When Nintendo released a statement on Twitter/X stating that Shigeru Miyamoto had been collaborating with producer Avi Arad for several years on a live-action film adaptation of The Legend of Zelda, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Not because I had just looked through Arad’s production credits, which cover a wide range of projects, but because, like many other adults who are fans of video games, I grew up during a time when movie adaptations of games were notoriously terrible, and I still occasionally have negative thoughts about them when I’m trying to fall asleep.
During the 1990s, Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in Street Fighter, a film adaptation of the popular video game. Another movie from that time was the poorly received Super Mario cyberpunk nightmare featuring Bob Hoskins, and directed by Uwe Boll. As a result of these experiences, I am naturally apprehensive. The Zelda franchise is known for its iconic games, with their silent hero, Link, and the recurring stories of the Kingdom of Hyrule and its royal family (also known as Zelda). These games often have ambiguous plotlines and a dreamlike quality, which adds to their appeal. However, adapting this to a successful movie presents a challenge. Will they give Link a voice? In a 90s cartoon series, Link was portrayed as a wisecracking character, leading to ongoing ridicule.
If gamers have concerns, it seems that Hollywood has let go of any previous hesitations about producing films inspired by video games. In just one year, the trend of poorly made video game adaptations has been completely shattered, leading movie studios to jump into a potential gold mine. The days of dull interpretations of Tomb Raider and Sonic the Hedgehog’s infamous teeth are gone. Now, we have Jack Black playing Bowser and Jim Carrey as Dr Robotnik. The possibilities are endless.
The Super Mario Bros movie and Five Nights at Freddy’s have been highly successful at the box office this year. Despite not receiving widespread critical acclaim, they have been well-received by fans of the games. While the Mario movie may not be a masterpiece, it captures the essence and style of the games, even with Seth Rogen’s mediocre portrayal of Donkey Kong. The Sonic movies have also been performing well. On television, HBO’s The Last of Us has garnered both high viewership and praise. It is the first video game adaptation to truly do justice to its source material.
Not all has been perfect: The portrayal of Tom Holland as Nathan Drake in the 2022 film adaptation of Uncharted was not memorable, and the Resident Evil films, while moderately successful, are still confusing to me as they deviate from the game’s storyline. However, even the worst video game movies now seem to bring in decent profits. I believe this change started with the release of the World of Warcraft film in 2016, which had impressive box office numbers, particularly in China, giving studios and writers more confidence. The first time I can recall leaving a video game movie and thinking “you know what, that wasn’t terrible” was after watching Detective Pikachu in 2019. Starring Ryan Reynolds as the energetic and beloved Pokémon character, the film was written with obvious affection and humor.
Hollywood has a strong interest in geek culture, and with the apparent fatigue of the constantly expanding Marvel and Star Wars movie universes, it begs the question – could video game adaptations be the next big thing? The potential audience is definitely present, as seen with the success of the animated film Mario, which is currently the third highest-grossing of its genre after Frozen 2 and the live-action Lion King (though personally, not a fan). An impressive 45 million players participated in a throwback event for Fortnite last weekend. It’s not hard to imagine the potential success of a well-made Fortnite movie.
Examples like Detective Pikachu and The Last of Us demonstrate how film and TV can enhance the immersive worlds of video games, rather than simply trying to replicate them. Unlike traditional superheroes, video game protagonists often have room for interpretation. By setting linear narratives within game environments, filmmakers have the opportunity to develop characters who may be lacking depth in the games due to the focus on action, or create entirely new characters and storylines within a familiar setting. This approach has been successfully utilized by franchises like Star Wars and Marvel for many years. While not all fictional video game universes are robust enough to support such adaptations, there are certainly some that have the potential for content expansion. However, it should be noted that even popular franchises like Halo may struggle to maintain interest in their main characters over time.
Although the constant exploitation of geek culture has exhausted once-popular film series like Ghostbusters and Star Wars, there is significant opportunity for further storytelling within video game realms – and significant profit. It is only with fingers crossed that we hope Hollywood does not go too overboard with this trend, as they have with the Marvel franchise. If I am required to watch 47 separate Minecraft or Elder Scrolls adaptations and invest 100 hours into playing the games just to comprehend their lore, I may lose interest altogether.