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The Bad, the Mediocre, and the Good of Video Game Adaptations

Adapting anything from one entertainment medium to another is a tricky task, and it’s no secret that the history of video game adaptations from the console to the big or small screen has been… troubled, to say the least. More often than not, trying to adapt a video game into a show or movie ends in disaster. There are, of course, some rare exceptions, but history shows that nine times out of ten, it’s not even worth bothering. Today I’d like to look at three examples of adaptations, examining what they did right, what they did wrong, and what we can learn from them.

The Bad One: Resident Evil

Alice from Resident Evil kicks a zombie dog in midair.
Ah yes, I’d almost forgotten about the time you ran up a wall and Matrix’d the hell out of a zombie dog in the original Resident Evil.

I know, folks, I know. This series certainly has its fans, what with its over-the-top action and ludicrous plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad. The original movie in the franchise followed the exploits of Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, as she wakes up in a mansion that holds a secret underground laboratory. Special forces come in, there’s an AI that’s hell bent on stopping them for some reason, there are some zombies, and the scariest thing in the movie is its now exceptionally dated CGI.

The Resident Evil franchise as a whole isn’t exactly known for its storytelling, what with every game being loaded with plot holes and leaps in logic that really don’t make much sense, but where they fail in providing coherent yarns they make up for in mood and fun. The first game popularized the survival horror genre, the second game showed the world just how good a video game sequel could be, and the fourth game is, to this day, arguably one of the best horror shooters ever made thanks to its exceptional pacing and precise design. This is to say nothing of its major resurgence in popularity and goodwill thanks to the inventive Resident Evil 7 and solid remakes of the second and third game. It makes sense that such a monumentally popular franchise would have a movie franchise to stand alongside it.

The problem is that the first movie mostly is Resident Evil in name only. It obviously borrows from the first game’s setting in the Spencer mansion, but where the original withheld its mystery until the final act, silly as it was, the movie tells viewers right away that there’s more sci-fi shenanigans going on with its opening, which sees a group of Umbrella employees being killed in an elevator. It doesn’t tease any sort of mystery or buildup of suspense, and before you know it, people are running up walls, dodging over laser beams in a hallway, and kicking shards of glass out of the air into zombie dogs. The action is very reminiscent of The Matrix, which was taking the world by storm at the time.

The thing is that the game series at least waited several installments to become a full-on action game. If you’re adapting the first game in the series, you shouldn’t have your character be able to do all kinds of flips and midair martial arts moves. The whole point of the first entry is that players are supposed to feel limited and vulnerable, and the tension builds slowly as you explore the mansion. It’s such a classic setting that I could see a straight horror adaptation of the games work pretty well if done correctly. Sadly, this movie isn’t that.

But hey, I’m likely talking out of my butt, because the franchise was popular enough to get a total five fairly big budget action movies which also managed to all keep the original’s R rating. People ate it up. And while there’s certainly a guilty pleasure element to watching one of these movies, the fact is that they do not work as adaptations of the games. They share some of the monsters and character names, but that’s about it.

The Mediocre One: Silent Hill

Rose Da Sillva confronts a group of nurses all wielding sharp scalpels.
The movie captures the mood, if not the narrative depth, of its source material.

The Silent Hill games are some of the most cherished horror titles in all of gaming. Or, at least, the second game is, although I hold that the third game is just as good, but in different ways. It’s easy to see why; not only was the second game an absolute landmark stepping stone in how video games tell their stories, but it has some of the most iconic horror visuals and ideas to ever come out of gaming. Pretty much anyone even remotely into horror games knows who Pyramid Head is, and the sexy-but-creepy nurses are just as recognizable. Again, it makes sense that we eventually got a film adaptation of these games, and to me, it’s incredibly flawed but not without merit.

Radha Mitchell plays Rose Da Silva, who brings her daughter to Silent Hill after she repeatedly experiences strange night terrors and sleepwalking episodes. Of course, anyone who knows the games knows that going there is pretty much never a good idea. In the movie version of the story, there is an underground fire that has yet to stop burning, leading to a town wide evacuation and a perpetual fog that never goes away. Rose loses her daughter Sharon as soon as they arrive, and a cop named Cybil Bennett (played by a pre-Walking Dead Laurie Holden, who gives the shaky material her all) joins Rose in her search for her missing daughter partly because of a past case involving a parent taking their kid to the town and throwing them down a mine shaft.

As an adaptation of the first game’s story, it certainly could have been a lot worse. There is still a lot in the script that isn’t completely explained, but it follows the same rough outline of the first game’s plot decently well, even if it does make pointless changes (is it really too much to just change Sharon’s name to Cheryl?). The acting, such as it is, is very hit or miss as well. Radha Mitchell has some parts where she shines, but there are other parts, particularly near the end, where you can tell she had no idea what to do with the clunky dialogue, and it makes the whole buildup to the gruesome finale feel awkward and stilted.

But it’s not without merit. Despite the rocky script, you can tell the people behind the camera gave a damn about capturing the lonely feeling of the games, because they absolutely nail the look and atmosphere of the doomed town. There are tons of small nods that only fans of the games will get (for instance, you can see a sign for Nathan’s drug store at one point) and instead of using an original score, the film makers decided to say screw it and just used music from the games. Which honestly, is probably for the best, because Akira Yamaoka is a phenomenal composer and he is a big reason the games are as beloved as they are. Monsters from the series are used as well, including the infamous Pyramid Head, although that does open a whole other can of worms.

