Did you see the trailer for the Battleship movie? Have you heard about adaptations of Candyland and Monopoly into film? I don’t know where it started, but in recent months it seems like movie studios have been jumping on the bandwagon of movies based on board games. Of course we love our favorite hobby getting a little attention, but from the looks of things, not all publicity is, in fact, good publicity.
While I don’t work in Hollywood, I studied filmmaking in college and I work as a video editor and sometimes producer. As such, I feel slightly qualified to rant both about the poor adaptations of board game films and Hollywood in general. And I don’t believe you’ll be seeing a quality movie coming out of a board game franchise anytime soon.
There are two main issues here: first of all, you’ve got the overall problem of Hollywood’s cash-in/cash-out approach and its resultant poor quality movies. Then you’ve got the effect on the whole board gaming scene that hurts and does not help.
I’ll try to be succinct; this doesn’t need to be a class on filmmaking. Let’s just say there are two approaches to creating a film (or any storied medium). One of those approaches is to come up with a good story and build from there. The other approach is to pick something that will sell and turn it into a movie. Bluntly, one of these is the wrong way to make a quality film.
It is not impossible to create a good film based on a preexisting franchise. The problem is mind-set. In one approach, you are trying to create a good story. If that good story happens to be in the world of Batman, or the latest sequel in a popular movie series, so be it.
In that second approach, though, the focus is all on ticket sales. You don’t need a good story for ticket sales. You need something people recognize—say, Transformers or perhaps Monopoly. You need to grab their attention and get them in there. When you have a built-in target audience, you save money on marketing and you’re guaranteed sales. You don’t even need to worry about putting in the effort to make a great movie. A few flashy special effects and fast-paced trailers later and you’ve walked away with billions. People have a tendency to see a movie they’re familiar with, even if they know it’s going to be bad. Face it: you’ve probably done it yourself.
Of course, when those big ticket sales come through, it only reinforces the idea that well-known franchises make the money, not great films.
Now, when you try to tie a plot into something that has none, you end up with a lot of silliness. You get a lot of goofy references and nods to the source material, but let’s face it—Monopoly doesn’t have much narrative backbone to it. A great example is this: have you ever seen the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie? When I was a kid, I watched that movie all the time with my best friend. We loved it; we were kids, we didn’t know any better. Now, I still enjoy it, but mostly for the childhood memories it brings back.
When I watched it recently, though, I realized something: Super Mario Bros. is very close to not being a bad movie. There is a very interesting world created in that movie. It’s a crazy, nonsensical, delightful alternate reality with interesting setpieces with all sorts of literary potential. But it becomes goofy because you get all these weird tie-ins to the video-game world of Mario, which is, in fact, a cartoon. Two worlds, two stories, each viable in its own medium, become a mishmash of silliness when forced together.
These all lead to part two—not all publicity is good publicity after all. You see, while games like Twilight Imperium would actually have the potential for an interesting conversion to film, you won’t see that on camera. You won’t see any new games. You’ll see Monopoly and Battleship. Games that people already know about. The publicity for the board gaming hobby in general isn’t increasing awareness of new games people haven’t heard of before. They’re simply reinforcing the idea that board games are silly, pointless pastimes best left to keeping children quiet for a few hours until the arguments break out. Storyless board games being made into ridiculous movies do not help us out at all.
Our best hope is still ourselves. Every time we introduce our favorite games to new family members and friends, we help spread the word. Maybe someday the right board game will be turned into a film. Maybe we will see a family playing Carcassonne instead of Scrabble onscreen. Until then we will continually have to fight against the stereotypes and preconceptions constantly reinforced by mainstream media: that board games are childish and boring.
In the meantime, I suppose at least we have a lot more fun…