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How Hollywood Should Adapt Videogames

The lessons of Russell Crowe

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Insatiable film fiend David Valjalo stops by to offer his musings on adapting the unadaptables – how Hollywood has its work cut out for it, what we can read into the studios and production houses attached to silver screen versions of Deus Ex, Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, formalist vs realist styles, the need to make 20-hour, splintered narratives conform to the three-act structure, why auteur directors aren’t the solution we might think they are, and why Russell Crowe is abstractly key to getting game to film right.
With Brit thesp Tom Hardy now officially up a tree with Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher, S-T-E-A-L-T-H-I-N-G, Michael “Best-Thing-About-Whatever-He’s-In” Fassbender long attached to an Assassin’s Creed film and the writers of Sinister (in which Ethan Hawke wears a seriously scary pair of specs) officially tackling the monumental challenge of bringing Deus Ex: Human Revolution to the silver/big/digital/movie screen, the smell of machine heat is clearly wafting through the Hollywood hills along with all that tanning oil and smog.

Critics are prophesying that game properties will soon replace comic book heroes as the go-to source material for this decade’s new wave of blockbusters. It’s easy to understand why: both have had similarly rocky trajectories that may finally be about to level out, with Marvel adaptations in the 90s a shambolic series of underdeveloped, under-produced embarrassments that almost make videogames’ equivalent – the Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson travesties, look good. Almost.

What’s harder to understand is how Hollywood’s pen-pushers and cigar-chomping producers are going to guide our treasured series to the cinema with their dignity intact or, at the very least, in an interesting I’d-pay-Odeon-prices-for-that sort of way. And that’s where this feature comes in as you journey with me as I, bestowed with the power of a film degree, the instincts of an amateur screenwriter and the pretentious gusto of a broadsheet critic, attempt to dissect and discuss the ways games could (should!) be taken from their cribs and nurtured into cinematic colossi. Oh, and how Russell Crowe is quite integral to it all.

You’re probably still reading because of the line about Russell Crowe, and we’ll get to that (there are some pictures of him below if you want a quick hit, then hurry up back), but now I’ve got you let’s address the fundamentals of what needs to be considered regarding an adaptation of game IP for the movies.

Plot And Structure

The obvious first stop is the Aristotelian three-act structure. Mainstream Hollywood, during its Golden Age studio heyday at least, has adopted the beginning, middle, end structure – quite often cleanly split into three half-hour chunks, but post-millennium (and Michael Bay) tradition seems obsessed with forcing us to sit in the dark for closer to the three hour mark. This classical structure, as with much of early American cinema, is very much informed by the theatre (the theatre being another extension of Aristotle’s theory on plot with its roots in and debt to Greek tragedy); a medium which has influenced film more than many are aware. A fascinating theory on theatre’s transition and relationship to cinema is that film stepped in when theatre reached the limits of its powers to imitate life.

In his seminal 1934 essay, Through Theatre To Cinema, Sergei Eisenstein pinpoints the exact moment he saw this happen – when a 1923-24 production of Tretiakov’s Gas Masks, a play about a gas factory that was staged in a real gas factory, fell on its creative arse due to the conflict of setting and content: “…the plastic charm of reality in the factory became so strong that the element of actuality rose with fresh strength – took things into its own hands – and finally had to leave an art where it could not command,” says Eisenstein,”thereby bringing us to the brink of cinema.”  

Eistenstein

Cinema stepped in as the more capable playground for writers and director’s ideas and visions. And now, I’d like to argue in a teeny tangent, games are stepping in to takeover where science fiction film and movie visual effects have reached their own limits. The most recent decade, in a trend seemingly set to continue with films like After Earth and Oblivion next year, has seen movie sci-fi hit a wall. The action set-pieces are increasingly uninspired, the worlds unimaginative – and now undeniably derivative of gaming’s futures which have, for the most part, taken their own cues from classic SF novels  – and the gap between the effects on our monitors and those on movie screens is closing in fast. To the point that games have a greater cohesion than film, a greater sense of place and offer deliver far more bang for your buck. Games still lack a certain emotional resonance at the best of times, but it won’t be long before that changes, too, and games will tower above their cinematic equivalents not just in the financial realm but the dramatic, too.

The problem with the three act issue is that most games simply don’t have three acts. Many, especially for us PC purveyors and purists, and certainly for those titles going through the green-light process mentioned above, have closer to a dozen acts. Closer to 20 hours’ worth of content; some of it essential, some peripheral to the main story. And herein lies a big problem: we all, as fans and consumers of these properties, hold different strands of them dear. Particularly in a game like Human Revolution: we all have a different journey in Adam Jensen’s shoes. The character may remain Square Enix’s creation, but our moulding of his skills – and therefore arguably his mindset and approach to the world – is unique, player-to-player. Our taking on and discovery of side-quests, distractions and therefore our experience and definition of the game’s world is unique.

