Wanna hear a joke? Dragonball, the Movie.
For some reason live action video game movies and live action anime/cartoon movies have this tendency to be in a word… Garbage. Using a do and plenty of don’ts as examples here are a few tips to making a good adaptation of the live action variety.
1. Present a movie that has the spirit of the source material
Rule Breaker: The Last Airbender
This is the cardinal rule. While there is “material to cover”, you have to do it in a way where it’s not just a laundry list of plot points. In the horrible adaptation of the first leg of Avatar: The Last Airbender (infuriating casting aside), instead of a movie we have Katara’s narration about summarizing what happened instead of well, a movie. The other part of the criteria is capturing the spirit of the adaptation. When I saw a dark movie where Aang didn’t smile, I knew this couldn’t be Avatar at all. The ironic part is that M. Night said that he wanted to do a movie about the Earth Kingdom arc that was even darker than the first film. Given the nature of Book 2, that would not make the movie dark but pitch black instead, already an improvement. The sad part about this criteria is that one can be very lenient with it, so messing up something like tone and atmosphere is not a minor nitpick.
2. Know how to improvise appropriately
Rule Breakers: Michael Bay’s Transformers (All three of them)
It’s not that hard to do a movie about the Transformers toy line, really. It’s very clean-cut when you have two factions of robots in disguise, and fine, if you wanna redesign them to look more realistic with all those gears and complex transformations, go for it dude. But putting in a human character subplot that winds up becoming the plot all about some cliche of getting the girl kind of makes you wonder why Optimus is there at all (yes, sorry meatheads, this writer doesn’t think Megan Fox is that hot so to save a mediocre movie). Throw in some nonsense Soldier A and his commanding officer Lieutenant A are doing in protecting irrelevant human teenage boy and you’ve got “Generic love story: how to be popular during a robot war”.
Improvising is fine as long as it’s done correctly. New movie Autobots or Decepticons would have been OK. The then brand-new Rodimus Prime doesn’t steal the series’ spirit in the original Transformers film but advances it in a movie that while is still about a war for Cybertron, continues to provide fond memories. Think of it this way, I’d rather have a Death Note film about the notebook falling in some American city in an all-original story with a new original psychopath improvised than a shoddy one where the shinigami are now aliens and everything explodes.
3. Only the prime cut
Example: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: The Movie
Now here’s a positive example finally! So you adhered to the spirit of what you’re adapting and you took liberties with integrity, now we can get past all the mistakes fans and film buffs alike thought were too obvious to make and get to the real challenge. Unlike your 26 or even 52 episode layout, you only have a little over an hour and a half or if you’re lucky, two hours to “cover” your source material. So for the last tip, show what’s most important to show. In the Phoenix Wright movie, out of the five cases in the first game we get the majority of the time dedicated to a bit of exposition in the first case to lay down exposition and then take us through the cases concerning the DL-6 incident, which was the major point of the first game. The in-between cases and the last one with Ema Skye took a sideline to rather display Phoenix’s major showdown with Manfred Von Karma. Miike took liberties where needed to further bridge the DL-6 case together, but it only served to further illuminate the central fight, an act of storytelling rather than “covering” or summarizing.
Actually, this movie is an example of the video-game movie done right. While a bit dark, thanks to Takashi Miike, it still has that silly and absurd tone where you just accept it all. Not to mention casting is very strong and the actors slip into their roles like a well-worn shoe. So with a strong setup we get the need-to-know as the major story, but with a few nice tidbits here and there. Keep an eye out in the crowd and at the end for familiar faces, fans! Having attended the US premiere a couple weeks back, this film is a must-see for Ace Attorney fans and I hear it will be played at New York Comic Con this fall.
And that, readers, is bit on three almost common-sense tips we seem to send to filmmakers every time. A vide0 game movie could be good, but only if it actually tries to be good. Well, join me next time when I produce Naruto: The Movie, featuring Souja Boy as Naruto.
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