From Console to Celluloid: Uwe Boll and the Art of Adapting Video Games for the Big Screen
By Nader Elhefnawy
11 August 2008
Video game-themed films have had a surprisingly long history in Hollywood. Even excluding the many movies about video game makers and players which so often crossed the line between the real and the virtual (like 1982's Tron, 1983's WarGames, 1984's The Last Starfighter and Cloak & Dagger, and 1989's The Wizard), and sticking just with live-action adaptations of actual games, these go back at least to Super Mario Bros. (SMB), which first hit screens fifteen years ago in June 1993. A big-budget, would-be "tentpole" release, SMB was directed by Max Headroom creators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, and starred Bob Hoskins, Samantha Mathis, and Dennis Hopper.
The movie they made together flopped with critics and audiences alike, and in the process set a pattern: one after another, hugely successful, widely loved games were turned into movies which went down in flames, panned by critics, selling disappointingly few tickets, and in general earning a great deal of derision, so that the whole idea is now viewed with a certain cynicism.
Of course, while none of these films has quite achieved the status of pop classic, let alone critical darling, only the harshest reviewer would say that absolutely none of them has made for a passable evening's entertainment. Most can be enjoyed as B-grade action films, with even the silliest (like 1994's Street Fighter) often being bad in an entertaining way.
Additionally, despite all the financial disappointments, it would be inaccurate to say none of them has ever been profitable, or even a blockbuster. The 2001 Angelina Jolie starrer Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, for instance, took in $275 million globally. This is less impressive when compared with the $433 million of The Mummy Returns that same summer, let alone the $870 million of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings a few months after, but still made it the fifteenth highest grossing movie that year, and quickly led to a sequel in 2003—only one of many video game adaptations to do so, the first actually being the 1995 hit Mortal Kombat.
In short, while really spectacular results have remained elusive, the list of attempts was peppered by just enough success to keep the industry taking another shot. Indeed, some filmmakers have practically made careers of video game adaptations, their work generally sustained by limited budgets and moderate expectations. It is on those terms that Paul W. S. Anderson (whose credits also include the cult classic Event Horizon, Blade Runner's "spiritual successor" Soldier, the box office hit Alien vs. Predator, and the upcoming remake Death Race) launched two successful franchises with Mortal Kombat and 2002's Resident Evil (the sequels to which he also produced and wrote). Anderson also has a producer's credit on DOA: Dead or Alive, has been named as the director of the upcoming Spy Hunter movie, and penned a screenplay for the planned Castlevania film.
However, no filmmaker is more closely identified with video game adaptations, or their unfortunate reputation, than Dr. Uwe Boll, whom I interviewed in March this year. Best known for the films House of the Dead (2003), Alone in the Dark (2005), BloodRayne (2006), BloodRayne II: Deliverance (which went straight to video in 2007), and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008), his work has been widely attacked as featuring poor writing and acting, and overall production values sub-par even for a made-for-TV movie (in the first BloodRayne's case, despite a $25 million budget and a big-name cast that included Sir Ben Kingsley). Boll—whom detractors have compared to Ed Wood—has even been accused of having made these movies as a "The Producers-style tax-dodge," exploiting a loophole in the German tax code that lets investors write off any money they put into his films. (Contrary to what his detractors imply, the loophole is by no means obscure, and is routinely used by other filmmakers in the process of producing blockbusters like 2001's Lara Croft. That loophole was also closed in 2005, with the German government switching to a direct subsidy system instead.)
Additionally, while even a failed video game adaptation will often find a cult following among fans of the original game (as I have recently found to be the case with the Super Mario Bros. movie among some members of Generation Y), this does not seem to have been the case with Boll's films. The fans of the original games actually figure prominently among his harshest critics, by and large convinced that he shows no regard for his source material, or for their sensibilities. The most outraged have in fact organized a petition calling for him to stop making films. (As of July 28th, this petition had over 299,000 signatures.)
Dr. Boll has had a great deal to say about those critics, and his reputation. While he has acknowledged some mistakes, telling me during the interview that he took everything he'd learned about storytelling "and then . . . made it all wrong in Alone in the Dark," he also has not shied away from hitting back when he believed he was being treated unfairly—and his comebacks to his detractors get almost as much press as anything else. Like Kevin Smith in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he is merciless toward the anonymous "guys writing all the Internet bullshit about me and sitting in their houses where mommy pays for everything" (as he famously described those who review his films on the Internet Movie Database, where several of Boll's movies rank among the bottom 100 of all time). He has even challenged some of the "Boll-bashers" to a series of boxing matches, the "Maneuver in Vancouver," an event covered in a three-page story in the December 2006 issue of Wired magazine. Most recently, he has responded to the online petition with a video posted on YouTube on April 8 in which he defended his work and called for a "pro-Boll" counter-petition, while trashing Michael Bay, Eli Roth, and George Clooney in the process.
