Through a combination of boredom and peer pressure, I recently sat through two (relatively) recent video game adaptations, Max Payne and Hitman.
For those who do not waste their weekends with a controller in their hand, Max Payne is the story of a cop whose family was killed by junkies high on a new drug called Valkyr. Naturally, he precedes to murder the entire criminal underworld of New York, and discovers that Valkyr is connected with an evil (is there any other kind?) pharmaceutical company. The game was notable for its noir-ish influences, its graphic novel format during cutscenes, and the use of Matrix-style bullet-time to give you the edge over opponents.
Its film adaptation is, in a word, boring. While the movie borrows the goofy plot and overwrought dialogue of the game, there's no sense of fun or excitement to it. Instead, the filmmakers drag out the entire process with a number of pointless scenes that exist for no other reason than to pad the length of the film until the villains choose to reveal themselves. The game designers understood that they weren't recreating The Big Sleep, they were making a game where you got to shoot people in slow motion while diving through a window. The film version seems to think that its a true noir, but it's far too dumb to be a great crime drama, and far too slow to be interesting regardless of its pretensions. Marky Mark Wahlberg is also woefully inadequate as the lead. He simply doesn't have the charisma to carry an entire movie.
The video game Hitman was about a bald assassin produced by a secret Catholic order that has nothing better to do than raise assassins and tattoo their bald heads with bar codes. The game mechanics were simple; sneak or shoot. Every mission was about figuring out the appropriate way to sneak up on your target and then kill them stealthily. The paper thin plot of every Hitman game usually had some sort of double-cross, followed by righteous vengeance.
The Hitman movie sticks to the formula of the the game far more faithfully than the Max Payne adaptation. The lead character is betrayed, and subsequently must kill the guys who set him up. Fairly straightforward stuff, and it provides a framework for a number of big action set pieces. Strangely enough, Russian hottie Olga Kurylenko appeares in both movies, but her role is far more substantial (and naked) in Hitman. This flick could have been decent popcorn entertainment, but the action scenes just don't have any spark to them. We've seen all this stuff done better. On top of that, Timothy Olyphant, who has the potential to be a great leading man, is wasted as the drab, emotionless killing-machine.
Video games and movies seem to be incompatible mediums. The repetitive action and occasional puzzle-solving of video games simply don't translate well into film. Max Payne attempted to deviate from the formula by adding more plot points, but that resulted in making the film a tedious chore. Hitman came closer to capturing the spirit of its source material, but when you merely watch a video game, it's hard not to notice how dumb and derivative it is.
The first great game-to-film adaptation will require a game with a lot of ideas and filmmakers who know how to tell an action-driven story. Maybe Bioshock?