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If You Had an Uncle Like Max Payne or Hitman, You Could…

I love video game movies in the same way I love my family: I’ll visit them from time to time, I’ll do my best to enjoy their company and I’ll champion their strengths to outsiders. I also can’t deny that they’ve got a lot of room for improvement. But as I would argue to any outsider, my family hasn’t gotten a fair shake. Yes, the genre has been fairly underwhelming to date, but much of the fault lies with Hollywood and its basic misconceptions about how to adapt this relatively new medium. Do you please the gamers or the moviegoers? Do you follow the game’s plot or the game’s structure? It’s a tricky balance, but here are a few ways Hollywood can keep from embarrassing me at the next reunion.

Learn why fans like the game
Max Payne, the video game, is an eight-hour gunfight occasionally punctuated by dialogue. Max Payne, the movie, is exactly the opposite — a two-hour broodfest filled with ominous imagery and lengthy exposition yet just two super-short battles.You wouldn’t screen Lawrence of Arabia without all the desert scenes, would you? Where’s the bloodlust of the originator?

Ironically, most adaptations based on fighting games have this rule down pat: From Mortal Kombat to Dead or Alive, fighting game flicks are more often a series of increasingly spectacular martial arts face-offs held together by a skimpy three-act structure. They might not win Oscars, but these crowd-pleasers promise gamers exactly what they love: war, war, war.

Create a unique structure
While gamers want to see the game in the movie, you shouldn’t take the idea of faithfulness too far. Silent Hill‘s irritating screenplay has its characters spending most of the movie walking from place to place where they get spooked or almost-killed then move on to do the same thing again. Screenwriter Roger Avary isn’t totally to blame since the majority of video games share this maddeningly repetitive structure. Gamers are used to it; moviegoers are not. This is why Doom, a movie based on one of the first and most popular shooter games ever made, waits until the very end before turning into a beautifully mindless alien bloodbath.

Embrace the complexly amoral protagonist
We gamers may thirst for bloody encounters in our action movies, but that doesn’t mean we don’t find character studies just as compelling. Timothy Olyphant’s Hitman is an avenging, Boondock Saints-esque angel who only kills “bad guys.” Conversely, the Agent 47 of the original game is a borderline-evil killing-machine who has no qualms about snuffing out women, children, or cuddly little animals. (That said, he did accidentally do some good near the end of the second game). One hero is boring; the other is not. Guess which works better in a movie?

So why isn’t anyone doing it? The upcoming Kane and Lynch movie, which we’ve discussed before, could be the first to pull this feat off. It’s mere conjecture at this point, but the potential story of a medicated psychopath and an amoral traitor could be the exact, character-driven shot in the arm we need.

Leave some video games alone
Why, in the name of all that is holy, does the Super Mario Bros. movie exist? Why are there still plans to make a movie based on the Metroid series? Though Hollywood might assume that all video games are created equal, there’s just no excuse for trying to add plot and character development to games that reject such concepts. Let’s make an agreement here: So long as Electronic Arts never tries to turn Citizen Kane into a first-person sledding game, MGM can’t turn The Sims into a big-budget action thriller starring Will Smith and Angelina Jolie.

What do you think Hollywood should do differently where game adaptations are concerned?

Anthony Burch is the features editor for and the co-writer and director of the video series, “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” He’s also working on his first artgame, which should be done sooner or later. Probably later.

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