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Video Game Adaptation to Film: Why Do They Fail?

In general, film adaptations of video games end up being critical failures, as demonstrated through Rotten Tomatoes, a film and television review website, with ratings such as Super Mario Bros. (1993) at 29%, Warcraft (2016) at 28%, Assassin’s Creed (2016) at 19%, Street Fighter (1994) at 11%, and Doom (2005) at 18% (Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.). 70% of the top 20 high-grossest movies of all time are adapted from books (Rothwell, 2019), so why are video game adaptations struggling so much? Despite having an estimated market size of $106 billion in the U.S. alone (Clement, 2023), video games have a difficult time making it onto the big screen. Oddly, many movies manage to succeed by borrowing from video games: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) at 71%; Free Guy (2021) at 80%; Ready Player One (2018) at 72%; Wreck-It Ralph (2012) at 87% (Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.). Therefore, the problem is isolated to video game adaptations to film, not with video games in film.

The Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) defines adaptation as “something produced to adjust to different conditions or uses, or to meet different situations.” Although technically correct, this idea does little to answer the video game adaptation problem. It would be better to approach this topic from the perspective of the entertainment industry. Bolter and Grusin, both New Media scholars (1999) say, “The entertainment industry defines repurposing as pouring a familiar content into another media form; a comic book series is repurposed as a live-action movie, a televised cartoon, a video game, and a set of action toys” (p. 68). From this lens, video games are more merchandise than art. They can be repurposed, changed, modified, or tailored to fit any necessary functions. Adaptation, in the scope of the film industry, is defined as “pouring familiar content into another media form” (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, p. 68). Transforming one media into another and retaining its familiar content is adaptation.

Figure 1: Diametrically different from the original character, Kubrick’s Wendy is “frail, emotionally weak, submissive, and vulnerable” (Colangelo, 2022). Still from "The Shining" (1980).

By design, risks are always involved when adapting a piece of media, since the source has to "adjust to [the] different condition[s]" (Cambridge Dictionary, n. d.). As a consequence, adjusting mistakes may occur. Since each art form has its own rules, one must first interpret the source material and then recreate it to achieve a new product (Hutcheon, 2012, p. 8). The risk with adaptations is incorrectly interpreting or recreating the source material. For instance, Stephen King, an author, hated Stanley Kubrick’s, film director, adaptation of The Shining (1980) despite its critical success (Colangelo, 2022). During his process of recreation, Kubrick dramatically modified important story elements. King's criticisms point primarily at changes applied to Jack Torrance and Wendy Torrance, two central characters (Colangelo, 2022). Even at the film’s release in 1980, reviews were unfavorable (Colangelo, 2022). Today, The Shining is part of the United States National Film Preservation Board as a classic (Library of Congress, n. d.).

There are two main reasons which push film studios to make adaptations. “The goal is not to replace the earlier forms, to which the company may own the rights, but rather to spread the content over as many markets as possible” (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, p. 68). Indeed, film studios want to capitalize on a product’s success by making it maximize its profits. As a result, a variety of merchandise is made across several markets, such as t-shirts, toys, backpacks, theme parks, and more. Video games are no exception here. The second reason is to secure a return on investment, as explained by Hutcheon (2012), a Canadian academic: “Expensive collaborative art forms like operas, musicals and films are going to look for safe bets with a ready audience—and that usually means adaptations” (p. 87). Due to the popularity of the video game industry, an audience is already predisposed to watch the film, thus securing a return on investment. "Adapted films are more popular and successful than original screenplays because the book or author already has a following that equals a guaranteed audience which ensures that it will not “flop” at the box office." (Rothwell, 2019). This concept applies to all adaptations, including video games. Popular games will have a built-in fanbase: an already-established clientele for the film adaptation. Despite the failure of the Super Mario Bros. (1993) film, Hollywood saw untapped potential in gamers (Picard, 2008, p. 295). Conversely, video game studios took the opportunity to license their games for adaptations, hoping for additional revenue (Picard, 2008, p. 295). Built-in audiences are crucial for films as they are expensive to produce and it is impossible to know exactly what will sell: "You can’t know what’s going to sell. No way. No one does” (Akers, 2008, p. 66). Coincidentally, this happens to be the same reason why so many films are adapted from books (Rothwell, 2019). Books, like video games, already benefit from a built-in audience. Jaws (1975), Titanic (1997) and the Harry Potter (2001-2011) series are just a few examples of commercially and critically successful adaptations. However, these are known as blockbuster movies, which generate massive amounts of profit, the lowest of which is Jaws, with $480 million in box office gross (The Numbers, n.d.).

