Exploring Uncharted Territory; Adapting Video Games For Film

There's an age-old stigma associated with films based on video games and video games based on films. That is, they're bad. Is that stigma founded in truth, or just a series of unfortunate mistakes? Are the two most valuable entertainment industries destined to never cross paths?

By Tony Walter | Jun 27, 2013

It's an incredible short-sighted point of view that's insulting to both mediums. And, it's beginning to drive me crazy. "Uncharted basically already is an action movie. Don't make it a film. If you want the story, play the game!" "I can't believe they're ruining Mad Max by making a game, movie games are terrible!" "It's a bad idea to make a great game into a movie, it'll never live up to the hype." This stigma is not only erroneously missing an apparently untapped potential, but destructive in its active discouragement of developing adaptation for two artistic mediums.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, creators of the recently released This Is The End, have been approached several times by Naughty Dog, the creatives behind Uncharted, to create a film based on the popular PlayStation franchise. Despite being self-proclaimed fans of the series, they've refused the offer each time. The duo claims, "it's just going to be Indiana Jones... if we could figure out a way to make it not Indiana Jones, it'd be awesome." The idea for a Uncharted film isn't new either, it has been struggling to reach production since 2007. Though Rogen and Goldberg might be onto something.

The Uncharted franchise certainly has roots in classic films like Indiana Jones, but would a film adaptation have to be limited to those ideas?
Adaptation isn't a new method of creativity for film makers. Novels, plays, short stories, and even song have been adapted into film for many decades. Often released to similar criticisms as video game adaptations, but unlike video game adaptations, there have been many triumphs born from these other, older, mediums.

"That's not how it happened in the book!" That's a common objection I hear in my circle of friends, of which a significant portion are English majors and book worms. More often than not, I'll retort with, "good." If I'm watching a film, and not reading the book, why would I want the exact same experience as told in the book to happen on screen? This should be even more the case had I read the book prior to seeing the film. And more importantly, film has unique qualities that literature simply does not possess. This two way street is the beautiful nature of each medium. That's why we love and cling to our hobbies. We see these unique qualities, and they speak to us personally.

Throughout the history of film the greatest adaptations very rarely maintain one-to-one parody of their source material. In fact, I defy you to find one truly great adaptation that doesn't play to the strengths of its medium while changing or adding something to the narrative. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part One, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jurassic Park, anything made by Stanley Kubrick. Each of these fantastic adaptations uses the strengths of film to create something new and unique within the fiction established, sometimes more loosely than others, by its source material.

My friends might argue, "what's the point of adapting, if they're not remaining faithful to the original material?" The reality is, it's not strange that the isolated heroes of The Fellowship would be unaware of the various wars brewing around Middle Earth. Man's hubris is still depicted with brutally terrifying results on Isla Nublar regardless which dinosaurs are making an appearance. And it is not out of character for Harry to attempt to comfort his dear friend in a time of great tragedy. These changes do not change the characters, story, or message of the films in any sort of negative way. Things might be different or new, but what is adaptation if not something familiar through a different perspective?

When these films succeed it is when they are playing to the strengths of their medium. Each medium, as I have mentioned, possesses unique qualities. The entire idea of adapting is centered around basing a narrative around these different qualities. Literature has the ability to subtly examine specific details, to stimulate the audiences' creativity, to withhold in unique ways, and tell a story through a voice - sometimes unreliably - in a way impossible with visual mediums. Film can create amazing, beautiful scenes with dialogue and music, encourage emotion through cinematography, and tell an entire story with no characters and no words. Video games are not left out in this, they're capable of forcing an audience through experiences, creating real - not implied - empathy by making you literally experience something, stories aren't only told to you, but they can happen to you, and you can see and experience environments and situations from any angle imaginable. These are just a small example of some of the qualities unique to their mediums.

The most fascinating aspect of this misconception about film adaptations of video games comes from the fact that it has already been proven that - the other way around - film adapted to video games, can be done successfully. Games like Goldeneye, The Warriors, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay all adapt from their respected films using the strengths of the video games medium to their advantage. Each of these games stands just as strongly on its own as it would as a companion piece to the source material. Yet we still can't see it as a reality that a film adaptation of a video game can ever be a good film? Perhaps this comes from film being an older, more familiar medium. Video games are still largely misunderstood as an artistic form, often looked at as childish and even dangerous.

Environmental puzzles like this, done in film, could take on an entirely different feeling while still conveying the same struggle for the character and maintaining a tension for the audience.
Adaptations are not inherently lesser because of their source material, they're lesser because the creators don't know what they're doing. Attempting direct translations of a source material is only damning a project to mediocrity, regardless of what-from and what-to you're adapting. That's why Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's turning down of this project is admirable. They don't want to create what they feel would be just a one-to-one attempt at an adaptation, they don't want this to just be another "Indiana Jones."

The trick to making this a good film is simple: avoid what the game does. The game puts its audience in the shoes of the hero, Nathan Drake, through his adventures. The game's audience only sees what Nathan Drake sees. They only experience what he experiences. They only know what he knows. The game is great as a game, but to make a great film, they'd need to take advantage of what film can do. Perhaps a larger scope, with multiple stories coming from different characters. They could pull tricks on an audience that can't be done in a game, withhold knowledge from the audience to create a different type of tension. Put the characters in slower emotional situations that do not translate directly to video games. Use dialogue instead of action as a means to convey this character's emotions. Use the advantages of film to create a different experience to deliver this familiar fiction. That's good adaptation, and that's definitely not impossible.

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