The pressure was enormous. Legions of fans worried. Prince of Persia, the movie, was more than a summer blockbuster. "Maybe I'm being melodramatic," says movie scribe Doug Miro. Then again, maybe he's not. This was a Hollywood video game adaptation.
"The reality is that this movie has to do really well," Miro adds from LA as he makes his commute home just as the movie is getting its big U.S. release. "It still hasn't been proven that a game movie can be done. The perception is that it can't."
Films like the Hollywood adaptation of Super Mario Bros. in the 1990s or the more recent Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li haven't been well received. At all. Each new game adaptation brings the promise of maybe this is the one they get right. Maybe this is the one that becomes the blueprint for how to adapt video games into well crafted entertainment. Comic books have movies like X-Men and Spiderman. Video games have... The mishandling of video properties by filmmakers has made gamers jaded. And with each new big screen adaptation, the knee jerk reaction is that any game movie is going to stink.
How do you finally make a good video game movie? Some of Hollywood's finest — both in front and behind the camera — were assembled to see if they can turn popular video game series Prince of Persia into a popular film franchise. The guy directing the picture, Mike Newell, boasts a filmography that is as diverse as Four Weddings and Funeral, Donnie Brasco and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The movie's cinematographer, John Seale, shot Rain Man and The English Patient. The film's star, Jake Gyllenhaal, was nominated for an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. Here is top flight movie talent!
What makes it different is that the man who created the game, Jordan Mechner, set up the movie deal. In 2003, Mechner wrote and designed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time game. And while game companies have been directly involved in the filmmaking process in the past, that has meant little. But Mechner wrote the first draft of The Sands of Time script after pitching super producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down, The Rock, The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) in 2004. Miro and his co-writing partner and childhood friend from Detroit, Carlo Bernard, were then brought on by Bruckheimer to work on the screenplay for the film that would become Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Even though screenwriting duties were passed on, Mechner remained involved in the process. "Jerry respects the game," says Miro. "He respects Jordan." From the get go, the two were encouraged to take the source material seriously. According to Bernard, "Jerry wanted to do a high level, lavish production." For the writers, this was a chance to do an epic adventure film in the vein of classics they knew and loved like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lawrence of Arabia. The duo dug deep into Persian history and culture, but knew that the original games themselves were based as much on Arabian Nights as on Persian tradition.
The duo could immediately see how the universe and gameplay Mechner created could make a compelling movie. The draft Mechner had written was a big screen version of his 2003 game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, that centers on a dagger that is able to turn back the clock by ten seconds. However, the screenwriters didn't want to regurgitate the game stage by stage, cutscene by cutscene, moment by moment. Mechner didn't want that in his original pitch, either! Instead, the duo aimed to adapt The Sands of Time like one would adapt a book as they had previously penned the silver screen version of William B. Breuer's The Great Raid. When adapting a book, Miro says, it is necessary to isolate the elements that made the original work successful. For The Sands of Time, the two employed the same strategy — to evoke the feeling of the game. At the same time, it was necessary to surprise those who have played the game. And if they could do that, they say, then the film would be a success.
Game movies typically fail when they attempt to create a cinematic clone of the original source material. Movies are interactive, but in an entirely different way. Games have the luxury of drawing in players through gameplay, but also story. Cinema must rely on any combination of character, story, or even mood. Yet, these points are where most game movies fail. The creators are unable to spin a good yarn. Or the characters end up being flat. Or the universe is bland. Making a good movie is difficult. But if making a good movie is like capturing lightning in a bottle, making a good video game movie is like trying to capture lighting in a movie while gamers yell at you online. It is no easy task, and both Miro and Bernard know it. "We are translating a medium you experience in one way," says Bernard, "into a medium you experience another way." The stumbling block for many previous game adaptations is that they can't seem to get the balance right — meet what gamers expect from a movie and what moviegoers expect.
What both groups should expect is an entertaining motion picture.
Miro and Bernard, who are currently writing TinTin for Steven Spielberg, want to tell stories in the grand Hollywood tradition. "Our obligation is to entertain for two hours," says Miro. You can put down a video game, he adds, but you can't put down a movie in a theater. If that happens, it means the patron has left the cinema. Movies need different storytelling hooks to keep butts in seats. "In a movie, you are observing a main character," says Miro. "In a video game, you are the main character." That means, of course, that in the movie the lead star is in the player's role. He controls the same hero that we gamers did.
It follows, then that only when lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal began doing many of his own stunts on set in Morocco that he truly became Dastan, the film's hero. Physicality, Miro explains, is a huge part of the Prince. And in the game, that physicality is experienced first hand by the player. By experiencing it himself, Gyllenhaal was, like the player, able to understand Dastan's skill and experience the character. It's a type of method acting, sure, but it is also akin to the same process that gamers go through when they play a game — minus the weight training and exercise to get into shape.
The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time isn't yet concrete proof that Hollywood has gotten the game movie formula right. But at least, this time, Hollywood has taken games seriously. The industry understands the potential and maybe next time there's a Bruckheimer-scale adaptation of game to movie, gamers can breath a sigh of relief. Hollywood wants to get it right, too.