It was recently announced that a film adaptation of The Last of Us is on the way, and as expected there has been a mixed response to this news. It’s no secret that movies based on video games have a long history of being quite bad, but as the push on video game to film adaptations continues to grow, it’s only a matter of time before we start getting genuinely good video game movies. The question is, will The Last of Us be the video game film that kicks off a trend of quality like X-Men and Spider-Man did for comic book movies over a decade ago?
The Last of Us movie certainly has the potential to be good, and with people like Sam Raimi attached to the project and the game’s writer, Neil Druckman set to pen the script, it certainly has far more potential in this early stage than most video game movies. However, I contend that The Last of Us is not among games that could benefit from a film adaptation, and in fact even the best possible outcome could never reach the heights of the game. To be clear, I am not one of those people that thinks games shouldn’t ever be made into movies, in fact there are many game franchises I think are perfect fits to transition to the big screen, The Last of Us just isn’t one of them. To understand what makes a video game a good fit for a film adaptation, it’s important to understand just what exactly can be gained from the transition in other mediums as well.
With literature, the benefits of adapting the material to a film are quite obvious. The addition of visuals and audio bring a much more convincing element of realism. Rather than being forced to imagine the events of the story, you can see them unfold before your very eyes in a fashion that is presented somewhat realistically. Of course, there’s always the risk of bringing things to life in a way that conflicts with the way the readers originally imagined, which can color the viewers’ perception of the proceedings. Another common pitfall is the variable length of books and movies, and the fact that often material will need to be cut or changed in order to accommodate the two-three hour length. There is also the issue of actually portraying more outlandish scenarios on screen, which diminishes as special effects improve, but are still nowhere near as unrestrained as written words. Despite issues common to book adaptations, the benefits of being able to see the story brought to life in a way you never could before is a compelling enough reason for them to exist, and there are an abundance of fantastic movies based on literature.
Looking at another medium, movies based on live action television shows don’t have quite the same benefits as those based on books, but there are certainly compelling reasons for those as well. The biggest draw for movies based on television is the added element of scope and production quality over television. The economics of the situation is that movies have much larger budgets than television, so bringing a TV show to the big screen can really amp up the effects, on-location shooting, and overall scale of the production. TV also doesn’t share many of the same pitfalls as literature adaptations, because viewers are already familiar with the way things are supposed to look and sound, and already associate the actors with the characters. Another benefit of TV to film adaptations is that they are usually not adaptations at all, but rather continuations of the events of the show with entirely new stories to tell. Television to film transitions aren’t as common as literature adaptations, but there certainly exist great ones, like the Star Trek films, Serenity, the Mission Impossible series, and many others.
Theatre is probably the best fit for transition to film because it already exists within many of the same constraints as movies, such as the length and the limitations inherent to live action performances. The final medium I’d like to look at before we move on to games is animated television, which is largely similar to live action TV but still quite different. The biggest difference is in regards to the added element of scale, which isn’t as much of an issue as with live action TV. Animated shows have far less constraints imposed due to the nature of animation, so there is less to be gained, and in fact possibly things to be lost, by transitioning to film (especially live action film). Just look at The Last Airbender compared to the original show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The effects were worse, the world less impressive, and the story felt incredibly rushed do to basically having a quarter of the running time as was had for the same story in the animated television series.
Taking this all into consideration, games share many of the same potential issues when being adapted to films that we can see across these other mediums, but few of the benefits. Like books and TV, games have the potential to be quite long, and adapting a story told over the course of 8, 12, 20, or even 40+ hours in a game to a 2 hour movie presents a whole host of challenges. Also like literature, video game movies often struggle to capture the look of the world and characters in live action. Video games often have very distinct visual styles and designs, and many times it’s difficult to re-create that on film. There is also the issue of casting, which is always a challenge when you’re adapting a character that only consists of pixels and, commonly, voice acting. Like animation, video games have far less restrictions on what can be achieved visually compared to live action material, so there isn’t a whole lot to be gained in this department.
So, just what are the potential benefits of adapting video games to film? Well, one of the biggest has been steadily disappearing over the years, and soon won’t really be much of a consideration at all. I’m referring to the cinematic presentation potential of films vs. games, which was once vast. In the days of the first video game movies, it was technologically impossible to tell a cinematic story within a game, and most games didn’t even have voice acting. However, with the ever improving computing power of PCs and consoles, the rise of motion capture, the abundance of quality voice actors at work in the industry, and the increasing emphasis on writing and storytelling, games are now capable of telling and presenting narrative in ways often just as visually engaging as films. With the biggest strength of films seemingly irrelevant, what point is there to adapting games at all?
Well, the most compelling potential for video game movies, for me at least, is the prospect of expanding the story rather than adapting it. If you look at best movies based on TV shows, they are the ones that tell new stories within the original fiction rather than simply re-telling the story everybody already knows, and that is the path I think video game movies need to take. Rather than feeling like a cheap imitation of the original, limited by the running time and constraints of live action, video game movies could compliment the original works by telling new stories that respect the original material. A good example of this is Halo: Forward Unto Dawn. Though originally a web series, it was later released as complete film, and it is one of the best examples of a live action production of a video game property. Rather than re-tell the events of the games, it existed as part of the same universe as the games, telling a story suited to the running time and enriching the fiction rather than watering it down.
Coming back to The Last of Us, there is nothing to be gained from a straight up film adaptation of the game, though that is what the brief description describes the project as being. The Last of Us seems perfect for adaptation on its surface, it is of course a very cinematic game with a strong focus on characters and narrative. However, that is exactly why a movie is pointless, the story has already been told — it would be the equivalent of remaking a masterpiece film only a couple years later. The game’s story wasn’t hindered at all by it being a game, with a phenomenal cinematic presentation, outstanding acting, and perfect pacing that can’t really be done any better in movie form. The story only has the potential to be hindered by the transition, with the game’s 14+ hours and cross country setting presenting significant hurdles for a film. The fact of the matter is that everything that movies do well was already achieved in The Last of Us, so the only potential outcome is a movie failing to capture the elements of The Last of Us that are inherent to video games.
There are lots of game franchises I’d love to see on the big screen, but in most instances I want new stories rather than re-tellings of what already exists. Video games aren’t like books, we can already see the story come to life visually, so there is far less to be gained by adapting them to movies. They also don’t have the same limitations on visual effects and set design that television does, so once again there is less to be gained in the jump to movies. The most enticing potential video game movies for me are ones that explore events or time periods of video game fiction that may not present compelling gameplay, but have interesting stories to tell nonetheless. Some games have more potential for interesting movies than others, but The Last of Us has very little, and a movie that simply re-tells the story could only ever be worse than the game.