The Rise of Video Game Film Adaptations

Inspired by the unprecedented success of Netflix's The Witcher series, a quick overview of film adaptations for video games and their rise to prominence. What has been the driving force behind this? And what can this mean for the future of gaming? With the upcoming 25th anniversary of the original Mortal Kombat movie, what better time to read up on game-to-film history?

The Rise of Video Game Film Adaptations Cover

Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros, and other heavy hitters in the film industry are throwing huge amounts of money into video game film adaptations. Seeing that the video game industry is now bigger than the film and music industries combined, who can blame them? It hasn’t always been this way though. There was a time when the idea seemed absurd, when doing such a thing nearly guaranteed failure and monetary loss.

Early Attempts

Video game movies and TV series are by no means a new phenomenon. They can be traced back to 1993, to the release of the Super Mario Bros movie. With uncanny, tiny headed goombas and an edgy tone with little reminiscence to the actual game, it was no surprise that the live action film failed miserably. In an interview with the Guardian, English actor Bob Hopkins, who starred as Mario, claimed it was “The worst thing [he] ever did.”

A year later this movie was followed by an attempt at adapting the then-popular Double Dragon, which performed significantly worse monetarily than its plumbing predecessor. Notably, contemporary reviews of the movie often praise it for its nostalgia-inducing properties, while Super Mario Bros sees nothing of the like. Later that same year, Universal Pictures released their own take on the Street Fighter franchise. In this case, the film was not considered a complete flop, but its reception was mixed at best. These movies created an overwhelmingly bad precedent for game-to-film adaptations.

Street Fighter Official Trailer #1 - Jean-Claude Van Damme Movie (1994) HD

Proof of Koncept

However, it was undeniable that gaming had become a massive industry, and film production companies saw this as a potential gold mine. They hoped to capitalize on the pre-established fan-bases of the various franchises despite the relative failure of previous adaptations. Luckily, the future held some surprises. The first video game movie that could realistically be considered a success was 1995’s Mortal Kombat. Despite mixed critical reviews, the action-packed film was appreciated by fans and popularized the idea of video game movies. Personally, I found it to be the only movie mentioned so far which was worthy of being watched in its entirety. Despite being used to the high-budget action sequences of the biggest modern movies, I was excited to see the film’s martial arts showcases and the enactment of each character’s signature moves.

Nonetheless, for more than a decade later, the misses of game-to-film conversions greatly outnumbered the hits. Titles like Doom, Silent Hill, Far Cry, and Hitman received no success in their theater debuts. The only franchises seeing favorable results in the box office were Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. Overall, “video game movies” seemed to be synonymous with “low quality movies.” That is, until more recently…

Screenshot from Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest entry in the franchise that inspired the films.

Screenshot from Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest entry in the franchise that inspired the films.

Time for Change

Disney’s release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) brought a new era for video games in film. It became normal to see these reach well over $200 million in the worldwide box office, with Resident Evil: Afterlife ($300 million), Warcraft ($439 million), and Rampage ($428 million) being among the highest grossing. Ironically, all of these movies, with the exception of Resident Evil: Afterlife, were considered flops where profit was concerned. Film production studios dedicated larger sums of money to the movies’ budgets, making it harder for them to break even. For reference, the original Mortal Kombat movie had an $18 million budget, whereas 2018’s Rampage was provided $120 million. When adjusted for inflation, Mortal Kombat‘s $18 million would have a value of just under $30 million in 2018. Gaming was becoming bigger, so large investments seemed more reasonable.

Today, we see intellectual properties like Detective Pikachu and The Witcher dominating in the film industry. As seen with Netflix’s The Witcher series, this will most likely further the growth of both industries. Gamers will find incentive to follow their favorite franchises to theaters and TV, while movies and TV series provide free advertisement for games.

As promised, here’s a list of upcoming video game film adaptations for when your thumbs need a break:

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NoOneSpecific

To be fair, while Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat etc, were clearly inspired by video games, The Witcher took it’s lead and inspiration from the series of BOOKS which also inspired the games.

Or did you not know that?

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