Video games have been a part of popular culture for decades now, and whenever anything is a part of popular culture, you can bet that Hollywood is going to try to piggyback off of its joojoo in some way. Because of this, the history of movies that were adapted from video game properties is a long and rich one, wherein just about every game you can think of that’s reached a critical mass of popularity has been turned into a movie. That’s what makes it so depressing that we still haven’t really gotten a video game movie that’s been received warmly enough to legitimize the genre and shut up everyone who keeps saying that video games are not art, or that they at least make for really crappy source material for movies.
What’s even more depressing though is the news THR recently broke that Temple Run, a game that’s become popular on iOS and Android mobile devices, is the next property set up to inspire its own big screen feature over at Warner Bros. Making a movie out of a game like this just proves that Hollywood still has no clue which types of video games could inspire a film version that audiences would accept and which absolutely won’t.
For those not in the know, Temple Run is an “endless running game” where a player controls a character who is constantly running away from a threat that is chasing him, making the main goal of the game to keep him on course and maneuver him over obstacles. That’s literally the entire game. You control a running guy who occasionally has to move to one side of the platform he’s running on, jump over or slide under things that might be blocking his path, and that’s about it. To call the game simple and repetitive would be a spot on assessment. It’s simple and repetitive.
More importantly though, it’s the sort of game that’s all about the mechanics of gameplay, and it has little to no story built into it whatsoever. The avatar you’re controlling is some kind of explorer, he’s picked up some kind of idol, and now evil spirits are chasing him because of his theft. That’s all you know. Basically the game is a stretched out version of the infamous boulder scene that opens Raiders of the Lost Arc, which is a great scene, but great because it works within the context of a larger narrative that includes fleshed out characters and a story that’s more complex than simple survival. The plot synopsis of the upcoming Temple Run movie the THR report gives states, “The story would center on an explorer who, having stolen an idol from a temple, is chased by demonic forces.” Thrilling. Because everyone always said that Raiders would have been a much better movie if Indiana Jones had just never stopped running.
What the majority of producers putting together video game movies don’t seem to get is that film audiences don’t come out to see a movie just because it has the same name and a surface similarity to something they’re familiar with in other parts of their life. The reason book to film adaptations like the Lord of the Rings movies or the Harry Potter movies are so successful is that they give fans of the source material a chance to see stories that have thrilled them play out visually and to see characters who they have fallen in love with come alive right before their eyes—and they ideally give non-fans a product that stands alone as a movie they can go see and enjoy without having to put in the hours and hours of time it takes to read through a series of novels.
The sorts of video game movies that might achieve a modicum of the same success are the ones that are already described as being “cinematic.” They’re the ones that create a rich world and immerse you in them. The ones that create memorable characters and give them intricately crafted missions to complete. Video game fans might want to see these worlds get realized and further fleshed out in live action, they might want to see how thrilling those missions could play out when presented with a more dramatic flair. And non-fans might want to experience what the best of video game storytelling has to offer without having to put in the hours necessary to complete an entire game. On the other side of the coin, Mario runs and jumps and doesn’t make for a good inspiration for a movie. The Street Fighter combatants kick and punch and don’t make for a good inspiration for a movie. You saw how many ludicrous narrative hoops the Super Mario Brothers and Street Fighter movies had to jump through in order to squeeze a story out of their mechanics-based gameplay, and one would imagine a similar challenge stands in front of whatever poor, doomed writer gets attached to Temple Run.
One upcoming adaptation that might get it right though is the Warcraft movie Blizzard is making. Not only do they have a rich world, a robust cast of characters, and a lengthy narrative history already established for this film thanks to the original Warcraft game, its sequels, and the massively multiplayer online role-playing game that the property eventually developed into, World of Warcraft, but they’ve also got a talented and acclaimed filmmaker attached to their film in Duncan Jones. A filmmaker who, according to reports out of the recent BlizzCon, is a longtime fan of the game and has been pushing for rewrites to make sure that the villains of his piece get better established and become more relatable to the audience.
And, in addition to an accomplished storyteller handling the characters and the story, Warcraft also has an Oscar-winning effects supervisor who’s also a big fan of the game in Bill Westenhofer. His talent and insight could be immeasurable assets when it comes to translating the Warcraft universe from the computer screen to the big screen. Check out the concept art for the worlds he’s creating below and try to imagine those images of Temple Run’s static, repetitive gameplay in the header being translated into anything nearly as immersive for its eventual film.
Could Warcraft finally be the video game movie that gets it right and legitimizes video game movies as a thing? Let’s hope so, because the debate over whether or not studios should keep making these things is getting tired. Clearly they’re not going to stop, so the best we can hope for is that they start getting things right.