A Guide to Making Great Video Game Movies


When I was a young man I didn’t have things like responsibility, children, a car, bills, or a meaningful relationship with a real human woman.  With all of the fantastic expendable income I had at the time, I spent it on video game rentals and movies. When I found out that these two entertainment juggernauts were set to collide, I was excited beyond what could be reasonably expected.

After that depressing matinee, I sulked out of the theater with my eyes staring at the cracks in the sidewalk on the long walk to my parents minivan. I must have looked like Eeyore after his house blew away because my dad asked me if I was ok.

No, I was not “ok”.  I had just witnessed Super Mario Brothers on the big screen and I was not happy.

Up until I had seen this “film” I was confident that most everyone was at least aware of the Super Mario series of video games.  After experiencing the movie, I was no longer certain of this. The movie had almost nothing to do the game other than the title and whatever the screenwriter could remember from his hallucinogenic fueled play session that he did for “research”.

Considering that we are all gamers here, I assume that you’ve seen the movie, you poor soul; however, for the benefit of those too young to have seen it or those who have actively avoided it all of these years, here is the trailer:

For those who aren’t insane, I believe the words you are searching for are, “What the heck did I just watch?” Well it certainly wasn’t an accurate representation of the video game that we all know and love. Many who try to defend it say that it was “good for the time”, but they must be completely ignoring that the same year also gave us the superior dinosaur movie Jurassic Park.

Super Mario Brothers started the trend of video game adaptations that has continued for almost two decades with the results ranging from decent (Mortal Kombat) to insulting (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation).

This got me to thinking, as things always seem to do. What would it take to make a quality motion picture based on a video game?


It should go without saying that in order to make a quality motion picture based on a video game, you need to start with enough capital to do it right.

The highest profile example of a studio having cold feet at the cost of a project was when the Halo movie was stalled because of its projected costs soaring over the $135 million dollar budget that was put up by Universal and Fox. I understand the hesitation, of course considering that the highest grossing video game inspired movie, Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, made a little more than $131 million in domestic box office in 2001.

The reason I feel that the studios should absolutely gamble that kind of money; however, is because similar fanboy-ish properties are getting budgets that eclipse the projected Halo budget on a regular basis. I will use the comic book based film Iron Man as an example as its budget came in at $140 million.

To give perspective on why I think that Iron Man is a good barometer of how successful a Halo movie could be with a similar budget, just think about the character of Iron Man leading up to that point in his history. Iron Man was a B-level superhero comic when the movie got green lit. If you were to start asking people who weren’t in the comic book community just who Iron Man was in 2007, the year before the film debuted, you would notice that not much was known about the character outside of what Ozzy Osborne had told them on their local classic rock station.

This wasn’t even the biggest problem that Paramount had to deal with either. The movie stared an actor that many felt had too many issues to headline a major motion picture. The director was known for comedies and hadn’t attempted a film this big.  On top of all of that, Iron Man in the comics wasn’t exactly someone who you could look up to as he battled his demons and drowned them with alcohol. Pretty much everyone thought that Marvel and Paramount was out of their minds for going forward with this enormous gamble.

This gamble paid off more than many analysts had predicted, bringing in over half a billion dollars in domestic revenue.

If a mostly obscure superhero with a risky lead actor and director can have this level of success, then why can’t a Halo movie? Surely the property has more fans than Iron Man did when his movie was made.  What did it have that video game movies haven’t had?

I’m glad you asked.


I am not a fan of the Twilight franchise by any stretch of the imagination, but watching them seems to be something a married gamer cannot avoid. The only reason why I preface this section with that disclaimer is because I think the last few entries in the popular series were pretty good. Don’t get me wrong, the story is still dumb, the acting is getting only marginally better, and the screenwriting is clumsier than Buster Keyton in a land fill full of banana peels; however, the directing was top notch.

The reason the direction had improved is because Summit Entertainment hired well respected film makers to come in and make their fractured fairy tale for females look fine on film. The most recent Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn Part 1, was directed by Bill Condon who is known to the film community for Chicago and Dreamgirls, for example.

Now think back to the directors of the video game movies we’ve all seen. Assuming that you can think of any of them, the best of these folks would arguably be Paul W.S. Anderson who brought Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil to the screen. When the director of Alien Vs. Predator is our example of the best we have to offer, you start to wonder why they even bother making game adaptations if they aren’t going to take it seriously.

Even an untested director could be a great choice. Going back to the Iron Man example, director Jon Favreau was known primarily for acting in comedic roles and directing the kid’s movies Zathura and Elf. The reason why he got the job was because he was passionate about the subject matter. He simply got what made the character and his world great and he wanted to share his enthusiasm with us, and he did.

