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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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…