Figure 2: "Jaws" grossed 272$ million in domestic box office and 210$ million internationally (The Numbers).
Figure 2: "Jaws" grossed 272$ million in domestic box office and 210$ million internationally (The Numbers).

Bryce and Rutter (2002), both higher education lecturers, note that, strangely, blockbusters have a lot in common with video games:

The similarity between [blockbusters and video games] lies in the privileging of spectacles over narrative and the importance placed upon physical rather than intellectual responses […] narrative offers a brief rationale on which to hang visceral pleasures rather than the driving engine of the text (p. 77).

Narrative-driven video games do exist, but visual aspects are significantly more important than narrative, the main concern being capturing the eye (Darley, 2000, p. 56). At first glance, the adaptation from game to blockbuster should be simple considering their common focus on visual elements. However, that would be overlooking a key component of video games known as interactivity: “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story” (Juul, 2001). No one can play a movie like they can a game. People watch movies, but they play games. Jesper Juul (2001), a game researcher and designer, further elaborates that while stories are narrated, being told a game is impossible. Thus, adapting a game to film would instantly signify the death of interactivity, a component unique to games: “Games and stories actually do not translate to each other in the way that novels and movies do” (Juul, 2001).

Additionally, games are perceived as degrading for cinema: “Some critics of contemporary Hollywood cinema cite games, along with other formats such as film-based theme-park rides, as a potentially deleterious influence on films” (Krzywinska & King, 2002, p. 16). Games are not better or worse than cinema, they are two different art forms. The distorted notion that games harm film leads to the notion of unfounded inferiority, which results in filmmakers not taking the source material seriously: “Although both directors knew Super Mario Bros.—as everyone did in 1992—neither were particularly immersed in videogame culture. ‘We weren’t wildly enthusiastic gamers,' says Jankel” (Russell, 2012, p.138). Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton were the directors of the critical and commercial failure adaptation of Super Mario Bros. (1993) (IMDb, n.d.). Filmmakers refusing to familiarize themselves with the source material is a trend that persists today. For instance, showrunners of the Halo (2022) adaptation admitted to not looking at or talking about the game when developing the show (Screenrant, 2002). As far as adaptation strategies go, this seems like a bad idea; however, the show did score an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is impressive for a game adaptation.

Yoshi looked like a velociraptor in the film, completely different from the video game. Still from "Super Mario Bros. "(1993).

In the end, it is certainly possible to adapt a video game to film. The task, however, is extremely arduous. In order for a successful adaptation to be made, game adaptations will have to be seen as more than just extra money for studios and more than just 'a game' for filmmakers. Like any type of adaptation, changes will be necessary to accommodate one media into another. The absence of interactivity is a big obstacle to overcome. Undoubtedly major modifications may be necessary, such as in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). However, a proper game adaptation is possible, because, after all, video games already have a place in the film industry.


Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press.

Bryce, J. & Rutter, J. (2002). Spectacle of the Deathmatch: Character and Narrative in First Person Shooters. In G King & T. Krzywinska (Eds.), Screenplay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces (pp.66-80). Wallflower Press.

Cambridge Dictionary. (n. d.). Adaptation.

Clement, J. (2023, January 16). Market size of the video games industry in the United States from 2013 to 2023. Statista.

Colangelo, B. J. (2022, February 28). Why Stephen King Hated Stanley Kubrick's Adaptation Of The Shining So Much. Slash Film.

Darley, A. (2000). Visual Digital Culture: Surface Pay and Spectacle in New Media Genres. Routledge.

Hutcheon, L. (2012). A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge.

IMDb. (n. d.). Super Mario Bros.

Juul, J. (2001). Games Telling Stories? The International Journal of Computer Game Research, 1(1).

Library of Congress. (n. d.). Complete National Board Film Registry Listing.

Northrup, R. (2022, March 18). Halo Show Writer Says They Didn't Look At The Video Game. Screen Rant.

Picard, M. (2008). Video Games and Their Relationship with Other Media. In Mark J. P. Wolf (Ed.), The Video Game Explosion: A History from Pong to Playstation and Beyond (pp.293-300). Greenwood Press.

Rothwell, H. (2019, October 6). The Succes of Book to Film Adaptations. Medium.

Rotten Tomatoes.

Russell, J. (2012). Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood. Yellow Ant.

The Numbers. (n. d.). Jaws (1975).


2 comentarios

21 may

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23 oct 2023


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