Today saw an announcement from Paramount, ending months of speculation, that the role of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie has gone to Angelina Jolie, winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar a couple of weeks back. Between this and the presence of Con-Air director Simon West behind the camera, it's clear that it's a film which is intended to be a serious assault on the marketplace, and given that Lara has already grossed way more than most movies ($500m in sales and merchandise), the potential is also undeniably huge.
Yet note the word potential, for what makes a hit in one sphere, does not necessarily work in the other: to take a patently bleedin' obvious example, no-one is going to go and see Tetris - The Movie. To start with, they work in fundamentally different ways: computer games rarely achieve any genuine emotion in the player. Sure, I've felt the odd bit of unease playing Doom, but who ever wept over the loss of an adventure character? Death is but an irritation, countered and neutralised by the save/restore function. Any emotional punch will without doubt be diluted, because games are controllable, to a varying extent, by the user, and of necessity this means there must be distractions and side-tracks. Sales of any software would be very limited if it offered no interaction, and exactly the same experience every time. [This is unique among media: with the printed word, you naturally expect the ending to be the same it was last time!]
These may seem like simple and obvious statements, yet over the past decade or so, there have been several attempts by Hollywood to transfer successful arcade hits to the big screen. The common factor is that they have all been more or less dreadful. Anyone fancy Street Fighter? Or perhaps Super Mario Brothers? Thought not. Part of the problem is the inevitable lead time involved in movie production: this year's hot game is next year's bargain title. Pokemon is a rare case where they've managed to get it right, thanks to the Japanese animation being readily available when the craze hit the West, and the net result was a box-office opening that, among animation studios, only Disney could emulate. All too often, things like plot and characters get forgotten in the rush to market -- and the truth is that a bad movie remains precisely that, no matter how hip the tie-in.
In reality, turning a game into a movie is no different to adapting from anywhere else, such as a book or comic-strip. You need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both source and destination media, and work within them. The process is especially fraught because the target audience for your movie is likely to be the same as for the software, and if you alienate them...well, two words: Tank Girl.
Perhaps what is needed is more cross-pollination. Just as computer animation only really blossomed when it was taken out of the hands of nerds and given over to animators like John Lassiter, so maybe those whose write screenplays could work on computer game scenarios, and vice versa. The increasing complexity of the latter (and, some might say, the general dumbing-down of the former) would seem to indicate an emerging potential for co-operation.
As for Jolie, viewers wanting to catch a glimpse of 'Lara' in action, should go raid themselves a copy of Cyborg 2. Though let's add, it's the kind of film Angelina would probably rather we all forgot she'd appeared in, and to which absolutely no Oscars were awarded. Let's hope that's not some kind of an omen...