Halo was going to have some unknown director of music videos and commercials named Neil Blomkamp and despite the blessing of producer and Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, this scared the studios considering how much money they had to front for the project. Blomkamp had all of the enthusiasm and love for the source material that one would want when directing a big screen adaptation of a beloved franchise, but Jackson had a hard time convincing the suits that Neil was the man for the job.

After the project was shelved by the studios and it was apparent that Blomkamp was no longer even in the running to shoot the picture, he went out and made another science fiction movie. The resulting film, District 9 went on to critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for best picture. We can only imagine what could have been.

If nothing else, at least give us someone who would make the movie visually interesting and not the drab, sterile, color corrected mess that we’re used to.


Alright, I know that there have been some notable actors in these movies. The great Raul Julia’s final film performance was spent chewing scenery in the first Street Fighter. British actor Bob Hoskins and Latino funnyman John Leguizamo play Italian brothers in Super Mario Brothers.

Essentially my point is that all of these fine actors were miscast. Well…miscast if the movies were written to be even the slightest bit serious.

When casting a film, you don’t necessarily go for the biggest stars, of course, but you go for who is right in the part. I couldn’t imagine Aragorn being played by the original actor who was cast, Stuart Townsend, for example, instead of Viggo Mortensen in the LotR Trilogy or even Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies being played by Eric Stoltz. These could have been very real casting decisions had the film makers not looked at the dailies and determined that it was making the movie awful.

Just make sure whoever you have inside of Master Chief or Samus Aran’s helmet is nailing the performance because if not, you will have made many enemies.


Just because a video game is popular doesn’t mean that it has a compelling story. Think back on some of your favorite games and you’ll see that your motivation is normally the same in the ones that aren’t your favorites. Motivation isn’t really the reason why movies succeed or fail, it’s the characters that take the journey.

In order for a movie to be successful, the lead characters have to go on a journey of discovery whether they realize it or not. Beauty and the Beast and King Kong are the same general stories, but the characters is what push the movie forward and the character arcs are what made the films compelling. In B&B, we know that Beast discovers how to love and be kind again, breaking the spell and in King Kong the antagonist realizes that it wasn’t the airplanes responsible for Kong’s death as it was “Beauty that killed the beast.” They even say it clear as day at the end, “HEY! WE’RE JUST TOYING WITH THE FRAMEWORK OF THE CLASSIC TALE!”

So with that in mind, what do you learn at the end of Super Mario Brothers? How about House of the Dead? Well, besides that you’ll never make the mistake of seeing another Uwe Boll movie again.

A lot of film makers tend to put things into movies as what is called “fan service ”.  Fan service would be anything you see in a movie that really doesn’t add to the narrative, but made the fans of whatever you are adapting snicker. Examples include the “Konami Code” appearing in Silent Hill and the winning poses at the end of Street Fighter.

When the fan service is forced, or the only part of the film that even remotely reminds people of the property that is being adapted, then you are doing it wrong.

The issue with most video game movies is that most of them don’t do the game that they are adapting any justice. I know that it has to be difficult for a screenwriter to condense a game that takes 20 or more hours to beat into a neat 120 minute package, but it’s not impossible.

Take Jurassic Park for example. The book by Michael Crichton clocked in at 416 pages and the movie is 127 minutes long. Considering that the average screenplay equals a page per minute and less in the case of action heavy films, that is a remarkable shrinking job.

They achieved the gargantuan tasks of squeezing that book into an entertaining movie by staying true to the source material, but truly adapting it to fit the new medium it was in. They didn’t force everything that was in the novel in the movie and they put enough into it to retain the story and feeling of the work.

What I’m trying to explain, really, is that when putting together a movie based on a video game it took you days or months, they don’t have to make sure that everything that ever happens in the game makes it onscreen. What they do need to make sure that the story they tell retains the feeling of the source material.

I love video games, and I love to watch a good movie. Someday, I am certain that I will love watching a good video game movie and I hope it is soon.

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Author: Wallace Phelps View all posts by

2 Comments on "A Guide to Making Great Video Game Movies"

  1. Chris Brown January 23, 2012 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Wow! This is a pretty good read and I think you nailed what movies based on video games need. Great article!

  2. Shaggy January 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    I remember Super Mario Brothers the movie well. And then I forgot about it. I found it to be a major bummer.

    Mortal Kombat was also a flop in my opinion as was Street Fighter.

    Resident Evil was done decently.

    But what about Doom…Not completely a flop but almost.

    And there’s more.

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