The video game-based movie has had a horrible history, to say the least. In fact, its history is so abysmal that I was convinced that no decent video game-based movie would ever be anything more than a disgusting pile of tripe circling the drain that is creativity. However, Prince of Persia made me more optimistic about the video game-based movie.
Disney's romp into the world of video game-based movies was certainly more graceful than most, and there were plenty of things going for it. In fact, Prince of Persia is one example of how to do a video game-based film right, and there are certainly things directors of future movies based on games should take note of:
You've got everything set up for a movie and all you need to do is make sure that you hire the best actors you can for the job. Thing is, this is something that can make or break a movie, especially when making a game-based movie. Since live-action movies don't have the benefit of simply copying the character model and getting a good voice actor, you have to make sure that the actor you'll hire will look like a convincing real-life version of the character he or she portrays.
In the case of Prince of Persia, Jake Gyllenhaal, despite the obvious issue of him not being Persian, acted out the prince's lofty attitude and charming arrogance quite well. From his interactions with the princess to his attempting to swindle ostrich racers, Gyllenhaal helped make the prince look like a funny, enjoyable character without attempting to make him into a blatant thief. In fact, his performance gave off the same air of Jack Sparrow in which the lead wasn't an angel, but he knew when to make himself look like the good guy and appeal to the audience.
The polar opposite of good casting comes from the Max Payne adaptation, specifically Mila Kunis as Mona Sax.
I've heard people rag on Mark Wahlberg being the worst actor in the film but, after watching it, Kunis is clearly the worst. This is due to some very serious issues: first, you may remember that Kunis is the voice of Meg from Family Guy...and does nothing to disguise that voice. When playing the strong female Mona Sax, the last thing that needs to happen is for the actor playing that character to have the voice of a teenage girl. In the game, Sax had an adult, seductive voice that goes hand-in-hand with the film noir that inspired the games. Kunis, on the other hand, has a voice that would be better suited for a high school flick than anything remotely serious. It's the same kind of effect you get when you try to have Jim Carrey be the lead in a horror movie: it just comes off as funny...sadly, Kunis's performance was far from humorous. Her acting was jarring, considering the source material, and dragged an already seriously flawed movie even further down.
Tip: When creating a game-based movie, always consider the appearance and voice of the actors. We don't want Rip Torn being Duke Nukem.
2. Source Material
If there's one thing about video game-based movie audiences that's consistent, it's their ability to nitpick anything that seems out-of-place from the original source. If you make a single error in the motivations of the characters, types of settings, mood, or dialogue, someone will call you out on that. Since people who have played the game the movie was based on is a good chunk of the audience, a few flaws here and there could prove downright fatal in the box office.
Prince of Persia, as good as it was, did have a few odd mistakes here and there. First, as seen in the picture above, the costume for the prince on the box art is not consistent with the costume in the movie. Instead, Gyllenhaal is wearing the outfit from Warrior Within when the movie has the subtitle Sands of Time. Thankfully, errors like these can be overlooked in the big picture and, since the rest of the movie stayed within the spirit of the game, this was forgivable. The Prince of Persia movie had decent story progression, even with the logical errors that come standard with the concept of time travel. By focusing more on the human aspect of the films while making the fantasy elements toned down in comparison to the original material, the movie moved along at an enjoyable pace and used the instances with the Dagger of Time sparingly to be more like highlights than a regular occurrence.
But what happens when you make too many of these mistakes and let them pile up? Well, you get any Uwe Boll movie, but you also get the Silent Hill movie.
Let me get this out of the way before I go any further: I'm a massive Silent Hill fan. One of the appeals of the games was how the majority of what was being presented was up to interpretation. I've referenced Silent Hill 2 more than a few times in my previous entries, and for good reason: it has one of the best stories I've ever seen in a video game. Gushing praise for the games aside, I applied the same train of thought to the movie. Sadly, that did not turn out well.
