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The Sandbox: Five Rules for Making a Decent Video Game Adaptation

The Sandbox: Five Rules for Making a Decent Video Game Adaptation (photo)

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For the past 20 years or so, Hollywood has seemed intent on proving that video games aren’t fit to be cinematic source material. How else to explain the dismal quality of the average game-to-film adaptation? But games and movies aren’t inherently incompatible, provided that directors use some common sense when heading down that treacherous adaptation path. Here’s my list of five guidelines that, if followed to the letter, should help future filmmakers succeed where so many before them have stumbled.

1. Costume changes are okay.

As with comics, video game heroes are often defined by their distinctive get-ups. And in certain instances — like Lara Croft’s snug spelunking short-shorts and T-shirt — those outfits are capable of making a relatively easy transition to the silver screen. But the rest of the time, keeping a little too close to a game character’s clothing makes it impossible to take the material seriously.

I mean, have you seen Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo sporting brightly colored, patch-decorated coveralls in 1993 “Super Mario Bros.”? Or Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos wearing goofy, oversized blue and red martial-arts outfits in 1994’s “Double Dragon”? Or, worst of all, Jean-Claude Van Damme and his blue beret, spiky blond hair and green tank top in the abysmal “Street Fighter: The Movie,” also from 1994? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you probably assumed — the moment you laid eyes on those wretchedly dressed actors — that the films were jokes worth skipping. And you were right. Filmmakers would be better served mimicking Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” films (or Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil” ones), which recognized that duplicating original garb would be ridiculous, and came up with new threads that stayed faithful to the spirit of the characters’ unique looks.

2. Go for stories, not gameplay gimmicks.

A game can thrive on the basis of a cool control technique, but if that’s all it has to offer, then it probably hasn’t got the depth necessary for a decent film. Take “Max Payne,” whose bullet-time effects provided a neat gameplay twist, but looked like a lame “Matrix” rip-off on screen, making the thinness of the title’s second-rate pulp-noir story all the more apprent. In the same way, while the first-person shooter POV is awfully gripping when you’re the one wielding a controller, that perspective doesn’t work on film, as “Doom” so painfully proved.

Even more fundamentally, games that place a premium on their interactive elements — like the challenges of complicated button-combo maneuvers — instead of story should be avoided like the plague when it comes to adaptations. This is most apparent when it comes to fighting games, which could give a hoot about plot but care deeply about hand-eye coordination. “Mortal Kombat” may have been a box office triumph when it opened in 1995, but if you can sit through the film — which also fails to adhere to the above Rule #1 — without regularly breaking into derisive laughter, you’re more tolerant of bad scripting than I.

3. The character’s the thing.

You need a compelling protagonist. This seems like a no-brainer, but as the history of game adaptations shows, it’s a detail that escapes many. Realism need not be at the forefront of this decision — the impossibly athletic and buxom Lara Croft, for all her fighting skills and sex appeal, is not what one would dub “true to life,” but does have an iconic look, at least a passing connection to a credible reality and some shred of relatable human emotion.

This means that side-scrolling heroes like Mario are out — unless you’re buying that, in any universe, Italian plumbers travel through sewers, fight shelled monsters and eat giant mushrooms during quests to save princesses. So too are 2D fighters, whose peripheral backstories are usually laughably one-dimensional. The films for both “Hitman” and “Max Payne” may fail to flesh out their titular tough guys in interesting ways, but at least they capture the characters’ individual styles. Better still are the “Resident Evil” films, which, recognizing the general blankness of the franchise’s various user proxies, created an original heroine in Milla Jovovich’s Alice, video game films’ reigning badass.

10232009_SilentHill.jpg4. Find directors who care.

Passion’s a difficult thing to fake, and gamers — a rabidly protective bunch when it comes to their favorite properties — can smell phony enthusiasm a mile away. It’s no coincidence that two of the past decade’s finest adaptations came from directors with personal, rooting interests in the material. Paul W.S. Anderson is an avowed gamer, and while the aforementioned “Mortal Kombat” is no career achievement, his B-movie “Resident Evil” series exudes respect for its console origins in tone, as well as in plot and character. The same holds true for “Silent Hill,” Christophe Gans’ underrated 2006 movie based on the Konami survival horror franchise, which remains, to my eye, the best game adaptation to date. Gans’ (and writer Roger Avary’s) intimate knowledge of “Silent Hill”‘s horrific creatures, fog-enshrouded netherworld setting and — most important of all — unhinged mood creeps into his unsettling film, which beautifully mimics the game’s look and story while exploring some uniquely cinematic scares. It’s the rare adaptation that actually understands its source material, to the point that when Gans takes small liberties with his tale’s universe, it comes off as natural and reverent rather than dim and misbegotten.

5. Avoid Uwe Boll.

If you’ve ever seen one of director-par-incompetence Boll’s game-inspired epic turds, from the nightmarishly awful “House of the Dead” to the hilariously inept “Alone in the Dark,” this final rule needs no further clarification. And if you haven’t, well, consider yourself fortunate.

The Sandbox, a column about the intersection of film and gaming, runs biweekly.

[Photo: “Silent Hill,” TriStar Pictures, 206]

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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