The Rise of Game Adaptations

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Jasmine Liang

Arts & Entertainment Editor

On Oct. 14, content creator Mark Fischbach (“Markiplier”) released the trailer for “Iron Lungon YouTube, a film adaptation of its titular video game, for which he originally made a Let’s Play (LP) for in 2022. He’s set to write, direct, and play the protagonist, while his fellow YouTuber Sean McLoughlin (“Jacksepticeye”) has been cast as the monstrous marine villain. 

“Iron Lung” is just one of many game-to-film adaptations making its way to the screen. The recent release of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie garnered $180 million domestically on its opening weekend, the second highest game adaptation debut, behind only “Super Mario Bros” (2023)

The 2020s have seen major successes for video game adaptations, especially in television. “Arcane,” an adaptation of Riot’s “League of Legends,” won the Outstanding Animated Program Emmy, the first streaming show and game adaptation to do so, alongside three other awards. HBO’s “The Last of Us” (2023) has been nominated for 24 Emmys — the second most nominated show after “Succession” this year. Both shows have received unprecedented positive reception from fans and new audiences alike. 

Historically, video game adaptations have had a poor reputation. A well known superstition called the “video game movie curse” denotes this phenomenon: video game adaptations tend to receive low ratings. The first film adaptation of a game, “Super Mario Bros.” (1993), didn’t even gross half their $48 million budget. In an interview with the Guardian, Bob Hoskins, who played Mario, claimed it was the worst thing he’s ever done. 

10 years ago in a Total Film YouTube video, Edgar Wright — director of “Scott Pilgrim,” “Baby Driver,” and “Last Night in Soho” — commented on the state of game adaptations at the time: “a video game is a sort of a unique experience to you. You are playing the game. And just like watching somebody else play a video game is not fun. It’s not fun watching a video game adaptation.”

But why would studios — and now Markiplier as an independent filmmaker — continue making video game adaptations if they have done so poorly in the past, or worse, if video game adaptations aren’t suited for success? 

The video game industry is valued higher than the film and music industries combined. 79 percent of American consumers play video games — which follows trends from the early 2000s. To Rolling Stone Magazine, “Tomb Raider”’s (2018) director Roar Uthaug admitted, “the IP aspect of it [adaptations]” plays an influence. “It has this built-in audience and it has a name or a character that the general audience have heard about or have a relationship with. So, it’s easier in the marketing for a movie and getting people to see it.”

However, the best of its genre often has other motivations besides the allure of potential profits. The writers of “The Last of Us” (2023) — including the game’s original creator — pitched the idea to HBO “out of love.” “Arcane,” similarly, was a six-year long passion project for two Riot employees who were part of the main characters’ original release in “League of Legends.” Both screenwriters for “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” were D&D superfans themselves. The adaptations that reach critical acclaim have originated from genuine interest in seeing the source translated to the screen.

UC Santa Barbara’s resident adaptation expert, Professor Jim McNamara, told The Bottom Line: “For me, a well-done adaptation is where the creator has analyzed the source with care and detail, found the heart that beats within the source, and then chosen an adaptive strategy that best allows for the heart of the source to be brought creatively to the screen. The resulting adaptation might look quite different from the original source, but there will be a feeling of resonance with it.”

Through this lens, Markiplier’s adaptation of “Iron Lung” is certainly the greatest labor of love. His decision to adapt an inexpensive indie game, self-finance it, and collaborate intimately with the game’s creator proves his dedication to the game. He even turned down a cameo in “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (2023) to continue production.

In fact, the “loyalty” of a video adaptation (the closeness or accuracy compared to the source) seemingly has nothing to do with its success. While the idea of loyalty may entice fans, the real indication of quality is the consideration and respect given to the source material. McNamara even disputes the concept of “loyalty” as a whole: “To suggest that the adaptor owes ‘loyalty’ to a source implies that in some way the adaptor must be circumscribed by a sense of duty or obligation to another piece of art. In turn, this establishes a hierarchy that values source above adaptation which is, I think, a commonly-held but incorrect opinion.”

The trend of video game adaptations is nowhere near its close, especially with the laudation of recent releases that all but guarantees more on the way, with titles like “It Takes Two,” “Minecraft,” and “BioShock” teased online. Audiences can only hope that Hollywood has learned its lesson and game adaptation standards will continue to rise.

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