “I saw this thing jumping up and down,” Hoskins later recalled doubtfully: “I thought, I used to be King Lear.”
The film marked a difficult path for adaptations of video games in hollywood: the result was disastrous at the box office, with Hoskins labeling it “the worst thing I’ve ever done, a fucking nightmare.” Subsequent jumps from videogames to fiction sought to go to the opposite extreme, prioritizing fidelity, without taking into account what could be lost in the translation from one medium to another.
And for three decades, the genre has been plagued by ill-defined characters, in-jokes, and meaningless technicalities. However, studies and streamersdesperate to attract younger audiences, have moved on: Netflix alone has announced more than a dozen adaptations.
The bombastic “Halo” will return with its second season at the end of March (Paramount+ renewed before the first aired); and in mid-December, Amazon commissioned a spin-off of the franchise “god of war”. Finally, HBO has spent over a hundred million dollars on a series based on “The Last of Us”, which premiered last weekend. And Universal will make another go at a Mario movie (scheduled for the first week of April), with Chris Pratt at the helm.
The 2013 Sony PlayStation video game “The Last of Us” follows a man tasked with guiding a teenage girl through a pandemic-ravaged America, where the infected are reduced to mindless assailants. A zombie story with a human twist that makes it akin to “The Road” (2009), the drama starring Viggo Mortensen, based on the homonymous novel by Cormac McCarthy (2006), about a father and his son in the midst of of a post apocalyptic desert.
A story that HBO appropriated in the midst of the Covid pandemic: when Neil Druckmann, the Israeli programmer who created the game, walked into the Warner Bros. offices in 2020, he was promised a brilliant adaptation, which could “illuminate the whole world.” this other audience that cares about storytelling and hasn’t realized that there’s amazing storytelling in games“.
Druckmann came from a bad drink with Sony: in 2014, Screen Gems, known for another video game adaptation, the franchise “resident Evil” with Milla Jovovich, who was commercially successful but critically reviled, had carried out the production of a film version of “The Last of Us”, which finally fell by the wayside. Druckmann respected Sam Raimi, who had been hired to direct the film, but was wary of the executives involved, who wanted things to be “bigger and sexier.”
Druckmann was looking for an aesthetic a la “No Country for Old Men” (Javier Bardem’s film that won the Oscar in 2008), but Sony was aiming for “World War Z” (with Brad Pitt). Only screenwriter Craig Mazin agreed with Druckmann. Mazin came from writing in “Chernobyl“, the harrowing account of the nuclear disaster of 1986, which aired on HBO in 2019 and earned nineteen Emmy nominations: it won ten. Casey Bloys, head of HBO, had promised him carte blanche for his next project, and Mazin, in love with “The Last of Us” convinced him that it would never succeed as a movie, but could make a great TV series.
Druckmann and Mazin went from mutual fans to collaborators. “We were aware of the lousy record of the genre; Until now, only children’s movies, like Detective Pikachu, have worked,” admits Druckmann. “Producers who think people want to see the game on the big screen are wrong,” adds Mazin. Countless movies have fallen into the trap: from “assassin’s creed” to “Doom,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban. “Doom is a perfect example of something you don’t really need to adapt. There’s nothing there,” Mazin says. “Aside from the Doom name and the marketing,” Druckmann remarks.
In 2001, a Japanese developer released “Ico”, a minimalist game about a boy and a girl who escape from a castle. Director Guillermo del Toro has hailed it as a masterpiece. The climax of the game marked Druckmann. “There’s this leap into the void where you think you’re going to die, and all of a sudden, she comes up and grabs you.” Ico had set strict rules and then broken them, to great emotional effect. Druckmann understood that video games could provoke those emotions.
He watched Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” while working on “Uncharted 2” and printed that drama on it: The Times called it the first action-adventure story to surpass its Hollywood counterparts (its adaptation with Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg is one of the most viewed films of 2022). “I was like, why doesn’t anyone in games tell a story like this?” Druckmann snaps.
The game sold well and cemented the reputation of production company Naughty Dog, which allowed him to come up with a project of his own: the post-apocalyptic drama he had been quietly curating for years. The game sold more than a million copies in its first week, won dozens of awards, and now comes to HBO with Peter Pascal (“The Mandalorian”) as Joel and Bella Ramsey (“Game of Thrones”) as Ellie.
The near future will also bring another movie of “sonic the hedgehog”, the series based on “God of War”, “Fallout” and “Ghost of Tsushima”, and many more: “Minecraft: The Movie”; “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu 2”; “BioShock”; “Yakuza”; “Metal Gear Solid”; “Duke Nukem” and “Gran Turismo”. There are dozens of video game adaptations in development, but how many will actually make it remains to be seen.
On Netflix, the most recent release is “The Witcher: Blood Origin”, a prequel derived from the story of Geralt of Rivia, the character played by Henry Cavill, and will be played by Liam Hemsworth from season 4. Amazon has “Werewolves Within”, based on a dark virtual reality video game released in 2016, which became in 2022 in a fun horror comedy.
And Paramount+ has the live-action series in development.”Dungeons & Dragons” after the commercial success of “Halo”: the streaming service confirmed that it will have eight episodes, under the production of eOne. “It will be the studio’s most far-reaching television project,” endorsed “Red Notice” filmmaker Rawson Marshall, who will helm the project. One that will come after the premiere at the end of March of the movie “Honor Among Thieves” (of the same franchise), starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodríguez and Hugh Grant. he