OK, so this is a series we’re going to be doing every now and then, in which we consider games we’d like to see converted to other media or vice versa. Adaptations aren’t always good, and they’re often cynically motivated by corporations trying to squeeze money out of some brand recognition, but they can be done well. They HAVE been done well.
Think of it like this. A good adaptation takes the original material and tries to elevate the concept, not just wallowing within it out of a sense of obligation. For example, Alien: Isolation is a good adaptation of the Alien franchise. It came to us with a new plot and stayed loyal to the canon, but didn’t feel restricted to anything directly tied to the movies. It understood the tone of the original, a sense of predator and prey, and even managed a perfect recreation of the dirty 80’s sci-fi imagery, that showed the kind of future where the best computer screens in the galaxy have about eight pixels each.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is the bad kind of adaptation. Even if it hadn’t been explicitly dishonest in its advertising campaign, even if it hadn’t been so riddled with bugs you’d think you were looking at a digital version of a wasp’s nest, it was still doomed. Splashing about in the remnants of the second film, not really knowing what it wants to be and stealing from the big book of clichés – they’re just three crimes for which it deserves death. It even missed the point of the Marines entirely. Anybody who saw that film knew from the beginning that most of them were useless chumps, all bluff and bluster and brainless swagger at the start, whereupon it got replaced by brainless terror when the Aliens actually show up.
Well, at least the game took one aspect of the film to heart. It’s so brainless that it could have been shot in the head without noticing.
So there we have it. A good adaptation shows progress and deeper understanding of the source material. A bad adaptation goes in circles and misses every point going. Thus the lines are drawn, for what is and what is not a good adaptation. So what’s our first move?
RED DEAD REDEMPTION
Perhaps one of my greatest sorrows was that Rockstar’s gorgeous western world never made it to PC. I loved it with every fibre of my being, but now that yet another Xbox 360 has broken, and backwards compatibility is apparently so toxic that no console can go near it, I guess I have to resign myself to the fact that this is a game that’s going to be lost to the ages. I suspect that this is something that’s going to happen more and more as the industry progresses.
It’s a crying shame, because I loved RDR more than any of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games. It had real character, it felt like a true western in everything it did. Charging across the dusty desert landscape upon my noble stallion, glaring down some villain in the tense seconds before a duel, or throwing lit dynamite at the feet of some shrieking bandits before gunning down the survivors with a six-shooter – great stuff. It really got the tone right, and the Mexican/Californian border upon which this saga was set, it felt like a glorious backdrop to a classic gunslinger’s tale.
But what about the gunslinger himself? You play as John Marston, a reformed bank robber who ran with a gang of criminals years ago. When John’s family is imprisoned by the United States government, John is tasked to kill his former gangmates, who are causing no small amount of trouble for Uncle Sam. When he does finish them off he’ll get his family back, but as John hunts his way across the country he realises that things are never as simple as they seem, and old loyalties stir within him as he confronts the men whom he once saw as brothers.
Pretty cool, right? It’s a simple basis for a story. Kill baddies, get wife and son back, but Rockstar added layers of complexity on top of these simple foundations, until it was some grand Scooby-Doo sandwich of a tale. Remember that this doesn’t take place in the glory days of the Wild West, it takes place at its ending, the year of 1911. One of the major themes is the relentless passage of time and how John and his ilk are almost antiquated already. There is no room for wild men anymore, and during a cinematic that I now rank as one of my favourites in gaming, one of the government spooks puts it very simply. “Sure, civilisation may be dull, but the alternative, Mr. Marston, is hell.”
And the annoying thing is that he’s right. Things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be. In fact, a great part of Red Dead Redemption is the disturbing amount of moral complexity. Nobody’s perfect, nobody’s close to it. Even John is an aggressive killer with a short temper and not much imagination or schooling, but that barely matters. The true issue here is the spiritual war between order and chaos. You are not on the side of good, just on the side of law and order. Your enemy is not evil, he wants true freedom and chaos. It’s not so simple any more. Do you want to be safe, or free? And are you going to change your mind when there’s a gun pointed at your head?
But all that complexity was good. It added the detail that made this place tangible, gave it a sense of spice. We even meet one of the old western legends later on, now aged and alone with nothing to his name but history. And of course, he’s not perfect either. All you can do for him is what you do for everybody else you meet – hope he’s good enough.
So how would we adapt this epic tale? A film, of course. A great big romp of a movie that took the classic spaghetti western style to heart, layered with the subtle messages of the original story. It could potentially be three films, as John’s story is kind of divided into thirds by its narrative, but this would probably be too long. Stick with just one, I think.
Casting? Hmm… Tricky. I won’t do all of the characters, but let’s get a few out of the way. Marston isn’t really handsome, but he has a calm and focused presence. He’s also middle-aged, probably in his late forties. A lot of people think Hugh Jackman would be good for the role, which I can agree with. I happen to think Liam Neeson would be a good match, though. He’s the right age, or at least he looks the right age. He’s a provably good actor with a sense of on-screen charisma, just what the role needs. I’ve also heard some talk about Karl Urban, who played Judge Dredd and Eomer. He seems like he could fit, if he’s aged a little with make-up.
Bonnie MacFarlane should be Natalie Portman. Dutch would be Tom Hanks, because all films improve with Tom Hanks. Nigel West Dickens would suit the attitudes of Stephen Fry, though the image would change a little, and Seth would translate into Mackenzie Crook easily, though no offence to the man. And of course, Landon Ricketts would be played by the aged cowboy himself, Clint Eastwood.
By the way, don’t think you shouldn’t hire Ennio Morricone for music. The man’s a genius when it comes to soundtracks, but especially the western soundtrack. He wrote the classic theme to “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly,” for god’s sake, and the even better: “The Ecstasy Of Gold.” You’d be mad not to do everything you can to get him.
I think it could happen. I think it should happen. Red Dead Redemption took a lot from the classic westerns, but it became something on its own, by meshing all the traditional threads and ideas into something more contemporary, yet thrumming with affection for the classics.
Westerns are now seen as something old and pointless, something we don’t do any more. Not properly, not really. The age of the gunslinger is over. But it doesn’t have to be. Video games remember those times. And maybe if we glare from beneath the brims of our hats, and knock up the sand with the spurs on our boots, then maybe the movie industry could remember too.