Adapting the Adapted: an Exercise in Insanity

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm
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Can a man consider what it is to turn a video game into a movie and not lose his mind?

If you were ever six years old (and most of you have been at one point), you've played the game Telephone. This is an important game that reveals to each participating child whether they are boring, deaf, or an asshole. Everyone sits in a circle, and a message is passed around the group by each kid whispering to their neighbor. The boring kids will pass the message on dutifully ("Mr. Reynolds looks like my grandpa."). The deaf kids will garble the message unintentionally ("Mr. Reynolds shook Mike's lamp. Ha!"). The asshole kids will pass on whatever they god damn feel like ("Mr. Reynolds kisses donkeys all day long!").

The same basic Telephone archetypes apply to people adapting a work of art from one medium to another. Sometimes the original vision will be preserved faithfully. Sometimes it will be somewhat distorted or marred in adapted form, despite good intentions on the part of the creative team. And sometimes the original vision will be so horribly disfigured by that process of adaptation, so mutilated beyond any bit of its former self, that you have to wonder if somebody somewhere is just having a laugh.

But I realize that a lot of times I don't appreciate how tough it is to take a story meant for a completely different form and make it work in a foreign medium. Maybe it's not that people don't get it or don't care; maybe it's just really, really hard. I feel like this is a point I don't instinctively grasp.

Which is why I came up with this exercise:

What better way to really distill what makes adapting video games difficult than forcing myself to adapt the same source material over and over? So, to better understand how challenging it is to switch a story from one medium to another, I've decided to theorize about what would happen if Super Mario Bros. was repeatedly adapted from game to movie and back again, on infinite loop.

Interested? Follow me! Frightened? Me too! Confused? You're about to be more confused!

We'll begin with reality.

ROUND 1

Super Mario Bros. (1985 game)

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The original. Twin plumbers race through a land that is both cheerily bright and unfailingly hostile. Their objective: rescue a princess from an evil reptile. Mushrooms abound. A video game classic.

This led to...

Super Mario Bros. (1993 film)

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Since one-sentence plot-lines don't exactly lend themselves naturally to full-length movies, the people who made Super Mario Bros. into a film decided that they would need to make one up. The story they came up with involved dimensional rifts, cute NYU archaeology students, a lascivious Dennis Hopper, and a magical crystal. The tone ranges from goofy and insubstantial to surreal and dark.


Script Excerpt:

____

MARIO and LUIGI have taken IGGY and SPIKE captive.

LUIGI
Now, where's Daisy?

SPIKE
No, no, no. Where's the rock, scaliwag?

LUIGI
Where's Daisy, BUTT-BREATH?

IGGY
Where's the rock, overweening rogue?

LUIGI
Where's Daisy, BISCUIT-HEAD?

SPIKE
Where's-

MARIO
SHUT UP!
___

In short, it was, as lead actor Bob Hoskins said years later, "a fuckin' nightmare."


Conclusions from ROUND 1:

Early video games could exist in a relative plot vacuum. Movies have a more difficult time with this. To compensate, this adaptation inserted a quite detailed plot that was only loosely connected to Mario lore.

Now here's where things get a little funky. I'm going to imagine what it would be like if they adapted the Super Mario Bros. film back into a video game.


ROUND 2

Super Mario Bros: The Movie: The Game 64 (fictional 1997 game)

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Yoshi uses the movie's de-evolution gun to melt enemies into primordial ooze.

From the packaging:

"Combining the madcap nonsense of the film with the awesome power of Nintendo's N64 console, experience the adventure of the movie in a whole new way! New features include Princess Peach as a playable character in a level where you have to get away from a horny Dennis Hopper / Bowser. Another highlight is the advanced graphics on the hairdos -- since the movie's main way of indicating that a character is a bad guy is giving them ludicrous hair, the video game makes sure to render these hairdos in full, lush 64-bit graphics.

But the main story of the game centers around Yoshi. In earlier video games, Yoshi was an adorable little dinosaur that acted as Mario's mount. In the movie, he was a sort of cute, slightly terrifying creature that kind of looked like he was about to spit acid in Wayne Knight's face. Control Yoshi as he escapes from Dennis Hopper / Bowser's lair by viciously mauling everyone in sight!"

And this would lead to:

Yoshi 2000 (fictional 2000 film)

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Yoshi goes on a date in a scene from Yoshi 2000.

With Yoshi as the breakout star of the franchise, movie executives seize on the character as a sort of a dinosaur / Bart Simpson hybrid. He's cool, he's rude, and he's full of Cretaceous 'tude! The film focuses on Yoshi's attempts to find the bones of his parents, currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History, and cremate them in accordance with their dino-will. Yoshi's voice is provided by Tom Kenny.


Script Excerpt:

___

YOSHI is at a swanky midtown New York restaurant.

WAITER
I am sorry monsieur, we must ask you not to eat other patrons and spit them out as fireballs.

YOSHI
Hey, bub! My table manners are pretty good -- circa 80 million BC!

Rob Schneider enters as TOAD.

TOAD
Hey Yosh, let's split! Somebody just tried to cut up my head and put it on his steak! Yeeeeesh!
___

The film opened to mixed reviews.


Conclusions from ROUND 2:

Video games and movies alike are very good at isolating popular characters in franchises. Sometimes they do interesting things with these characters; other times, given total freedom and lacking the context of the original story, these characters become stale and desperate.

Wow, I can already see why video games never get made into movies! It's really hard!

I think I've got one more in me...


ROUND 3: THE RECKONING

SMB: Origins (ultra-fictional 2004 video game)

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After repeated attempts to turn Yoshi 2000 into a viable game, developers decided that the entire franchise had become diluted beyond recognition. They decided that the best course of action was to return to the basic idea of the series -- two resourceful Italian plumbers deal with a kidnapping that hits close to home.

This GameCube title features Mario in a red and blue overcoat with a hammer and zero patience for bullshit. As a spin on the original game's mechanics, whenever Mario eats a mushroom he gains ten pounds of muscle mass. The game requires both basic platforming skills and a desire for justice that borders on sociopathic.

And this would lead to...

Mario Payne (ultra-fictional 2009 movie)

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This summer: Gandolfini IS Mario

Concocted by locking five subpar screenwriters in a room with all existing video game consoles and a mountain of cocaine, Mario Payne is a crossover movie where Mario and Max Payne become friends and violently investigate a drug-related conspiracy. The film's producers blackmailed James Gandolfini into accepting the role of Mario, with Mark Wahlberg reprising his role as Max Payne.

Script Excerpt:

[Note: this script is charred around the edges, as if someone tried to burn it.]

___

MARIO and MAX confront BOWSER in a warehouse.

BOWSER
I needed test subjects for my new drug, Koopa-Valkyr! So I took your wife, Payne! And I took your princess, Mario!

MAX
Let's finish this, Mario.

MARIO
SO LONG, KING BOWSER!

Mario produces a machine gun from his overalls and begins to fire.
___


Conclusions from ROUND 3:

I wouldn't recommend trying this exercise on your own, reader. I thought I was fully prepared to face this, and yet it took a heavy toll on me. Now I understand why the backs of so many great series have been broken upon the rock of adaptation.


Aaron Matteson writes a weekly column for Joystick Division called Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000. You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.

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