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Does the Battleship Adaptation Demonstrate the Problem With Adapting Games?

I remember laughing when Roger Ebert made a shortlist of toys and games just waiting to be adapted into big screen properties after the success of Transformers 2. How far we’ve come in so little time. When Peter Berg (director of The Kingdom and Hancock) was announced as the director of the forthcoming Battleship film, we didn’t know quite what to expect (apart from that it would likely feature Jason Bateman). That’s only natural, since the boardgame it is based upon is fairly straight-forward. Well, since the news broke that it’s going to be set IN SPACE, I’ve been wondering why that news surprises me as much as it did.

battleship

I think Peter Berg just sunk my battleship...

It’s not as if there’s a story behind Battleship. Your ships are somewhere. Your enemy’s ships are somewhere else. You shell them blindly. They shell you blindly. And so on. There’s not really a lot there. It would be like trying to film an adaption of Minesweeper, for example. There’s really no story there to plot your movie around at all, so you might as well come with some zany concept you couldn’t market as an original film, stick a famous game label on it and ship it out the door.

I’ve always found this to be the problem with game adaptations. There’s no context on which to establish your film, most of the time. So you have to come up with something completely different – look at Super Mario Brothers for example (unless you consider it an underappreciated masterpiece). But, for some reason, these bizarre films are populated with characters and references from your beloved original game, unnecessarily shoehorned in. So what might have been a bizarre kitsch classic becomes a horrible mind-scarring abomination.

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the adaptations of games and toy properties that have drawn upon established media – for example Transformers building on the Orson Wells film and cartoon series, or Resident Evil drawing on some story-heavy gaming – have succeeded much more than films which seek simply to emulate mood – for example Silent Hill.

The main reason to use an established franchise like a family boardgame or a videogame is to lure in audience members familiar with the content who will relate to it based on that. People who played Resident Evil go in expecting a movie about zombies and an evil corporation and (at least story-wise) they aren’t too disappointed. How do I know what to expect going into a Battleship movie? It’s like being told you’re going to see a Connect 4 movie (or an adaptation of Tetris). There’s nothing there for my brain to transform into an expected plot or story. I’m just confused. Whereas if I’ve grown up on merchandising cartoons (which I watched before I was old enough to decide what I watched), I’m more likely to know what to expect from the film and to anticipate it.

There is no reason for anybody to be shocked by the news that Battleship will be set in outer space. The only reason we are is that our only expectations of the scheduled release come from the boxes and packaging of the games that we buy and play – we expect naval warfare. My expectations beyond that derive from my knowledge of the naval warfare genre and my knowledge of the pieces in play – I was expecting something along the lines of Master and Commander meets The Hunt for Red October, with less Scottish accents and more explosions.

If Peter Berg had simply announced that his next film would be a space warfare film, no one would have batted an eye. I might even have been interested (as it’s been a while since Hollywood attempted a non-franchise space opera). However, the word Battleship is tied to the product and the imagery of the product. And – since we have nothing to base our assumptions about the narrative on – we must use our imaginations to fill in the considerable blanks. Which arguably means that – even if Berg had opted for the conventional approach – he still couldn’t please anybody, as everybody would expect different things.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, down the line, but I think it says a lot about the perils of adpating something as ridiculously one dimensional as a boardgame for the silver screen.

One Response

  1. Oh Hollywood, you sank my expectations!

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