The main problem with the Silent Hill movie is how many needless changes were applied to the material. First, the story follows the first game in that a parent is looking for their lost daughter...but for some reason changed Harry into a woman. Second, the monsters were all from Silent Hill 2 (with the exception of the bathroom monster), which made no sense given that those monsters were based off sexual repression and extreme guilt, something that the main character in this movie never, ever hinted to having. Third, the sections with Sean Bean were completely irrelevant and drew away from the feeling of isolation that the games used with gusto. In the end, I was left bewildered by the aforementioned changes and couldn't properly focus on what the movie way trying to convey which took away any terrifying potential it had.
Yes, I know I'm leaving out more popular examples like Boll films and the Resident Evil movie series, but I think those have been ragged on more than enough to let directors know that you don't make game-based movies like that.
It should go without saying, but if you're going to make a movie, put some heart into it. Let the audience know that you actually thought of them without making the whole thing look like a cheap rip-off flick that you wanted to make because you couldn't afford a new jumbo jet. If everyone does their part and the director takes considerable time, thought, and effort into making the end product as polished as possible, then everyone will be more compelled to see it.
Prince of Persia followed this principle more than any other video game-based movie before it. It may be in part to Disney's ability to pump a large budget into the process, but the movie certainly has some soul. The story of the original was followed marvelously, which is more than can be said than any other game-based movie. Every actor, big or small, turned in at least a decent performance. Ben Kingsley, who played the main antagonist, followed his role particularly well by making his character more dynamic than the stock characters that would be under the same umbrella. In all, Prince of Persia cared about the audience and did a legitimately good job in delivering a fantastic game-based movie.
But for every game-based movie that cares, there's a million that don't. Case in point: Alone in the Dark.
Yeah, I said before that Uwe Boll's movies have been ragged on more than enough for their rancid quality to be common knowledge, but Alone in the Dark deserves special attention for being the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel of commonly known game-based movies. I say this with every serious fiber in my body when this is the movie equivalent of Superman for the Nintendo 64.
...Actually, that's a little harsh.
To Superman 64.
This movie can serve as an itemized list of everything that can be done wrong in a game-based movie: Horrible casting (Tara Reid as a scientist), boring characters (Christian Slater utterly phoning it in), complete disregard for the source material, and just about everything else that could go wrong does so in craptacular fashion. I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who had the displeasure of seeing this in theaters, and even moreso for fans of the games. In fact, as a horror game fan, this movie outright offends me. Alone in the Dark was one of the first notable horror games ever...and Boll comes around to take a huge, steaming dump on it.
Honestly, just take a look at this film (I personally don't reccomend doing so) and you'll know everything about what makes a game-based movie horrible. Even the Super Mario Bros. film was better than this. At least it had a stupidly fun quality to it despite all the consistent errors in translating it from game to film.
When your movie makes me look back on the Super Mario Bros. live-action film lovingly while watching yours, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
An interesting quirk of the game-based movie is that, when it's done in CG, the overall quality of the movie is likely to rise. Take, for example, Resident Evil: Degeneration.
Although Prince of Persia didn't utilize CG models, it should be worth noting once more that audiences for game-based movies will be more receptive to the end product if the character looks exactly like their video game counterpart. The easiest way to achieve this is to simply take the character model from the games and place them in the film. Admittedly, this is not a surefire way to make your movie a smash hit with the intended audience (Spirits Within can attest to that) but you will be more likely to have the audience draw a subconscious connection to the games with ease. Once this connection is established, the director will be able to have more room for taking liberties with the property, perhaps even introducing an entirely new scenario.
While the video game-based movie has had its ups and downs over the years, there are gems like Prince of Persia which remind us that the future of this genre isn't entirely desolate. Sure, there are plenty of horrible game-based movies to go around, but directors can make a decent live-action adaptation if they try hard enough and actually try to stay faithful to the source material both in casting and the spirit of what they are drawing from.
Perhaps even making more game-based movies in CG would make audiences more receptive. Only time will tell.
EDIT (3-9-11): Expanded a bit on the Casting and Source Material sections. Also, added an extra bit on CG. Thanks for the comments!