Adaptations are a tricky sort of work. It’s never known until release whether or not the translation from medium to medium was worth the effort. Many vital details or character traits and pivotal moments can easily be placed on the cutting board when, say, a story is traveling from the realms of a novel to the big screen. No one wants to see their favorite characters bastardized in such a way, especially when a story is adapted, as it reaches a broader audience in doing so. Fans lament that the public views on their favorite stories are forever sullied when one bad film drops and the reviews can’t shoot past the single digits. There isn’t an easy plug-in formula to accomplish such a feat. However, it is possible in the right hands. But what of the problem child of the cinematic adaptation family: the video game adaptation?
Film producers have created the biggest blights on the silver screen since the ’90s with the bar set pretty low after the Super Mario Bros movie released in 1993, and it has fared much better since then. Recently, video game adaptations have attempted to catch up with their contemporaries if the likes of Netflix’s The Witcher and Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog are anything to go by. Sadly, these are just two examples of success out of the copious amounts of projects that cause fans and casuals to react in disgust at the many titles that tried and brutally failed. With the recent news of the Uncharted film and the new castings for the The Last of Us HBO series, a quiet feeling of a terrible storm of missed opportunities seems to be brewing – not one born of low quality, but of redundancy.
Late last year, film production on the upcoming Uncharted movie wrapped up with only the arrival of a concrete release date in sight. The cast and crew do seem solid, as Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake and Mark Wahlberg’s Victor “Sully” Sullivan seem like decent enough renditions of the duo’s early adventures with Venom director Ruben Fleischer at the helm. The hope is that Uncharted will be a fun summer movie, but that’s not the growing concern with the project – it’s the redundancy for the adaptation. Fans and critics for the game series since the first release back in 2007 have consistently lauded each and every title with the same notion: Uncharted gives the experience of playing through a fun summer blockbuster. To make a film of a game that gives the same cinematic quality as a high-budget action movie is, to put it plainly, pointless, as it leaves little to no room to broaden the quality of the travel between mediums.
When a book is adapted, it breathes so much new life into a completely imaginative work of art. Suddenly, your mind’s eye is blessed with a concrete spectacle of what the cinematographer, set, and costume designers envisioned for the film. Characters are given winks and nods from their prose counterparts, but the heart remains the same while introducing a new interpretation of the original design and traits.
Uncharted has some of the most charismatic yet down-to-earth characters, along with some of the most memorable action sequences rendered on the platform. Nolan North’s interpretation of Naughty Dog’s cunning treasure hunter is such a Hollywood-like action hero that putting him to film would only come off as cliché at the least. Drake’s character from there really springs into life when the audience is caught in moments when Drake has to decide between the friends/love interests that save him from his destructive plundering ways and the treasure he seeks. I recently heard a critic describe the storyline as unique because it isn’t a story of a hero rescuing a damsel in distress whilst nabbing a priceless artifact, but one where the damsel saves the hero from self-destruction. As amazing as the action probably will be in the upcoming film, how is it going to capture these hearty moments that ground the story in between the gunfire and explosions? Honestly, the answer is that this seems very unlikely, considering how trendsetting the games have become.
Uncharted isn’t the only Naughty Dog property that houses the same issue, as HBO’s The Last of Us TV series has recently gotten attention for the A-list castings early this year. Everyone’s favorite good single father, Pedro Pascal, has been cast as Joel Miller while Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey is starring as Ellie. Once more, while the cast and showrunners are very capable, the same issue runs through this production, albeit for slightly different reasons. The Last of Us was a landmark entry in the seventh generation of consoles, as it told this brutal yet touching story of finding family in a decaying world. The story is set in a modern-day zombie apocalypse of the fungal variety where weary survivor Joel reluctantly teams up with a teenaged Ellie. Together, they travel through the grueling world of monsters, both inhuman and human, as tragedy surrounds them at every corner.
Throughout the experience, Joel and Ellie become closer as they endure more traumatic hardships, and a difficult decision on Joel’s part becomes increasingly worse the closer they get to their goal. While the idea of having the show air on HBO to maintain the gruesome scenes from the game is promising, it ultimately doesn’t show any promise of being a better, or even a different, interpretation from the 2013 game. The reason why Joel and Ellie’s struggles are so enthralling is that the player feels their experiences the entire runtime. Every bullet fired into a screaming bandit invokes a dirty feeling within the player, as they too feel as conflicted and remorseful as our heroes do trying to survive the ruins of America. This emotional rollercoaster of a story is only enhanced by the fact that it’s all a bunch of polygons interacting with each other. Players felt like Joel and Ellie were so seamless in action and dialogue that they, and even critics at the time, often referred to them as people instead of characters. This piece was only possible thanks to the brilliant writing and award-winning performances of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson bringing the game to life more than a film could hope to accomplish. The Last of Us, and pardon the pun, was a game-changer at release. It will always be remembered as a flagship title that set the bar for game storytelling for the next generation and more to come.
So the question remains: what will these live-action renditions bring to the table that the games haven’t already delivered?
Uncharted and The Last of Us are transcendent of their respective mediums because they elevate the limits on presentation and story so much that a big-budget live-action adaptation of both, regardless of the talent behind and in front of the camera, will sadly pale in comparison to the originals. These adaptations need a hook, something to grab the audience, in order to render the same work with a little spice to at least differentiate between presentations. No studio or team of creatives wants to create an inferior product, but perhaps the bar was set a little too high for the projects selected. It’s much easier and more transformative when it’s an adaptation of a property that has more room for creativity, like Netflix’s Castlevania animated series. The games have razor-thin plots, so many liberties were taken to enhance the stories to be miles more complex than the 8-bit titles. The show still carries the same charm as the games, but enough is added in the translation to make for a uniquely engrossing experience for both fans and newcomers.
Picking at The Last of Us and Uncharted is like trying to add a slew of new spices to an already expertly crafted filet mignon. Adding more to the recipe could ultimately sully the natural flavors carefully crafted for maximum impact. Attempting to perfect a decent, or even bland, recipe can make for a very satisfying meal, but trying to perfect what’s already perfect will sadly result in customers wanting what could have been.
Although I am critical on the subject, I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude for the attempts being made in the game adaptation department. I absolutely love the fact that some of my favorite franchises are getting the mainstream attention these properties deserve. Although adapting something so beloved causes an outcry for quality, it only solidifies the fandom these titles carry. Good or bad, these movies will eventually pave the way for better films and shows to add some conventions to the unconventional for years to come.
Uncharted is slated for an early 2022 release, while HBO’s The Last of Us is pegged for a later 2022 release as well.
Featured image via Gamebyte