When “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” arrives in theaters on May 28, it will do so with the usual questions that surround big-budget summer spectaculars.
Will star Jake Gyllenhaal prove an able action hero? Will the CGI be up to par? Will the movie have a big opening weekend? If past history is any indication, “Prince of Persia” will do brisk box office. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is a one-man hit factory, after all.
But what about the more pressing question? Namely, ‘will the movie be any good?’
If we use history as a gauge once again, then there’s a very good chance the Prince will be buried under a desert of awfulness. Because no film genre has failed as spectacularly, and as often, as the Video Game Adaptation category.
Movies based on video games have stunk up the multiplex worse than any bad batch of popcorn ever could. None of the nearly 30 films-based-on-games released since 1980 – not a single one! – has reached 50 percent% on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer aggregate rating. Think about that. Even mediocrity seems unattainable for game-based movies.
[In case you’re wondering, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” had the highest rating with 44 percent.]
Gamers 'don't give a crap'
Why does Hollywood keep missing the target with these adaptations? Well, if you’ve seen failures like 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” or even recent misfires like “Hitman” and “Max Payne,” it’s easy to point to the lackluster storytelling as to why they didn’t work. But ask most gamers or designers, and they’ll tell you filmmakers spend too much time worrying about the story, while overlooking the most appealing aspect of a game.
It’s the gameplay, stupid!
“Gamers don't give a crap why they're supposed to be killing bad guys,” said Greg Roach, a gaming industry veteran who also wrote the “Red Steel 2” game for Ubisoft. “Nazis, trolls, space-bugs - what's the difference? They just want to get to it.”
“What makes a great video game doesn’t necessarily make a great movie,” said gaming expert Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global. “Writing stories for an interactive medium is completely different than doing it for a passive one [such as film]. Writers have to account for players making different choices.”
In other words, people who love first-person shooters like “Doom” have zero interest in watching Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson kill demonic creatures. They’d rather do the virtual shooting themselves.
“Narrative is in there [in games], and it can often be very good in linear or experimental fashion, but it's almost always a means to an end in a game,” said Evan Narcisse, who covers the video game industry for Techland.com.
“In games like “Mass Effect” and “Mass Effect 2,” you get great story and characters and they make you feel something. But I'd argue that the point of the gameplay in those titles isn't to tell you a story about Commander Shepard's mission to stop the Reapers. The prime goal is to make the player make decisions that then affect the story.”
That fundamental difference between film and gaming – that level of active participation versus passive viewing – is something not even the current Next Big Thing in movies, 3-D, can overcome.
Never say die
Hollywood isn’t giving up yet. Legendary Pictures, the production house behind “The Dark Knight” and “Watchmen,” recently gained the rights to adapt the “Mass Effect” games. But the news isn’t as good for several high-profile projects. Not even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have been able to get a proposed “Halo” film off the ground, because of the exorbitant $200 million + estimated budget.
A film based on “Gears of War” is also experiencing a rocky developmental road, with reports indicating director Len Wiseman has left the project. “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi is attached to the “World of Warcraft” movie, but whether that film makes its rumored 2011 release date is anyone’s guess.
Some people wonder if Hollywood cares enough about the genre to actually get it right.
Brandon Mendelson, a gaming industry journalist who is about to launch a new gaming column for CNN.com, thinks gamers suffer from the same lack of respect comic book fans used to receive from Hollywood, until superhero films became the industry’s home-run hitters.
“When you’re looking down on the audience, you’re not about to go out of your way to create a quality product for them,” according to Mendelson.
As for “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” some industry observers are cautiously optimistic about its chances of bucking the trend and actually being, um, good. Part of that optimism stems from the fact that the game’s creator, Jordan Mechner, was brought in to write the film’s screenplay.
“Jordan Mechner is a proven storyteller. He’s one of the game industry’s more enduring storytellers,” said Steinberg, who adds that the Prince of Persia game was inspired by films such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“It does lend itself to film adaptation because it has the rich back story, time manipulation and colorful characters that if done well, could make for epic filmmaking.”
Cricket Lee, Editor-in-Chief of Girl Gamer, thinks the fact that Bruckheimer made a $3 billion franchise out of an amusement park ride is a good sign. “Bruckheimer knows how risky video game adaptations can be and he's not about to invest in something he wouldn't believe in,” said Lee. “[He] knows how rabid gamers can be and has definitely taken that into consideration.”Judging by the trailers, “Prince of Persia” seems to have many of the elements that make video games so appealing to filmmakers: An epic story arc, grand set pieces, and incredible stunts.
But that could also work against it.
“In the Sands of Time movie,” Narcisse pointed out, “we're going to be watching Jake Gyllenhaal rewind time but in the Sands of Time game, we're the ones doing it. That's just tough to beat.”