Pixels and Why Video Game Films Never Succeed

The release and instantaneous failure of Adam Sandler’s latest production Pixels shines light on one of Hollywood’s longtime pitfalls – movie adaptations of video games and their utter lack of success. While not a direct adaptation of an actual video game, Pixels is just the latest addition to a long line of gaming-related titles to fail at the box office. With so many other mediums being successfully translated into big-budget blockbusters (namely comic books), what is it that keeps gaming titles from pulling in big numbers at the theater as well?

The truly boggling thing is that this isn’t a recent fad, they’ve been doomed from the start. Since we were young, most of us have had a love-hate relationship with Nintendo’s ultimate and inarguably most famous creation: Super Mario Bros. When the original video game was released in 1985, kids were instantly hooked and spent hour after hour attempting to defeat the evil Bowser and rescue Princess Peach. In an attempt to capture that enthusiasm, a feature film was greenlit and Super Mario Bros. became the first official video game film flop in America. Everything about the adaptation was just wrong. Just about the only things connecting the film to its source material are the characters names and mushrooms, completely changing the game we loved into something barely recognizable – a common killer with video game adaptations, but not necessarily a dealbreaker.

Unlike Super Mario Bros., this move actually worked for the Resident Evil franchise. The films have turned one of the scariest video games ever created into a science fiction romp through Action Town with every film in the franchise grossing over $100 million (the last two films breaking the $200 Million mark) and the final film set to be released soon. So if it isn’t straying too far from the source material that kills, what else can it be? A good contender for the root of evil is German director Uwe Boll – who coincidentally bid a rather interesting farewell to the industry recently.

Okay, so blaming all gaming adaptation failures on Mr. Boll isn’t fair, but he has had his fair share of adaptation flops: House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Postal, and Far Cry just to name a few. While B-directors like Boll have their place, attempting to bring the magic of gaming to the big screen on a small budget is nothing more than a kamikaze mission, and for some reason these films are still floating around on Netflix and via on demand cable. Of course, the Boll flop Bloodrayne was given a $25 million budget and made less than $4 million in theaters, so clearly money isn’t the issue.

Maybe it all just boils down to making a good movie, no matter what the source material is. The reason the Resident Evil franchise has done so well isn’t because the gaming franchise was overly popular. It’s because they have actually been decently good movies. Another rare example of a gaming adaptation that actually did reasonably well, at least financially, are the Tomb Raider films. While both were fairly entertaining, Angelina Jolie being a mega-draw at the time didn’t hurt.

It’s also important we make note of the lack of material available to base these movies off of – mainly the flimsiest of premises and the most two-dimensional of characters. There are cases where filmmakers seemed to be close to the pulse of gamers but then ruined it with a terrible sequel. Our friend Uwe Boll has a slew of sequels, but none of them are based on actual successes. Mortal Kombat was released in 1995 and surprisingly brought in over $100 million dollars. In an effort to cash in even more, the studio filmed and released a sequel after replacing most of the cast and cutting the special effects budget down to pennies. Cover that with a terrible plot and you have the death of a promising franchise.

It’s no secret that Hollywood is just missing the mark with movie adaptations of video games. Adaptations are always tough because you are attempting to transfer one experience to another. With video games, that experience involves many hours of intense playing, studying and thinking. This is not easily conveyed through a few hours of celluloid. On the bright side, for those who enjoy these horror/action/sci-fi video game adaptation endeavors at least, it doesn’t look like it will be game over for Hollywood’s attempts at such movies any time soon.

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Aspiring writer Maria Karen is interested in horror movies, comic books, and tea. Her hobbies include comic book conventions and finding hole-in-the-wall shops around the city. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her two aquatic turtles, Roy and Franklin.

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  1. Brad Sawyer says:

    That one video game-ish movie “the Wizard” with Fred Savage was pretty good, unlike Pixels.

  2. Nick Tem says:

    Actually, I liked the Super Mario Bros. movie when I was a kid.

    My brother and I are massive Nintendo-heads, so the movie was this far out, alternate reality production of the adventures of Mario and Luigi and the rest of the Mushroom gang. We were laughing at it while laughing with it, and going along for the ride was a fun romp.

    I guess, when you grow up with the Super Mario Bros. Show, where you had real-life actors portraying the plumbers before they introduced their cartoon selves, the 80s Legend of Zelda cartoon or Captain N, you kind of grow accustomed to alternate versions of something you cherish and celebrate the kookiness of it all with each watching (like the Captain N version of Mega Man).

    That said, things like Pixels (I haven’t seen it) and other video game adaptations, usually fail because they lack any substantial character development that’s already in place for comic book heroes because of their origin stories. They’re also pretty flimsy productions. So, video game icons fight towards an ending without any solid foundation. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why should I care? Why is everything so on the nose? The dramatic conflict never leaves the starting mark.

    So, except for things like Archie’s Mega Man and Sonic lines, in which the creators understand each character – developing and creating very touching character arcs for the video game icons – most video game adaptations suck because they miss this essential storytelling element entirely; give or take.

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