Hollywood has now perfected its formula for plundering superhero stories, and it's not just the stereotypical comic book guys who line up to throw their money away on sub-par adaptations anymore. The box office doesn't lie: The world has embraced the fantastical universes of Marvel and DC. But not so game stories. To put things into perspective, the biggest opening weekend of a game adaption, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, only made marginally more in its opening weekend ($48.2 million) than Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour ($31.1 million). The Tomb Raider film achieved a Metacritic score of 33. Hannah Montana trumped it with 59.
So is there an innate problem with video game adaptations? "There's no good reason for it," says Duncan Jones, the director of Warcraft (or Warcraft: The Beginning in some territories), a new movie based on Blizzard's gaming series. It's the third major motion picture for Jones, the son of late musician David Bowie, following 2011's Source Code and 2009's lo-fi sleeper hit Moon. "If you have a good story to tell and intriguing characters, you can make a good movie." So why do movies based on games seem to find the transition between mediums so difficult? One way to look at it is as a generational issue: Many of today's aging film critics and most established directors simply did not grow up with games. Not in the way that Jones did.
"I've played the Warcraft games for twenty years," he tells me, "right from the very first real-time strategy games. I started with Orcs and Humans (the original Warcraft game, released in 1994), back when there was a turf war between that game and Command & Conquer. Over the years, more and more directors will have grown up playing games. Right now there are less of us, but it'll improve."
But how does Jones aim to make it right, and how did he get this opportunity in the first place? Obviously getting the green light to direct the first film adaptation of a franchise as big as Warcraft—still a billion-dollar business, with the card game Hearthstone pulling in around $20 million a month—isn't as simple as having a level-100 orc shaman and knowing your Illidan from your Sargeras. And it certainly wasn't an easy ride for Spider-Man and The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, who was attached to the project and worked on the script before Jones came onto it.
"He has the right sense of fun and energy," Jones says, "but I just think his vision, and that of Blizzard, didn't mesh. I went in and said, 'For me it's fifty/fifty, with heroes on both sides.' The fact I was a fan meant my natural inclination was more in line with what Blizzard was looking for."
Blizzard has had "twenty years of successfully telling stories and a very vested interest in making sure their franchise is protected," so theirs is a pretty entrenched vision. Beneath the cartoony, deformed visuals, the Warcraft lore has always been pretty savage. Main characters and knights in shining armor die (or worse), and innocents are slaughtered in droves. Yet it's also super colorful and has magic that turns you into a fluffy sheep. There's a fine line to find, then, when beginning to turn a deeply detailed video game series spanning two decades into two-hour movie designed for passive consumption then. And all the while, whoever's charged with finding that balance must contend with having Blizzard constantly looking over its shoulder.
"If you took a chunk of the games, and made a movie, well, it'd need to be a TV series, really," Jones admits, leading WoW fans everywhere to dream of a Netflix show. "But the more you slice the timeline into really specific points, the more manageable it becomes."
(Mild spoilers follow.)
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"So, in the movie, the orcs are coming through the portal, and we're going to close the portal. Instead of changing the lore or characters, our approach was to streamline the time, and address this one very specific moment.
"When you make a movie, you need to do certain things in order to streamline and make it work. Blizzard was good to work with. Sometimes I was able to convince them, sometimes not, but we'd always get together to make it work."
And it does work, for me at least—though a great many critics aren't seeing the movie in quite the same way. I've grown up with Warcraft and, sure, the movie only depicts a very thin slice of an epic timeline, and there are some lore details that just can't be fleshed out over 120 minutes. But Jones does find space and time to develop a number of the characters, ensuring that they're not simply swept along in functional exposition and brain-melting action set pieces. I don't see any other way it could have been done. It's the characters in Warcraft we remember, after all, not the exact implications of the Draenei schism on three generations of human-orc relations.
The international trailer for 'Warcraft'
My non-gaming girlfriend, who's a fan of the fantasy genre, thought we were watching the live-action version of Warhammer, but she enjoyed the film just as much as I did. And there's a lot to be said for that, showing as it does that you need not be a Warcraft veteran to enjoy the fiction unfolding on screen. But was there ever a tension between appealing to the frothing hardcore and attracting new audiences to the franchise, through the movie?
"There's a lot of humanity in the characters," Jones says. "As long as we're able to create characters who are empathetic and a story with a logical start and end, we should be able to sweep anyone up into a world they've never experienced before."
