Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
Games Discussed: Street Fighter: The Movie (Video Game: Capcom, 1995) || Films Discussed: Super Mario Bros. (Buena Vista Pictures, 1993), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Sony Pictures, 2001), Detective Pikachu (Warner Bros, 2019), Sonic the Hedgehog (Paramount, 2020), || Television Shows Discussed: Pokémon (4Kids Entertainment, 1998), Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (DIC, 1993), Castlevania (Netflix, 2017), The Witcher (Netflix, 2019)
In the age of multi-billion-dollar media franchises and cinematic universes, adaptations play a more important role than ever in the entertainment industry. In the arts, an adaptation is when a creative work is modified for a different medium, whether it be from novel to film, television show to video game, or video game to film (and back to video game, as was the case with Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game (Capcom, 1995) ). Although adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years, the adaptation process is complex and depends on several factors. Writers who intend to adapt a work must meet the needs of the new medium and the target audience while remaining faithful enough to the source material to please its fans. Those who fail to satisfy these requirements may find audiences resent the adaptation, but those who succeed can bring a beloved story to a new generation of fans.
Video games have a long and troubled history with adaptations. Legendary box-office bombs like Super Mario Bros. (Buena Vista Pictures, 1993) and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Sony Pictures, 2001)1 scared off audiences and filmmakers for years, resulting in a shortage of quality video game adaptations for the big screen. Televised cartoons like Pokémon (4Kids Entertainment, 1998) and Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (DIC and 1993) fared far better, as they were specifically targeted at younger audiences. It was only once the generation that grew up playing games reached adulthood that video game adaptations found mass appeal, as proven by the recent successes Detective Pikachu (Warner Bros., 2019) and Sonic the Hedgehog (Paramount, 2020), as well as streaming series like Castlevania (Netflix, 2017) and The Witcher (Netflix, 2019)2. These adaptations succeeded where previous attempts failed for various reasons, but they all shared the same positive qualities: respect for the medium and the audience.
The Medium is the Message
Games Discussed: The Witcher (Series, CD Projekt Red, 2007) || Books Discussed: The Witcher (Series, Andrzej Sapkowski, 1986) || Television Shows Discussed: The Witcher (Series, Netflix, 2019)
Alfred Hitchcock was famous for having said: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”3 While the origins of this quote are up for debate4, it succinctly describes the specific needs of the medium. Every storytelling method has its own requirements, mostly based on when, where, and how people experience the story. Novels take many hours to read, resulting in chapters and section separations. Plays are limited by the size of the stage, so settings can’t be too elaborate. Until recently, television shows were broadcast on strict schedules, so shows were written in twenty-two-minute blocks with act breaks for commercials. When adapting stories from one medium to another, writers must be aware of these differences in timing and scope, along with numerous other smaller differences that can have a big impact on the finished product. Otherwise, the finished adaption will fail to live up to its potential.
As an interactive medium, the video game is a uniquely tricky source for adaptation. Unlike static films, novels, and plays, video games emphasize the players’ actions and decisions. Super Mario Bros. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto expanded on this discrepancy in a 1997 interview, saying: “Movies are a much more passive medium, where the movie itself is telling a story and you, as the viewer, are relaxing and taking that in passively. Whereas video games are a much more active medium where you are playing along with the story.”5 Developers who attempt to adapt static works into video games will sometimes insert player choices that weren’t in the original story, potentially resulting in new and different outcomes. Conversely, writers who adapt game stories for static media typically choose a single branch for their adaptation. These decisions can completely change the way the audience perceives the story as a whole, for better or for worse.
Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher book series has an interesting history of adaptations, as it has been reworked as both a video game franchise and as a Netflix series. With each adaptation, writers and developers had to consider the medium when deciding how to tell the story. In Sapkowski’s series, the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is a supernaturally-gifted beast hunter who often laments that humans are the most terrible monsters of all. As a result, he prefers not to kill beasts unless they’re a direct threat to others. When game developers CD Projekt Red adapted the series into a video game, they gave players the option to violate Geralt’s moral code when they felt the situation called for it6, which led to a more dynamic experience. Years later, Netflix restored Geralt’s code for the static medium, but they also took liberties with the chronology of events to fit the hour-long episodes. These changes, while not strictly faithful to the original work, fit the needs of the medium, resulting in adaptations that still captured the spirit of the narrative.
Know Your Audience
Film Discussed: Super Mario Bros. (Buena Vista Pictures, 1993)
Over the centuries, artists across fields and genres have said that they write for an audience of one: themselves. While this method has its merits, those who seek to adapt a story from one format to another should remember that they already have an audience: fans of the original. For older works, such as classic novels or early films, the first fans (and the creators) may have passed on, but modern works may have passionate fanbases and creators with strong opinions about different aspects of the work. Since video games are a relatively new medium, both the original fans and creators play an essential role in dictating the nature of the adaptation. For example, it might make sense to cut a character from a story from a purely technical perspective, but cutting that character could result in backlash from the fanbase. Likewise, shifting the tone to appeal to a different age group could alienate the original fans—a gamble that relies on a new fanbase outgrowing the old. Adaptations have grown in popularity in large part because of the perceived safety of the built-in audience, so writers who intend to make potentially alienating changes to the source material may be better off writing an original work for an audience of one.
The history of video game adaptations is full of audience-alienating decisions, but none may be as great as the tonal shift in the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie. According to GameInformer’s retrospective on the film’s production, “Mario’s Film Folly: The True Story Behind Hollywood’s Biggest Gaming Blunder,”7 the writers decided to take the film in a darker direction as a way to appeal to early 90’s parents who had a low opinion of video games. “I wanted the film to be more sophisticated,” said Rocky Morton, co-director with Annabel Jankel. “I wanted parents to really get into it.” The studio did not share their sentiments, as they wanted a kid-friendly movie that appealed to the franchise’s original audience, and the multiple rounds of revision that followed resulted in a disjointed amalgam of cyberpunk and slapstick that alienated both potential audiences. While production was plagued with countless other problems, including budget constraints, casting issues, and on-set accidents, the disregard for the original audience will be forever remembered as one of the film’s most damning issues.
Adapting an original work for a different medium is a tricky business, one that requires intimate knowledge of both the medium and the audience. As juggernaut franchises and streaming services drive the rise in video game adaptations, writers face new and interesting challenges in translating the material. Writers who wish to work on video game adaptations should be aware of both the successes and the failures that have come before and learn what they did well and where they dropped the ball.
Narrative Analysis: Dialogue
How characters express themselves, using spoken or written words.
Tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme, as well as the source of mood and atmosphere.
Narrative Analysis: Subplots and Side Stories
Subplots and side stories add depth to narratives by expanding the world while emphasizing themes and playing with tone.
1 Acuna, Kirsten. “12 Video Game Movies That Bombed At The Box Office.” Business Insider, 2014.
2 Moreau, Jordan, David Viramontes, and Alyssa Mora. “Best Video Game Movies and TV Shows.” Variety, 2021.
3,4 “It Was Shaw Who Advised Young Playwrights To Gear the Length of Each Act To the Endurance of the Human Bladder.” Quote Investigator, 2019.
5 “Miyamoto: The Interview“. Edge Magazine. November 27, 2007. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved August 9, 2010.
6 Lobato, Daniel. “The Witcher: 10 Biggest Differences Between Geralt In The Books And The Game.” TheGamer, 2020.
7 Reeves, Ben. “Mario’s Film Folly: The True Story Behind Hollywood’s Biggest Gaming Blunder.” GameInformer, 2021.