So here we have two major stumbling blocks for screenwriters to navigate right off the bat: condensing games into three acts and reducing the myriad strands of game content into the bare, and best, essentials. By “best” I mean the most satisfying both for a wide, new audience and for us veteran fans because, make no mistake, the early cinematic stabs at our beloved game series are going to be reductive in their approach – especially in the first wave of trials and errors. Look at the original, more restrained Sam Raimi Spiderman compared to its balls-out sequel. Look at Brian Singer’s second X-Men film compared to its predecessor. Heck, look at Tim Burton’s first Batman in 1989 compared to the full-goth greatness of Batman Returns.

The first cut in Hollywood isn’t the deepest, it’s the slightest – the litmus test for generating enough cash to make the venture worth it for all those names on the poster under the title “producer” and the mortgages, child support payments, drug habits some of them need to fund.

So what examples should the creative teams channelling our Jensens, Fishers and Ezios into a screenplay look at for precedent and inspiration? Time for the Russell Crowe bit. I’m taking Crowe as the lynchpin here because a) he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world and b) these two films of his should be easily recognised and recalled. Much better than using obscure chiaroscuro-drenched, impossible-to-find Scandinavian relics, right? (Note: If you would prefer obscure chiaroscuro-drenched, impossible-to-find Scandinavian relics as examples, do drop me an email).

Two Russell Crowe films, I firmly believe, hold the key to successful adaptations of game properties, they demonstrate how to successfully perform cinema-surgery on a game and not end up with a bumbling Frankenstein of a film. First up is LA Confidential. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson completed the impossible mission of translating James Ellroy’s 600-page juggernaut of a crime novel into a film with a runtime of just over 2 hours and a clear three-act structure. The screenplay strips bare the plot to its raw essentials, plucks three main characters out of an ensemble of dozens and removes any threads that don’t fuel and inform the story and its themes of trust, ambition and power.

Characters are mercilessly cut out, those with similar traits and purposes are combined, fused together, and the result is a film with the general feel, effect and pummelling pace of the novel. It captures the “essence” of the source material. When the likes of Deus Ex is brought to the big screen, we should be so lucky that its creative team pull off the same trick. Another element of LA Confidential that contributes to this “essence-capturing” is the visual and sound design of the production – but that’s for another column. There’s more Russell Crowe to be discussed.

The second example of the sprawling adaptation done right is Peter Weir’s 2004 film Master And Commander in which Russell Crowe drunkenly sails the seven seas in hot pursuit of the great antagonists of the British, the French, while cramming as many cakes down his gob as he possibly can. A series of 20 and a half novels, made up of hundreds of characters, side-stories, anecdotal moments of hilarity and raw emotion, all squeezed into a film. It slightly defies the three-act rule, but it still feels faithful, comfortable in its runtime and, again, captures the “essence” of its source.

In discussing the adaptation process, Weir says the first that happens when you pick up the books is the words all fall out, which is exactly what will happen when a screenwriter picks up a game: all the characters and memorable moments – some of which will be built into the core game, some of which we as players will have gleaned from it ourselves – will fall out and what’s left is the skeleton of the plot and a gamut of side missions and quests, peripheral characters and incidents, plot points. Which elements of all this content the screenwriter chooses to put back in to the script, which scenes and scenarios they choose to inhabit their movie-verse take on the property, is the most important decision in the whole project. So no pressure.

Both of the above also have another factor in common besides a burly, beardy down-underer starring in them. They both have more than one protagonist and deal in a dual-focus narrative; the mainstay of classical Hollywood film since time… well, since American cinema really blossomed beyond being purely a “cinema of attractions”. Typically, there’s both  a genre and a character focus in a film narrative. In LA Confidential these are 1) Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes’ rise up the ranks and 2) the solving of the murder mystery. In Master And Commander they’re 1) catching and battering the damn French and 2) the development, destruction and repair of the protagonists’ relationship.

This dual-focus juggle is a particularly nifty narrative trick not just because it adds layers to our viewing experience but, in the case of adapting games, because it mirrors how we experience a game directly and beautifully. I’d argue near 80 per cent of videogames are dual-focus experiences as we both develop our own characters and unravel the main genre story.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution we have the augmentation of Adam as our character-driven focus and the plot’s conspiracy plot as the genre focus. In Splinter Cell we have any number of heavily accented threats to world peace (well, world chaos as it stands) as the genre focus and Fisher’s relationship with his daughter often occupying the character-driven space. Assassin’s Creed, however, proves more problematic, hosting two separate dual-focus narratives under one overblown roof of story. We have the story of the hooded hero and we have the story of Desmond, each occupying different eras.

