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How Hollywood is turning video games into hit films and TV shows
William Brangham: Video games are a huge booming business raking in nearly $100 billion a year in the U.S. alone. But turning those video games into successful movies and TV shows, that has been a bit of a bust until now.
HBO series, The Last of Us based on a video game of the same name was a runaway hit this year with both audiences and critics. And the New Super Mario Brothers movie based on the long running Nintendo franchise is set to gross $368 million in its first five days. So what has changed?
Jeff Keeley is a longtime gaming reporter and creator and host of the wildly popular the Game Awards. Geoff Keighley, thanks so much for being here.
How do you explain this transition? Because I think it's safe to admit that most adaptations of video games into the visual arts has not been all that smooth or successful so far. Why do you think that this is changing now?
Geoff Keighley, CEO, The Game Awards: Yes, you're absolutely right. People refer to it as sort of the curse that existed with, you know, many, many video game franchises over the years just haven't been successful movies. I mean, there was Prince of Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal, there was Assassin's Creed with Michael Fassbender. Even way back in the day, there was a Super Mario Brothers movie starring the late Bob Hoskins and none of them worked, in part because I think they weren't authentic to the game.
What we're seeing now is that the game creators are getting involved with Hollywood, they're helping writing and directing and creating these worlds, which I think creates an authenticity for the game fans, but also creates a very rich, detailed world for folks that may not even have played the games.
William Brangham: Do you think it is also because Hollywood producers are always desperate for good compelling stories and a successful video game franchise in some ways proves that point that this draws people in this storyline is compelling, and thus it might make the transition.
Geoff Keighley: Right, I think that was the old view is that, hey, this game was incredibly popular. So it has a built in fan base of you know, X million people have played the game. For a long time, it was sort of like it was a licensed slap that Hollywood producers were doing because they saw the successful games. And then ultimately, they didn't really work out because they weren't great movies.
I mean, there was one I think, the game Doom, Dwayne Johnson starred in and it was really just an action movie with Dwayne Johnson, that happened to be called him because they thought that would bring more people into theaters. And I think now we are really in this renaissance of video game adaptations. I think in the next three or four years, I think video games are going to be as popular as superhero franchises.
William Brangham: Really? That's wow, that's an incredible prediction. I mean, The Last of Us, in particular, seemingly achieved a ton of success with an audience like myself, who had no idea it was even connected to a game. And, again, I think that speaks to, I wonder if you think the same, that this speaks to just very strong characters, a very compelling story, and thus, it's a natural.
Geoff Keighley: Yes, I mean, The Last of Us was really special. It's an incredibly detailed, rich story that came out over a decade ago as a video game won a ton of awards then, and I credit Craig Mazin, the creator of the last of a series alongside Neil Druckmann, the creator of the game, they teamed up together, Craig did Chernobyl at HBO. And HBO was kind of looking for the next show from him. He was a big fan of the last episode -- Last of Us and said, I want to figure out how to adapt this in authentic way to HBO, and actually partnering with the game creator.
But there are scenes in that show that are direct dialogue lifts from the video games. So their moments. And you know, if you haven't played the game, you might not know that but it's like the moment with the draft or other things like that. Those are like iconic seminal moments in the video game they really captured in the show, but they also built it to your point in a way that appeals to many people that have never played the video game, because it's a great story at the end of the day.
William Brangham: I mean, on the flip side of that, then how do you explain the success of Super Mario Brothers because that unlike The Last of Us, doesn't necessarily have such obvious human characters. Doesn't have an obvious built in plotline. There's no offense to this to the brothers. But how do you explain that success?
Geoff Keighley: I think that's, you know, very different. Nintendo really for the first time ever partnered with Illumination, Chris Meledandri, who had done even done a Despicable Me the minion movies. And Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario actually worked with them to build up this world.
So what I think is so great about that movie, is that it's it looks so beautiful, and it's so rich. And you know, for anyone that's played a Super Mario Brothers game, at some point in their life, you probably have everyone has just the fact that this is on the big screen as a movie and animated movie. I think it's just incredibly novel.
It's just -- it's a fun movie. It's got, you know, a great voice cast, and it just looks beautiful. So I think that's the thing is, it really looks like the video games, which is incredibly special.
William Brangham: We're talking here about video games moving into movies and television shows. Do you think that the reverse can happen as well that people might watch The Last of Us and then be like, wow, this this -- the origin story for this exists on a video game, I might want to go there. Any sign that that is happening to?
Geoff Keighley: Yes, there have been, you know, huge success stories in that regard over the past few years. The first game that really did that was a game called The Witcher which was a Netflix series. And that holiday season, when the first season of The Witcher came out, the video game sold millions of copies and the game had been out for four or five years.
And this year with The Last of Us that's been at the top of the sales charts on Amazon for a game that, you know, was came out 10 years ago because people are rediscovering it. So that's part of the benefit to the game companies is that when these adaptations are done well it actually drives more awareness and sales of the you know, the original game.
William Brangham: And lastly, is there any particular game that you're wondering why Hollywood hasn't grabbed it yet that you want to see on the big screen?
Geoff Keighley: Yes, there are a bunch though. What I'm really excited about is a game called Bioshock. And that's just another like The Last of Us has a really amazing intellectual story with incredible characters.
So yes, pretty much everything that is, is a good video game story is up for adaptation now. I think in many ways, you know, like anything, there's probably going to be too many of these things made and not all of them are going to work but I definitely think the curse is broken. And the fact that, you know, this year, the biggest movie of the year and the biggest stories of the year so far are both based on video games is pretty incredible.
William Brangham: All right, Geoff Keighley so good to see you. Thanks so much for being here.
Geoff Keighley: Thanks for inviting me on.