Boll's most flamboyant comments (and actions) may grab all the attention, but the truth is that he has made some valid points. As Boll points out, it is the case that video game adaptations generally are subject to unrealistic expectations. As a matter of course, video games emphasize interactivity and play rather than plot and character, which tend to not only be pretty thin by cinematic standards, but are often hamstrung by the conventions of gameplay, and the technological limits of the gaming platforms. (How, for instance, is one to translate the feel of a 2D "sidescroller" to a three-dimensional world on screen, or base a really compelling screenplay on a game consisting entirely of one-on-one martial arts matches?)
This makes it very difficult to turn even great games into substantial films without ditching or overhauling the source material—something that Boll has never been interested in doing. Contrary to the popular view, Boll's longtime position has been that rather than just borrowing a few character names and concepts to make something else, such films should be faithful to the source material, which means conveying the gaming experience to the screen—even if that implies certain artistic limitations. As he explained in an excellent February 2006 interview with Ellie Gibson for Eurogamer, "Uwe Boll bites back," House of the Dead is not 28 Days Later, let alone Schindler's List—nor was it ever trying to be. The game is a "brainless shooter . . . about how it's a lot of fun to shoot zombies," and all that can really be expected from a film faithful to it is lightweight, cheesy, genre movie fun. His view of House as a success is based on the film's feeling "almost like a game" itself. He also identified the first Resident Evil movie and Silent Hill as being among his favorite game adaptations during our interview because they too "stayed true to the games" that inspired them.
That does not mean, of course, that Boll ever expected to please everyone with this or any other approach. In his view, the interactivity of the gaming experience makes fans feel especially possessive of games they like, so that seeing someone else's take on them on screen is likely to be a letdown—especially when commercial reality dictates that he make the movies with more than just the "built-in audience" in mind.
More generally, critics playing the highbrow are rarely sympathetic to such goals, especially when they are pursued by genuine industry outsiders. As Boll himself has said, he grew up on American film, and it is these productions that have shaped his tastes as a film viewer and his aspirations as a filmmaker—in particular his view that film is first and foremost entertainment, and that genre films are well worth making. However, as he bluntly put it in an interview with Sean O'Neal, he's also "not part of the Hollywood system."
Indeed, Boll, who dreamed of making films ever since watching Lewis Milestone's Mutiny on the Bounty on television when he was ten, has broken just about every rule to get where he is today. When he finished high school he got into film school in Vienna and became frustrated with the theory-heavy curriculum he encountered there, so he opted to study literature instead (in which he eventually got a Ph.D.; "It helps in getting a structure," he told me) while learning the practical side of his craft. He then moved on to make his first film, German Fried Movie (his homage to 1977's Kentucky Fried Movie) with a mere $60,000 and no industry contacts. When he finally got it to the Berlin film festival he was unable to find a buyer, so he personally traveled with the print to theaters where he showed it on a matinee basis.
Boll was able to turn a small profit that way, after which he went on proudly making genre films—in a German cinema scene dominated by an "art house" sensibility. This not only made securing financing for his projects difficult, but also denied him the main path by which foreign filmmakers are introduced to North American theatrical audiences. For even the best-received of these, the honeymoon tends to be a brief one, however, and the press becomes ridiculously unforgiving when they make unabashedly pop films. (Witness the careers of Paul Verhoeven and John Woo.)
His unconventional path into the cinematic mainstream is also connected with another issue Boll has with those who malign him as a latter-day Ed Wood: that they rarely know his work well. While his German films have admittedly been difficult to come by in English, the detractors also tend to be unaware of his more easily accessed English-language films, like the 2002 psychological thriller Blackwoods, and the 2003 school-shooting drama Heart of America, which were rather better reviewed than his game adaptations (Blackwoods notably garnering some praise from the New York Times). Indeed, as he has protested, many of them also put down the video game adaptations without having actually seen them. (How did BloodRayne, which took in just $6 million at the box office—worldwide, become so widely lambasted? Surely the grapevine played a major role, to the film's detriment.)
Last but not least, there is the tendency to overlook the fact that making and releasing any film is a collaborative effort, and it is noteworthy that none of Boll's films from House to King were actually scripted by him. As he has said earlier in the famous "Dinner With Uwe Boll" interview included as an extra on the BloodRayne DVD, the production for House of the Dead was already largely in place when he was brought on board to direct. While he had considerably more input into BloodRayne, it was respected independent filmmaker Guinevere Turner (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) who penned the screenplay for that project, while Boll caught all the flak.
Indeed, this sort of confusion was a factor in Boll picking up the pen again prior to directing his latest, Postal, something he said to me he needed to do by that point. He has also written the scripts for two other upcoming films, Seed and Tunnel Rats (the latter an Uwe Boll movie which, reversing the pattern, will be the basis for a game). "I think I'm on a good track with my more personal movies now," Boll said when discussing these projects.
Only time will tell with regard to Seed and Tunnel Rats, but whatever else can be said of it, Postal already stands out as something different. While virtually all the English-language video game adaptations made to date have been action-adventure and horror films, this one was made as a gag-based comedy in the manner of German Fried Movie, and a satire at that. Indeed, Postal ventures where no other film has gone to date, playing the events of September 11 for laughs, which is by far the most publicized aspect of the film.
