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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]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.