Effectively, Desmond’s scenes offer bold contrast to our assassin’s adventuring, offering a shortcut to and through the traditional hero’s journey as defined and laid out incomparably by the theorist Joseph Campbell (“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”). For a film adaptation I’d wager the screenwriter will need to stretch Desmond’s journey out, make it more intriguing in its own right, rather than pepper it through the narrative. It’s a point that reminds us that what works for game narratives – which are often all about economy and impatience: getting  us right to the action – won’t always work for a film which needs to satisfy the criteria of established industry and historical norms of storytelling.

The right captain

The genius of what Weir and co-writer John Collee did with Master And Commander is they selected the characters and side-stories that lined-up with the core theme of the series as a whole. Patrick O Brian’s novels are about many things, but arguably none more so than friendship, authority and the point at which those two collide. And, crucially, those are the themes that arguably define Weir’s own canon as a filmmaker, from Witness to Dead Poets Society and his recent under-appreciated escape film The Way Back. Which brings me to the second most important choice in the production process: getting the right director for the job.

For Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we want someone whose work is steeped in conspiracy and dystopian futures. Someone who puts corporations under the microscope and knows that technology is a gift and curse equally capable of improving and deriding us. For Splinter Cell we want someone interested in the loneliness of fighting the good fight and how winning on the battlefield often means losing at home. For Assassin’s Creed we want someone who understands that to be a great sleuth in ancient times meant wearing a bright white hoodie that stands out like a sore thumb and pelting around town like you own the place, assured that hiding your forehead will prevent you being identified. What we want, then, is to be able to let directors and writers “be themselves.”

When David O Russell was locked in to direct Mark Wahlberg, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in an adaptation of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, there’s was an outcry because of the way the creative team were going to approach the project (and also, admittedly, because O Russell didn’t have a track-record in the action or adventure genre). O Russell was to make a film about a dysfunctional family, something that alarmed fans and caused people to randomly approach O Russell to demand he hire Nathan Fillion for the lead. But why so dissatisfied? O Russell was just going to do what he does best. He was emptying Uncharted, leaving only the skeleton – as in Weir’s approach – and was going to repopulate it with his own quirky character dynamics, in Naughty Dog’s moulds of course, and keep it all in-tune the patterns of his oeuvre: sharp dialogue, themes of insecurity and a sense of searching  (albeit this time for treasure not emotional or spiritual fulfilment).

Keeping it real. Or not.

Directors come in many shapes and flavours but I’m going to be old-fashioned, cut-throat and draconian, by reducing them down to two camps: the realist and the formalist. The realist camp is defined and defended by the great critic and film theorist Andre Bazin (pictured above). In his essay The Myth Of Total Cinema, he implores that the stages of technical evolution of cinema – from silent, black and white film to sound and technicolour – are part of man’s journey towards a “total cinema”, one that most accurately recreates our objective reality. “The real primitives of the cinema,” he tells us, “existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature. Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented!”  The formalist, conversely, doesn’t care about no stinkin’ reality.

The formalist has an actor point his gun at the screen and lick shots at the audience for the dramatic hell of it (an unforgettable scene in 1903’s Great Train Robbery later lifted by Martin Scorcese in Goodfellas. Many consider The Great Train Robbery to actually inhabit a third sphere of film style – classicism – but I’m defying theory here and putting it under the umbrella of formalism. And what?). The emotive is king for the formalist, the cinema is malleable.

The classic and most heavily/obviously contrasting of realist and formalist directors are Georges Melies and Robert Flaherty. Flaherty made what is largely considered – if you discount the Lumiere’s early screen-testing – the first documentary, Nanook Of The North, in 1922 (though its credibility is often questioned due to the framing of certain shots), while Melies conjured visual magic with A Trip To The Moon way back in 1902 (which, when viewed in the post-Monty Python era looks a lot like one of the Brit troupes’ sketches).

For games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed and, to a lesser extent, Splinter Cell, your snap decision and vote might be to enlist a formalist auteur. These titles, after all, deal in the futuristic and unusual; extraordinary takes on the ordinary and known world we inhabit. So enlist someone keen to manipulate our objective reality then? I think that’s a mistake. A realist can ground the project, add a layer of believability: an out-and-out formalist might alienate newcomers. The box-office slump of Cloud Atlas stateside recently was a stern reminder that full-on formalist filmmaking is still a niche taste that can have mixed results and reactions (Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi’s performance will either seal that deal or reignite interest in formalist filmmaking at the box office).

