Tag Archives: adaptation

What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development hell. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a  fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

‘cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).

I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna ‘elevate’ it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.

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Feels Like It

Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.

his ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.

It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.

A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.

he game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.

Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.

The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.

Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.

Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.

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Why The Last of Us Should and Shouldn’t Be a Movie

Big news broke on Thursday: The Last of Us is becoming a live action movie. Now, you have to understand, I love The Last of Us. I wrote a final paper on it (see notes here), I wrote about its characters and convictions, and I wrote on how it’s a grownup video game.

I’ve said before that The Last of Us is an incredible game that deserves to be seen in a more literary light. And now it is, it’s being made into a movie so more people can experience it.

At least that’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper’s idea. Honestly, I have to agree. The Last of Us is a phenomenal piece of storytelling period. Video games remain something of a niche market; one sometimes deemed inaccessible. For good reason too: movies don’t require viewers to buy a $300 piece of equipment to watch them and then force them to complete challenges to see what happens next. A cinematic adaptation of The Last of Us would nullify this and allow anyone to experience Joel and Ellie’s story.

Thing is, The Last of Us is an incredibly visceral story, due in no small part to the fact that you’re playing as Joel. The tension in battles with the Infected and other people and the relief of those long quiet moments in between are all heightened because it’s you fighting the Infected and you initiating conversations with Ellie about football mascots. This is what gaming does best; making you feel truly involved in the action. A film wouldn’t be able to capture the same kind of rush of the battle and emotional bond with the characters.

With that, casting presents another obstacle. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are intrinsically inseparable from Joel and Ellie. Their performances are incredible, bringing life to fantastic characters. Whoever plays them in the movie would have to be wonderfully cast, else much of their dynamic — that blend of tension and affection — would be lost. And it’s the bond between Joel and Ellie —not the Infected or the American wastes— that makes The Last of Us.

But then, Neil Druckmann, writer and Creative Director of the game, is confirmed to be writing the film. Druckmann has more than proved himself a competent writer with The Last of Us and Left Behind. And who better to write a film adaptation than the original writer? He knows what’s at the heart of the game and how to keep it in a film.

I have hope for this, mostly because Druckmann is writing but also because Bruce Straley, The Last of Us’ Game Director, is producing the film with Naughty Dog’s co-presidents and Sam Raimi. The creative core of the game is on the film too.

There are things they’ll have to do for it to work One would be keeping the extreme violence and consistent swearing that built game’s tone (and thereby earning a hard R-rating). A second would be casting two leads who would be able to match Baker and Johnson’s nuance and chemistry. Most importantly, Druckmann and team will have to adapt The Last of Us not as a game but as a story. We don’t need scenes of Joel crouching down and listening or incessant crafting; what we need are those quiet moments of conversation between the two protagonists.

Do I think The Last of Us needed to be made into a movie? No. It’s one of the best video games of not just its generation but of all times. It used its medium to great effect, telling a story unlike any other.

But now that it is do I want it to be a good one? Of course. Stripped of the experience of the game it remains a phenomenal story one that, rightly, deserves a wider non-gaming audience.

One thing’s for sure, though, they need Gustavo Santaolalla’s score.

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Heart of a Child

I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.

There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.

Only not.

A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).

Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.

Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.

Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.

Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.

Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.

There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a crap about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.

Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.

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Two More Hours

The book Ender’s Game is near to my heart. I listed it as my favorite book on my college apps years ago (in lieu of The Lord of the Rings — too cliché). I’ve read it at three different stages of my life: in high school, in the army (during basic training and later as a corporal), and for class during my freshman year of university. What I’m saying is I love the book. Not just because it’s about kid-soldiers saving the world, but because it explores questions of warfare, empathy, and trauma.

See, Ender’s Game is a two-headed beast. You have the story of Ender, the child chosen to save the world. The novel follows him from earth through his trials at Battle School and on to Command School. We see him grow and excel in this environment, triumphing despite the odds being stacked catastrophically against him.

Alongside that it’s a story about a boy forced to deal with isolation and detachment; Ender never has the luxury of friends. Ender’s Game is also about a boy being molded into the weapon at the cost of his psyche and the effect it has on him and those around him. As the novel comes to a close it becomes a story about PTSD and atonement.