One of the big parts of the appeal to the series is that the monsters are all extremely personal to each game’s protagonist. Pyramid Head is a representation of James Sunderland’s own guilt and repressed feelings of hostility and sexual repression. It’s part of why the figure is so iconic. In the movie, Pyramid Head is…just kind of there to look cool and mess some people up. You could argue that he’s an executioner designed to hunt down those responsible for Alessa Gillespie’s suffering, but it’s never made clear in the movie. The character is mostly just there because it’s such a recognizable visual. And granted, he has one scene in particular where he rips the skin clean from someone’s body that is impossible to unsee.

Still, though, taken as a visual and atmospheric feast, the Silent Hill movie is worth a watch. You have to deal with a lot of mediocrity, mainly in the script, to enjoy it, but it nails the look and feel of the games pretty well, and contains some really startling and effective visuals that are so odd or gruesome that they stick with you. It might miss the point of some of its use of the monsters from the games, but it at least feels like some real passion went into making it and the result is a movie with a weak script that manages to be worthwhile thanks to its visuals and mood.

The less said about its sequel—where Pyramid Head fights a thing with swords for arms—the better. I actually saw it in theaters and it’s an abomination.

The Good One: Castlevania

Dracula cries bloody tears amidst some ruined buildings. His eyes glow red.
There’s no reason a story about defeating Dracula should be as good as this, but here we are.

It’s no small secret that we here at 25YL love the Castlevania series. Johnny Malloy did a whole write up on the first chunk of it, going into exhaustive detail on each game, and I did a compare and contrast between Aria of Sorrow vs Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Konami has pretty much let the IP wallow in its own misery after the failed attempt at a reboot that was Lords of Shadow, and many people thought that was it for the series, that it will always be remembered for ending with a reboot that was largely unwarranted.

It’s why people were cautiously optimistic that Netflix was bringing the series to the small screen in the form of an adult-themed anime. I myself was swept up in the hype, and the day the first season dropped, I made a (failed) experiment of a mixed drink I called Bloody Tears (cranberry juice and red wine-it was mostly just super sweet) and binged all four episodes.

The biggest problem was that there wasn’t enough of the series. The first four episodes established this show as the real deal. A fantastic voice cast consisting of Richard Armitage as Trevor Belmont, James Callis as Alucard, and Alejandra Reynoso as Sypha Belnades, went a long way to giving the series legitimacy, but it wasn’t just great voice acting and beautiful animation that made it work. Acting as an extremely loose adaptation of what many consider to be a high point of the series with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the creative team took a game with an absolutely paper-thin plot and added in all kinds of interesting elements to make the world of the show feel real, well established, and lived in.

The events of the series kick off when Dracula’s wife Lisa is burned at the stake by the church for her sinful ways (which here adds up to her studying Dracula’s collected scientific knowledge to try and help humanity). Dracula, who had given up his violent nature to be with his beloved, snaps and unleashes his swarms on Wallachia. His army of night creatures rips the country side apart, and it soon falls to Trevor, the last of the disgraced Belmont line, and Sypha, who can wield all kinds of magic, to awaken Drac’s son and put a stop to the bloodshed.

The first season was definitely too short, but the second season absolutely delivered on every promise made by the first. It got an expanded 8 episodes, added in a whole host of new characters (including Peter Stormare as Godbrand, a Nordic vampire who is among the funniest characters I’ve ever seen in an animated show), and completed the story arc set up by the first in an emotional, action packed way. There’s a scene in the season’s penultimate episode that might just be my favorite action sequence in any show I’ve seen, and a big reason for that is it brought out the absolutely iconic song from the games Bloody Tears.

I don’t want to spoil too much if you, for some reason, haven’t watched the show, but it absolutely works as a piece of stand alone entertainment. It has sharp writing that veers between tragic and funny, sometimes at the drop of a hat. It has a fantastic cast of characters that expands well into the show’s recent third season (which sets up the future of the series quite nicely). The core trio of Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard are easy to love thanks to their chemistry and interesting personalities. There’s genuinely great writing throughout, making this a standout Dracula story in an era where that should be impossible. It fills in the narrative gaps from the games with fantastic and well realized twists and characters.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give it is that I watched it with my girlfriend, who herself is not a gamer and knew nothing about the games beyond what I told her before watching, and she absolutely fell for it from the first episode. In other words, it understands how to do this kind of story right, and it all adds up to one of the best action/horror/dark fantasy shows in television history.

I’m hoping that this show marks a turning point for video game adaptations. It manages to feel like its source material while forging its own path with its own characters by capturing the gothic atmosphere that make the games so beloved. It shows that, at the end of the day, you can shove recognizable iconography into just about anything and hope that people like it, but what really matters is the writing and creative ideas put into the story. In order for an adaptation of a video game to work, it needs to capture the spirit of the source material while telling its own tale. I just hope other creatives learn that lesson from this show.

Collin Henderson

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.

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