What Challenges Do Movie Adaptations of Video Games Still Face in 2019?
The Pitfalls of Adapting From Video Game To Movie
Movie adapations of video games, often called video game movies, face unique challenges. Often, they are faced with the issue of translating unrealistic-looking and exaggerated character designs to something that does not look out of place next to a real-life tree, and they tend to have a large amount of story and detail that is difficult to press down into an hour-and-a-half runtime. However, there is a recent movie that has managed to accomplish this. How did this movie manage it?
Sonic The Hedgehog: You Got A Problem With Cartoons?
The coming Sonic the Hedgehog movie, to be released by Paramount Pictures and based off Sony’s video game blue cartoon hedgehog mascot, is a shining example of what the first problem converting video games to live action is.
Namely, how do you take the cartoonish proportions of characters like Sonic, with his non-human features — like a pair of eyes that take up half his face, and proportions like a pair of cherry-red shoes larger than the size of his chest — into something that can move, speak, and emote in a realistic enough way to not clash with the more grounded aesthetic necessary for a live-action production?
The answer, apparently, is not like Sonic the Hedgehog. After fans saw the trailer that debuted the Sonic movie design in action, there was major fan criticism, causing Paramount to declare the movie was being delayed from November to Valentine’s Day, causing a several month delay.
This is not a decision made lightly; the CGI and animator department has to go over every shot Sonic is in and reanimate him. How much the animators have to redo is up to speculation, but seeing as Paramount Pictures had seen fit to release a full, almost three-minute trailer, with a variety of scenes that showed off Sonic in a plethora of action scenes, there is certainly a good amount of work that needs to be redone.
To be clear, cartoons are great. Live-action is great. One is not inherently superior over the other. But it is not a one-to-one conversion. Changes have to be made, and a balance has to be carefully struck to adhere to the rules and principles of cartoon and live-action design.
Who is Allowed In Club Warcraft?
Warcraft’s reviews on Rotten Tomatoes fall into one of two camps: the audience of fans who love the source material and enjoyed the movie, and the critics who couldn’t tell the difference between a Khadgar and a Gul’Dan, and it shows.
Rotten Tomatoes marks critic reviews of Warcraft at 28% and the audience reviews at 77%. A large discrepancy, even if other movies not with video game source material have also had sharp divides between the audience’s scoring and the critics’ scoring.
However, critics tend to write not about the quality or merit of the movie, but how lost they were. “If there’s a mythology here, I missed it,” wrote Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, in a review of the movie that was positive yet confused in tone.
Warcraft, based on the decade and a half old ongoing video game World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment, is a movie packed with its mythology. The story, about humans and orcs waging war on another, paints both the orcs and humans in moral shades of grey, with villains and heroes on both sides of the conflict. Every location, spell, costume, and character is placed in with loving detail and attention to care for long-time fans of Warcraft’s source material, rewarding their diligence to being part of the club made up of fans of the source material… and leaving everyone else standing outside it, wondering what exactly those people are doing in there.
No movie is for everyone. But when a movie does not make sense to anyone except the fans who already know who, what, and where everything is before watching the movie, that movie is leaving a lot of people out of the clubhouse.
The Live-Action Rodent That Scurried Around Its Potential Pitfalls
Detective Pikachu is the most successful video game movie to date, grossing $436 million USD at the box office, surpassing the previous contender, Warcraft’s $433.7 million USD.
Detective Pikachu faced the same problems of both Sonic and Warcraft.
First, the cartoon-like Pokemon risked being unpleasant or unlikable being brought to a live-action format, with funny proportions and arms too stubby to believably feed themselves. The head of the franchise mascot, Pikachu, a rodent that generates bolts of electricity from mousy red cheeks, has a head that are the width of its body, and its long, pointed ears are about as tall.
Second, Pokemon itself is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world, with over twenty years since its first release of Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green in Japan that began the media property known as Pokemon. In other words, it also risked being alienating and impossibly dense for critics and audience members not familiar with Pokemon.
And yet, Detective Pikachu worked. The VFX department for Detective Pikachu and The Pokemon Company worked closely together and used the real world as much as possible for inspiration, extensively studying real animals as the basis for Pokemon’s fictional ones. Anatomy posters of Pokemon were drawn up, the cinematography was made to allow the live-action and CGI to blend together, and a careful balance was deliberately made between cartoon and realism.
Even more, the movie didn’t leave anyone out. Detective Pikachu is an adapation of a short spin-off of the Pokemon games, also titled Detective Pikachu. The game is a simple mystery story about a boy who teams up with a talking Pikachu with a detective hat to find the boy’s father.
It was a good choice for an adaptatioon: the game itself is simple, with a clear beginning, middle and end. And the adaptation made use of how easy the source material was to understand: the movie Detective Pikachu stands at 68% critic score and 80% audience score, beating out Warcraft in audience reviews and winning over critics by a landslide in comparison, even if critics still concluded that while they could follow along, the movie was made for the fans.
Detective Pikachu has managed to avoid the pitfalls that its recent past and current future rivals have fallen into. A lot of care went into avoiding the pitfalls that would plague other video game movies. Paring down a dense mythology into a smaller piece, allowing the film to take time to explain the core premise of its world to potential new audience members was a smart idea. Ensuring that the CGI characters struck a balance between their cartoon counterparts and what a completely realistic take on them would be took time and effort. Video game movies are not impossible. As with all adaptations across mediums, it is not a perfect art, but it can be done, and done well.
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Jean-Michel Vaillancourt is a D&D fanatic, a video game enthusiast, a book-lover, and an eternal seeker for the art of storycraft in modern TV pop culture.