So it was with cautious hope that I saw the film of the book Thursday night. It wasn’t bad; it touched on the themes and hit on many of the book’s highlights. But it was too short. It’s really hard to condense all of that into a single movie. Which brings me to the greats flaw of the film of Ender’s Game: It needed two movies.

The movie desperately needed more time, another beat in Battle School, another beat in Command School, and another at the end. Ender’s Game is on of the few books that really needed two movies to tell its story.

That’s the main criticism I can levy against the film. The cast was exceptional, Harrison Ford as Graff in particular. Some of the script was a little wonky, but never enough to drag down the rest. The visuals were beautiful (though I would have done something different camera-wise in the Battle Room). The movie was great, just too short.

Which just might make it that much more painful. It’s easy to hate a movie that’s just plain crappy (See: The Last Airbender) or fails to capture the spirit of the book (See: BBC’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe). Then it’s easy; the movie felt nothing like the book, missed the point, and sucked. In those cases you laugh off the movie figuring, hey, they tried, whatever.

Ender’s Game came so close as a movie. It had all the pieces it needed for a great adaptation. Everything was freaking there, the movie had it all. And it was great, for that. But it needed the chance to breathe. It needed the time to get into Ender’s isolation, to explore Dragon Army, to explore the consequences of his decisions. We needed two movies!

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the movie. I almost cheered when we met Bean and later Petra. Every one of Graff’s scenes was an absolute blast (Ford was able to capture Graff’s severity and warmth like no other). It was great; it just needed more time. What makes it more painful is that if someone ever tries again in the future, the parts will no longer be here. We won’t be able to have Harrison Ford as Graff again nor many of the other people involved.

Ender’s Game is by no means a bad movie, great even; but it came this close to being incredible. Movie’s worth a watch, but definitely read the book.

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Final Exam: The Hobbit

It’s finals time at NYU. Folks are churning out essays and cramming a semester of information in their heads. So here I’ll be doing something different (but not really): let’s look at The Hobbit.

I saw The Hobbit’s midnight showing at the IMAX here. It was good, clearly. Perfect, nah, not quite. Not Return of the King, but then what is? So where’d The Hobbit go right and where’d it go wrong?’

Right off the bat, it’s a great adaptation. It went right for the heart of the story, then built up  a proper body around it. What was the book about? Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure with thirteen dwarves and a wizard to reclaim a lost kingdom, fight a dragon, a war, and all that. The quest is still there.

Gandalf’s adventure in Mirkwood and Dol Guldur has been fleshed out some (fitting, as Gandalf’s references to the Necromancer weren’t included in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring). All this serves to give the story more weight. See, now the slaying of Smaug is doubly important due to the risk of Sauron having him on his side. The follow up to the amazing Lord of the Rings Trilogy is now an epic too.

More than that, though, they built on the characters. Bilbo and Thorin especially have really strong arcs, expanding on Tokien’s work. We get Bilbo growing out of being a comfortable, boring Hobbit to the adventurer we all know him as. We see it when he’s taunting the troll, as he slowly grows confident throughout the movie, and ultimately in his actions in the tree at the end. Similarly, we see Thorin’s slow and begrudging acceptance of the hobbit into their company. The core arc of An Unexpected Journey is Bilbo’s growth and gradual adoption both of and by the dwarves. It’s crucial that this happens, due to events that happen later in the book. We absolutely need to have an attachment to these characters and their bond, else later events will have little impact.

Where The Hobbit does fail, however, is in its pacing. Yes, there were plenty of burritos being thrown around, but sometimes there seemed to be a few too many. An example would be the scene with the stone giants. We’ve just left Rivendell and are about to have the run in with Gollum and the goblins in the Misty Mountains. At this point, we don’t need another burrito. There are no character moments (besides Thorin helping Bilbo back up, which could easily be added to another sequence) nor any plot development vital to the scene.

Overall the film could have been tightened to keep the necessities without feeling draggy. Perhaps most of these issues are due to the film being stretched out into three films rather than just two. Adding bits here and being reluctant to cut others yields a movie that feels a lot like setup (rather than the essentially self-contained epics that was each entry in The Lord of the Rings).

