Even as Avengers: Endgame was creating new box-office records, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu made a little history of its own by becoming the highest-rated live-action adaptation of a video game on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has also grossed $364 million worldwide, becoming a profitable venture for its makers.
A 66 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is generally considered middling, which is why Detective Pikachu’s pole position among cinematic adaptations of video games points to the chequered history of the sub-genre. Hollywood keeps churning out video-game films on a regular basis despite more failure than success.
“Most film adaptations of video games have not been successful because they have strayed away from the formula that made those games popular,” says Rohin Bhaumik, a gaming content creator. “If you don’t do justice to the original medium, the fans will walk away disappointed,” he adds.
Writing and conceptualizing a film based on another medium is always a tricky process, the challenge invariably being all about what to retain, what to remove, and how to ultimately create something that is true to both art forms. Arriving at that balance is no mean feat, and it is a reason why even cinema adaptations of books and comic books can also often fall flat. The Batman films of the nineties would fit that description, as would the 2003 book-to-film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat, starring Mike Myers and Dakota Fanning.
The failure rate for video-game adaptations, however, seems to be much higher, possibly because of the huge difference in styles of storytelling in the two formats. The contained worlds and concise plots of films bear a stark contrast to the sprawling worlds of video games, with stories that often last over 30 hours. Film characters are entirely about emotional depth, which isn’t explored in games.
Harish Iyengar, a gaming podcaster, feels the point of view is a crucial factor: “You always speak of how you did something in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and not what the character did. You have certain expectations. The moment you leave the character in the hands of the filmmaker, it goes on a different tangent.”
For Bhaumik, another concern is the filmmakers’ understanding of the source material. Alone In The Dark and House Of The Dead are two adaptations that were so badly received that they ended up in IMDb’s list of 100 lowest-rated films. Both were directed by Uwe Boll, often criticized for adding elements to films that aren’t true to their source material. His reputation was so bad that Blizzard Entertainment rejected his bid to direct the Warcraft film by saying they would not sell the rights “especially” to him.
Warcraft was eventually directed by Source Code maker Duncan Jones, whose inputs were true to the original game’s source material. That, however, wasn’t enough. The film was deemed a commercial and critical failure, despite earning revenue outside the US. “Warcraft’s main storyline, spread over three games, has many layers, heroes, and betrayals. The movie, even though it only covered the initial plot of the game series, tried to condense too much into its runtime. It started as a promising first movie in a trilogy, but the story fizzled out,” says Raj Das, an avid gamer and digital content creator.
A video-game film that was well-received in the context of its sub-genre was Tron: Legacy. Das feels that this owes primarily to the makers coming up with a whole new story, creating great visuals, and a solid background score — elements that are generally seen in successful franchise films.
This is perhaps also at the core of Detective Pikachu’s success. “I think the film worked because they have devised a completely fresh plot with new characters,” says Iyengar. “There was clearly a conscious decision to not delve too deep into the Pokemon universe, but the essence of the game has been captured. Showing live-action versions of our cute favorites could very well be disastrous, but I believe they did a fantastic job adapting that as well,” he adds.
Comparisons with the awe-inspiring success of comic book cinema are unavoidable. However, even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is only loosely inspired by the comics. The last two Avengers films — which received wide acclaim — are entirely about Thanos’ goal to “fix” overpopulation. This isn’t the character’s motive in the comics and the makers have taken liberties to adapt the source material to today’s socio-political realities.
Perhaps the success of Detective Pikachu will highlight what was lacking in video-game cinema so far: true adaptation. Capturing the essence of a game without confusing viewers with too many details might be the way forward for the sub-genre.
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