Apply a realist to seemingly formalist turf – that of imagining the unimaginable, whether set in the past or future and regardless of genre – and you end up with something quite special. You end up with Tarkovsky’s Stalker. You get Scott’s Alien. The reason a realist is so crucial to game adaptations, in the same way that Christopher Nolan was so crucial to reviving interest in Batman after the formalist overload of Batman And Robin, is that they will more rigidly employ and obey the rules of classical Hollywood cinema, opening up the projects for more fans to be converted. Games might still seem subversive to the mainstream and that’s more reason for us to live in hope that we don’t end up with subversive helmers handling these projects. We don’t want Leo Carax or David Lynch, not yet, first we want Paul Greengrass or Steven Soderbergh.

The choice of the Sinister creative team currently chipping away at a Deus Ex adaptation speaks volumes of the uncertainty still riddling the studio handling it. Sinister is in the awkward, often drab and unsatisfying, middle-ground between realist and formalist film (again, some might throw that word “classicism” in here, as Sinister could arguably be part of Hollywood’s neo-classical horror strand, but I’d rather just arrogantly dismiss it). It wants to satisfy all but ends up satisfying none, as many a middle-tier Hollywood production has and will.

The Studio and the producer

Which production company funds your film remains essential to how it’ll turn out. It’s been a fact of filmmaking since the earliest days of the studio-made film. Each studio has an identity defined in large part by its canon of projects (which themselves are in large part often dictated by the personalities at the top of their pay-scale food-chain). Certain studios, at certain times in Hollywood’s lifetime, have dominated, “owned” particular genres. Think id Software and the shooter. Bethesda and the RPG. The same, historically, has been true of film studios and especially the “big five” of the 1930s/Golden Age (RKO, Warner Bros., Fox, Paramount, MGM). We’ve had RKO and the musical (think Fred Astaire’s porcelain white teeth and lightning feet).

Warner Bros. and the gangster flick (think Jimmy Cagney’s cheeky scowl and towering forehead. Oh, and guns, lots of guns). Nowadays the landscape is certainly more fragmented – studios hustle and bustle over the same genre turf as actors are loaned out more freely, film-schedules are more diverse and splintered across a range of outlets (whether it the mulitplex or arthouse circuit) and mediums (from Pay Per View to Netflix to tablets and living-room TVs).

So what does New Regency, the new guardians of Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed projects have going for it? Well, it has distribution locked down in the form of a long-running relationship with Fox/News Corp so a marketing blitz shouldn’t be an issue. More importantly, there are some realist heavyweights in its portfolio including Heat, though there is a worrying amount of middle-tier comedy that defines and rules its oeuvre, too. Ultimately I think there are enough risks on its books – including Fight Club and The Fountain – to make New Regency a credible partner for Ubisoft and home for its heroes. The hiring of The International’s screenwriter, Eric Warren Singer, is also encouraging (an underrated espionage treat with one of the best shootouts in film history. No lie. Go find it.).

Regardless of New Regency’s legacy, regardless, even, of Eric Warren Singer’s involvement, it’ll all come down to the studio heads and producers involved. In Bambi Versus Godzilla, David Mamet explains – and brutally, brilliantly dissects and damns – the studio system’s approach to creative properties. His description of the producer is priceless if sweeping: “The producer is like the getaway driver who sells the getaway car and waits outside the bank grinning about what a great deal he’s made.” So, if anyone out there has any info on which heads are guiding Fisher and Ezio through the production pipeline – their personality, narrative preferences, eating habits – do let me know.

The passive, the active, the future

My final point in this sweeping (fleeting?) look at adapting our beloved series, is the most obvious. Film is a passive medium, more passive even than Eisenstein’s once beloved theatre, and games are active – they require our active engagement, physical participation. When the gap finally closes between science fiction visual effects in the movies and our games – it’s a change that’s certainly coming, the time is near when movie and game assets are interchangeable and shared across film and game studios – it won’t be enough to simply project a narrative, a Team Fortress film, for example, on a cinema screen and expect us to go and see it, irrespective of the voice talent hired, the promotional campaigns. We’ll need something more. Ironically, we’ll need something games can’t do, use or employ: our objective reality. I predict that once the age dawns when film and game studios are exchanging assets with the click of a button, the sending of a package file, there’ll be a movement back to realism, back to humanity and gritty verisimilitude in film as it tries to capitalise on the one aspect it can do better than a computer: people.

I could, of course, be wrong and so to conclude I’d like to invoke the words of screenwriter William Goldman who famously observes that – in terms of predicting what will be a hit and what won’t, as in much of life – “nobody knows anything”.

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