Tybout: Adapting video games for the silver screen a troublesome endeavor

By Andy Tybout

A couple weeks ago, the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” arrived at my suite, and… A couple weeks ago, the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” arrived at my suite, and the television hasn’t been turned off since. The same is true, I’m sure, for millions of formally stable households across the country — kids who used to frolic outside while building character are now building up imaginary kills to purchase the “sentry gun.”

And Hollywood noticed.

Kevin McKidd, the star of the HBO show “Rome,” said discussions are underway for a “Call of Duty” movie adaptation. This news might have caused more excitement, but it came during a time of video game mania, including word that Brad Pitt might be producing an adaptation of the video game “Dark Void,” and “Twilight” producer Wyck Godfrey will produce adaptations of “Gears of War” and “Dead Space.” Throw the upcoming “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” on top of all this, and “Call of Duty” becomes just another face in an ever-increasing crowd.

Given all this video game movie hysteria, one might conclude such adaptations were a grand success story, like those of comics or books. But there’s a difference: There have been good adaptations of the latter two, but Hollywood has yet to come up with a single quality video game movie.

Many have tried. There was “Doom,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and its unfortunate sequel, “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.” There was “Hitman.” There were numerous soul-crushing Uwe Boll movies that will remain unmentioned.

But none were as tragic as acclaimed director Peter Jackson’s attempt. Jackson announced in 2005 that he was planning to produce a “Halo” adaptation. Like his “King Kong” fixation after “Lord of the Rings,” he took the film community a little by surprise — both in the subject itself and in his choice of Neill Blomkamp, a complete unknown, as the director.

The project, perhaps in part because of the public’s lack of enthusiasm, was scrapped. And before you conclude that this was for the best, consider that three years later, Neill Blomkamp released a little sci-fi masterpiece called “District 9.”

But maybe Jackson and company realized something: Video games might be impossible to translate. Video games, unlike books, are superficial entertainment almost by necessity. If players were reminded of the inhumanity of war in the middle of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” they would probably break the game in half. If these games got too deep, they just wouldn’t be fun anymore.

So perhaps because their source material is so strictly compulsive, and because the fan boys would probably work up a fit if the director attempted a bold new direction, video game movies continue to wallow in a pit of mediocrity.

Things may finally be getting better, though. While the name Brad Pitt doesn’t ensure quality, especially as a producer, it’s a promising sign. And “Prince of Persia” is that rare video game movie that actually stars a good actor in Jake Gyllenhaal.

Neither of these films will come out this year, however, so we have ample time to speculate as to their transcendence, or lack thereof, of video game movie convention.

As of now, I’m guardedly optimistic — video games movies don’t have much to show for themselves yet, but there’s more money and, consequently more talent, pouring into their production every week.

Maybe soon we’ll see a movie that overwhelms its source material. Maybe Blomkamp will finally resurrect the restless ghost of the “Halo” movie.

Until that point, though, I’ll stick with my Xbox 360.