The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings before it, once again has a point to be made and makes it quietly but effectively. It’s about being wiling to step out of your comfort zone, it’s about finding home, and, pointedly, what exactly constitutes courage. It’s not heavy handed, it feels natural and it works. Also makes for good Facebook/Twitter/tumblr post material.

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. It’s very different both in tone and in nature. Same world, sure, but The Hangover and Saving Private Ryan are both set in The Real World and are both sixty years apart too. Point is: The Hobbit is a wonderful, if imperfect, movie. Go see, but don’t expect The Fellowship of the Ring.

Oh, and for the record, the riddles in the dark scene stands out as an amazing example of both special effects and storytelling, up to and including Bilbo taking pity on Gollum. Beautiful.

Editors note: Will this ‘Final Exam’  post be repeated in the future? Who knows. But seeing as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness both come out around the time I have my next bout of finals…

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support my education!

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Go For The Heart

Does anyone remember the movie Eragon? That horrible movie based on an alright book? It was a movie so poorly made and objectively bad we could ignore how crappy an adaptation it was.

But what about when it’s a crappy adaptation too?

M. Night Shyamalan cost himself his credibility when he put out The Last Airbender. Let’s ignore the crappy script, acting, and direction for a second. The movie was pretty. The tidal wave at the end going towards the ship was absolutely gorgeous. But, the script, acting, and direction were crap; like it or not. But more than that, the film complete missed the point of the TV show.

Avatar is an incredibly layered show. Not only do we have the intricate relations between the protagonists, but we have the background complexity of the war between the countries. The heart of the show was the dynamic between Aang and crew; the big quest and saving the world was the plot and vehicle. You couldn’t have one without the other. Airbender replaced the characters with cardboard cutouts and put the quest front and center. Bending is cool and the Fire Nation must to be defeated! Screw everything else, this is what matters! To the surprise of no one, it sucked.

How would one go about making a proper adaptation of Avatar? By necessity, cut out much of the little adventures along the way but keep moments that help us establish characters (Katara and Sokka taking Aang in at the Southern Air Temple, Sokka growing trough meeting the Kyoshi warriors, Zuko choosing to rescue Iroh, etc), even if it means rearranging/combining them (an event on Kyoshi Island could result in Aang going Avatar and needing Katara to console him while Sokka and Suki help defend the island). All the while keeping that spirit of adventure. It’s not so important to hit every plot point as it is to make sure the heart of the work is there.

Let’s do another comparison! BBC put out an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the late 80’s. It was alright at best, hit all the beats that the movie needed to to stay ‘true’ to the book and it worked well enough. It just.. wasn’t Narnia. Then came the new one in 2005. Due in no small part to advances in special effects, Narnia really came alive and proved itself to be a fantastic movie.

It wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of the book, though. The characters were all aged up by a few years, we saw the bombing of London, the characters had baggage, and the climatic battle was accentuated. But the spirit was there! The heart was the same! The movie captured that magic that makes Narnia Narnia. That’s what made the new one so much better.

Take a cursory look at some of the really good adaptations these days: The Help and The Hunger Games for example. Both of them don’t follow the book blow by blow, both skip or change parts of their books, but both still remain true to the spirit of the book. The Help still deals with treatment of, er, the help, and attitudes towards them during the early 60’s. All the main characters stay true to themselves and are undeniably them. Katniss and her struggle to survive in a hellish battlefield are still there in the film of The Hunger Games. The brutality of it all is retained through the carefully reckless use of the camera, the dynamic between Katniss and Gale is quickly well established, and The Capitol and inhabitants shown for what they are. The spirit is there.

The Lord Of The Rings stands as possibly the best adaptation. Peter Jackson glossed over several plot points, changed characters considerably (Aragorn takes most of the journey to attain the regality he takes up immediately in the books), and even altered just where the books are divided. But the core was still there. The themes of the smallest being able to change the world, of standing up to the impossible, of living for more than yourself; it’s all there! The movies may be structurally and narratively different, but it still feels like The Lord Of The Rings.

Why?

‘cuz they went for the heart.

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s not an adaptation and probably wouldn’t work as one; so it’s a book!

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