"I think Nine-Eleven was a terrible attack," Boll told me, "but what Bush did was similarly terrible. . . . [His administration] used the attack to start a senseless war to make money . . . for Halliburton, etc. This was dishonest and cost the lives of over five hundred thousand Iraqis now and over four thousand U.S. soldiers." He was attracted to the source material by its very outrageousness, the fact that "Postal is so politically incorrect and it's the only game making fun of taboos." In keeping with this, he conceived the film he made from it as a "real hammer," with something to offend everybody in its take not just on Nine-Eleven, but the utter "absurdity" of everyday life, where "the line everybody is equal and has equal rights has nothing to do with reality," and where we've collectively done an awful job of facing up to the reality that "the world will go down if we don't overcome [animosities among] all religions, races, and nations."
Indeed, the film begins with a gag set in the cockpit of a hijacked airliner bearing down on the World Trade Center, and if anything, ups the ante from there, centering on a dimwitted would-be thief's plan to rob an Auschwitz theme park, the owner of which is played by Boll himself, his first on-screen credit since German Fried Movie. ("The worst day of the shoot," he said when I asked him about it. "I was standing there in my lederhosen and playing myself as a Nazi. . . . I hated it. But I like the result: it was necessary to make fun of myself.")
Of course, there are those who would dismiss this film for such antics, seeing in it just a tasteless work of shock, but such have always been the risks with satire—as we are too prone to forget when reading Jonathan Swift and Voltaire in a college seminar, the status of their writings as Great Books all too often getting in the way of fresh appraisal. The Seven Years' War may be long dead as a hot-button topic (indeed, mention it in a lecture hall and you'll just get blank stares), but can anyone really imagine a studio executive daring to greenlight a feature film version of Candide that was truly, graphically faithful to the letter and spirit of the gruesome, blackly comic original?
Boll proclaims his film nothing as grandiose as all that, and even if he is dealing with some of the most serious issues of the day, he pointedly reminded me that this is still a genre movie, as much so as the horror movies that preceded it. It may also be unlikely that any film could move him up a notch in the eyes of his detractors, Boll's reputation as "the world's worst filmmaker" having taken on a life of its own.
Still, while the film predictably drew its share of bad reviews, even these mark it as something different from Boll's earlier work (and indeed, something different, period). Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, far from friendly to it, charged that "even the film's cheap shock value wears thin fast," but found it "such a bizarre, garish spectacle that it is almost tempting to give [Boll] credit for being something of a misunderstood genius."
On a more positive note, Variety's Dennis Harvey was far from alone in commending the movie's "sheer antic energy," "bright, big-production feel," and Zack Ward's comedic performance. Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle found it enjoyable, and even opines that had it not been associated with Boll the response from critics might have been more favorable. While "completely beyond the bounds of mainstream taste . . . it's also funny, and criticizes our government's hypocrisy and political correctness in a way that's refreshingly pointed. If this movie had been made by an unknown young director, a lot of critics would still be panning the movie for its inconsistencies—but many others would be praising his courage."
An early review of the film on The Horror Review website (an admittedly minor venue, but one which panned Boll's previous films) went even further, describing Postal as not only a "very funny" movie, but "a scarily on-the-nose commentary on the insane state of a world where nothing of significance will be done about major threats like global warming because too many cultures and religions are too busy trying to destroy each other."
The broader audience, however, lost what should have been their first chance to judge the issue for themselves. Just a week before its scheduled May 23 release date (to which it had been bumped from the previous year), the opening was cut from fifteen hundred screens to fewer than two dozen in a mere five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, and Tucson, Arizona).
This is not the first time Boll has had such troubles with distributors; BloodRayne was supposed to open on two thousand screens, but appeared on only half that number on its opening weekend. (That incident led to Boll suing the now-defunct company Romar Entertainment for damages.) However, given the subject matter, many see politics as having played a role in this. Hollywood has generally preferred piety to punch in its treatment of this subject. Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police (2004) and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006)—two projects which might have been expected to ruffle some feathers—didn't buck the trend. (For all of Team America's indelicacy, some episodes of Parker and Stone's South Park have had rather more teeth.)
Of course, this has not been a total barrier to projects which offered a more critical take on the issue, like Syriana (2005), and not all were as deadly serious as that one. Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) used humor to make its point (though it should be remembered its release was threatened at one time, and that it went out under what many felt was an undeserved "R" rating). More recently, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) made light of the excesses of the national mood. Nonetheless, when I mentioned Boll's film to acquaintances, virtually no one I knew expected to be able to catch Boll's film on the big screen precisely because of its approach to the issue. When I approached Boll for comment after the cancellation of the plans for wide release, he said that the distributors certainly disliked "the September 11 joke [and] the Bush-Bin Laden relationship"—though other aspects of the film, including a portion of the film in which children are shot, were also problematic for them.
Postal, however, is scheduled to go out on DVD this month, Amazon.com giving the release date as the 26th. Boll expects the film to be a hit in that medium, and one can only wonder: is it conceivable that a reevaluation of Boll's cinematic career (and perhaps, video game adaptations more broadly) lies ahead in the not-too-distant future? I wouldn't go ruling that out just yet. Not only can one say that stranger things have happened, but if we're going to survive the messes Boll's film draws on for its comedy, stranger things will probably have to.