In his new book, Lights, Camera, Game Over: How Video Game Movies Get Made (out now via Schiffer Publishing), writer Luke Owen tackles a diverse array of film adaptations. From 1993’s Super Mario Bros., all the way through 2015’s Adam Sandler vehicle, Pixels, it’s a remarkable set of tales. Owen, the deputy editor for the UK pop culture site, Flickering Myth, works mostly chronologically, telling the story of each game in its own, mostly self-contained chapter.
The self-containment works nicely, in that you can jump around and look at the games and/or films that interest you most, if you’re so inclined, but reading Lights, Camera, Game Over! cover-to-cover will also provide a few through-lines which help flesh out a larger narrative. The success or failure of each adaptation influences those which come after, and it’s strange to see that one book by a podcaster demonstrates so definitively what dozens of executives couldn’t figure out.
What Owen’s book makes clear is that there are a few big things which make producing a film adaptation of a video game property difficult. Firstly, there’s the friction between the studio producing the movie and the game studio which created the property. One wants to make money, the other wants to make sure that their creativity and years of work isn’t undone in 90 minutes of screen time.
This results in the second issue, which is that initial screenplays or story ideas are frequently received with adoration and fanfare from those who encounter them, only to be turned into something else entirely through a series of rewrites. That’s the “at best” scenario, too: so many films change scripts, directors, stars, and budgets that the end product is drastically different from the initial announcement.
The money is the final flaw. Films don’t get a good budget, because nobody wants to risk too much money on something about which they’re unsure. Thus, the film sees a series of compromises, which change the game into something very different — Street Fighter becoming not a fighting tournament, but something more akin to a G.I. Joe storyline, for example. Because the story’s different, nobody goes to the movie, which means it doesn’t make money, which means the next adaptation doesn’t get money, and so on in a cycle of kind of always being sub-par.
There are, obviously, some successes. The Resident Evil series takes up a large portion of the book, due to its length and massive success, but even those films aren’t without their critics, both fans and professional. It results in Lights, Camera, Game Over! being a series of depressing stories in which, occasionally, people manage to create something which people enjoy.
While the author does speak about direct-to-video, animated, or online series, the stories Owens covers are strictly big-screen adaptations — at least initially. Props to him for being able to track down and speak with so many of the people involved, as well as finding some great contemporaneous articles from which to pull, in that any one of the chapters in Lights, Camera, Game Over! would make for an excellent magazine feature. As a book, it’s definitely an intriguing read, and should appeal to both video game fans and those interested in a deep behind-the-scenes look at the film industry.
Lights, Camera, Game Over! is available in trade paperback from Schiffer Publishing.