Speaking of filthy casuals (sorry, darling), there were a fair few among Warcraft's cast, who had to be gently coached on the wider significance of their scene-to-scene actions, of their place in this considerable lore. "We had the full spectrum," Jones recalls. "Rob (Kazinsky, playing Orgrim Doomhammer) is a huge, long-time fan, but some of the others knew nothing. I told them, 'Let's make sure this works as a stand-alone film first.' Daniel Wu's (Gul'dan) wife is a big player, so he was getting secondhand info from her. Paula (Patton, who plays Garona the half-orc) didn't know anything, but she was very keen. I had to remind her not to get too deep into it all, so as not to go crazy with all the extra info.
"Travis (Fimmel, who plays the human protagonist Anduin Lothar), though, bless him, wasn't interested. Be yourself, mate! Ben (Foster, the human mage Medivh) wanted to cast magic. And I don't even mean in the movie; he really wanted to learn how to cast magic. He was a method mage!"
Not that making magic on-screen was an easy process. Spells take an agonizingly long time to prepare and charge, everything palpably kinetic. Runes must be drawn from, and when one goes off, it's with some impressively destructive force. "Our motion director came up with a physical language for how to cast spells, and a verbal one—what needs to be said, and what it means," Jones says. "They really got into the minutiae of how a magic system would work. Ben puts in so much effort, that it made him feel on set like someone who can teach magic, and is superior to Khadgar (a disciple human mage played by Ben Schnetzer). So that relationship feels real, and I think it really paid off."
Plenty of attention has been placed on Warcraft's special effects. But while its array of leathery orcs do look tremendous, the film is far more than just a pretty (well, fantastically ugly) face. The way I see it, there are some real, relatable themes at play. Especially strong is the idea of family and fatherhood. The topic is raised for every one of the main characters, and every time the movie draws back from the risk of making proceedings overly melodramatic. "Where I am in life, with a baby coming next month, you get all parent-y," Jones admits. It can't be ignored, either, that Jones lost his own father during the final stages of the film's production.
I might be wrong, as I've not read all of the reviews that have given Warcraft such a poor score on Metacritic, but it might be that these themes have gone over the heads of critics beyond the specialist games press. The Telegraph's Helen O'Hara writes that Jones has struggled to give "emotional reality to his army of characters, who cannot escape their tropes: leader, hero, warrior woman, mystic." Which seems a strange perspective, considering every single one of those tropes is subverted by both Warcraft's lore and Jones in his making of this film.
The orc leaders are deeply flawed, torn between duty and their own personal struggles, willing to betray one another at the drop of a giant pointy hat if they believe it's in the best interests of their clan. The "mystic" presumably refers to the terrifying and corrupted Gul'dan, who is just as likely to rip your arms off as mutter a little prophecy. And I have no idea what's wrong with a strong "warrior woman" trope when most Hollywood films struggle with giving their female leads proper bras and/or a line of dialogue with another woman that isn't about a man.
Admittedly, Garona does have her overly sexualized moments, and for a half-orc looks remarkably like a human in green paint with some gnarly scars and mini tusks. "Blizzard has a very specific aesthetic in how it portrays its characters, and it's not easy bringing that into a live action environment," Jones admits. "With Paula's character, my approach was to get her into her armor as quickly and efficiently as possible. We introduce her as a slave of Gul'dan, she gets captured by humans, we get her into armor, and that becomes her look for the rest of the movie."
Also, perhaps obviously, it's not actually paint. "We saw what Guardians of the Galaxy did with Gamora, painted green. So, instead of painting Paula, we decided to fully rotoscope her and digitally shift her skin two shades greener. Oh, and tusks are hard! You kinda need them though, if you're gonna be an orc."
However successful the film is at the box office, movie-making isn't going to stop for Jones after Warcraft. But he's also interested in working in the games industry, revealing that he already did for a brief stint, after finishing film school. "I spent a year and a half working with Demis Hassabis, who created the AI that beat the Go champion. It was fascinating, and something I'm going to be working on [in the future]. I want to dip my toe in the water—I love games so much, I've gotta do it once in my life."
Jones has quite the pedigree already, and it would be fascinating to see a true native to both film and games broaden his vision to create something we can play, too. His next movie project is potentially Mute, a sci-fi noir flick that's been a dream project of Jones's for 12 years now. It has Alexander Skarsgard, Sam Rockwell, and Paul Rudd attached to it, and is set in the same fictional universe as Moon was. Its concept art looks like a scene from a video game, so could Mute yet spawn an interactive cousin, released in parallel with the motion picture? It'd be a sweet sight: game and movie, created in perfect harmony. And it might just be the way that gaming finally gets over its problem with moving from smaller, domestic screens to those of multiplexes the world over.
Warcraft will be released in the US on June 10.
Follow Danny Wadeson on Twitter.