Why are game-inspired films so terrible?
The Prince of Persia film trailer has just hit the intertubes and with it our hearts both flutter and sink at the same time as we realise that it's going to be terrible. It may sound premature but anyone who knows anything about either games, films or ideally both, will know that out of countless console to silver screen conversions there has been a sum total of no good ones whatsoever. Yes, some have had brushes with the acceptable - Tomb Raider and Silent Hill at a push - but the fact remains that history just doesn't lie. Not here.
So, why are they so bad? What's the deal? First and foremost game plots just aren't up to it. At the best we get some lengthy cut scenes between gruff-talking men in over-sized armour between levels of dealing death to any creature that gets in the way of Player 1 and the next room/access key/elevator/bigger weapon/mushroom. They may contain over 200 hundred hours of gameplay but you could probably condense the storyline into around 20 minutes.
Even if these plots do have any staying power, then they're rarely as sophisticated as what hundreds of years experience of stage and screen writing can produce, and the results are laughable. We laugh, usually around an hour in, well after our hearts have been broken in two because our favourite title is being ridiculed in front of the world. The trouble is that video games aren't designed to be stories. They're games. They're about skill and puzzles rather than a meaningful narrative. There are narratives, more and more, and they're better than ever these days, but they're still tertiary to the structure of the game beneath both playability and graphical appeal.
Then there's characters who are largely two-dimensional. We don't really want to know about Ryu's anxiety when taking on Zangief and fortunately Capcom didn't bore us to death in case we did. Even more involved RPG or adventure pieces only ever get as far as overt emotions like fear or anger at current events and only at the most complex might we see a flashback from the character's past, and only then if it's germane to the plot. The point is that it's up to us, the players, to form the deeper reaction in response to a series of ruthless/kind/good/evil and if we're really lucky, traitorous characters. The added colour simply isn't written in for a very good reason - that of personal subjective involvement.
So, here's how the situation works given the already shaky starting materials. First, a game gets big enough and a movie producer gets bored enough to decide that they're going to make a film out of it. So, they plonk it down in front of an upcoming writer and director, most likely still learning their trade or they'd probably have an original or more worthy project on the slate. Faced with a thin plot and characters that no one's going to care about, they then do their level best to add some colour to the proceedings which is inevitably flawed, most likely because they won't be big players of the game, and what they fabricate will not be in the spirit of thing. Either that or they don't add enough and it's dull as ditch-water anyway.
They then present the project to similarly aspiring actors who take it on because, hey, it's work whereby a few months down the line and several million on special effects later we have one film destined to disappoint. What's worse is that this film will make more money than it cost and so the cycle repeats itself. Perhaps the only good that's ever done is that the artists involved might have graduated to the higher echelons of film making by then. Good luck to them.
There are, of course, minor exceptions. Dennis Hopper was in Super Mario Bros, Angelina Jolie was Lara Croft and now Jake Gyllenhaal has taken the lead in the Prince of Persia, but these stars alone aren't going to be enough to fill all the gaps. Incidentally, if you want a real laugh, watch the DVD extras on Dungeons & Dragons for the out take where Jeremy Irons storms off the set. There's the look of an actor regretting the fact they got involved with it in the first place.
So, what of Prince of Persia then? Is it as doomed as we make out? Well, it's got a stronger plot than some. They've integrated the use of the Dagger of Time really nicely (I'm a sucker for films with time travel). They've got an excellent director in the shape of Mike Newell and a star studded cast with class acts like Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina supporting the adept and watchable Gyllenhaal, but a good game adaptation that's not necessarily going to make. What do they know about the Prince of Persia? Gyllenhaal has said himself that he's over-prepared for this movie by bulking up with five or six pounds in added muscle. Now, that doesn't sound like the right kind of training. How about a copy of the game, a dark room and bulking up with five or six pounds in added KFC?
Mercifully, the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, has been part of the team on the script, but time will only tell whether Jerry Bruckheimer listened to him or not. Still, most of you reading this will probably watch it, you'll probably hate it and you'll probably wonder why you fell for the same trick again. Thankfully, you'll probably have downloaded it for nothing too.