Video games are huge moneymakers, so it's really not surprising that Hollywood studios continuously look to games as fodder for big-budget blockbusters. But while it seems like just about every significant game franchise has been attached to some studio or some director over the years, many of these projects never end up seeing the light of day.
And so it is that movies with strong potential like BioShock and Halo languish in development hell, while the likes of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li and Tekken make it to theaters. It's just not fair.
In this feature we take a look at some of the more high profile video game adaptations that almost became a reality. Many of these projects had directors and even actors lined up, but ultimately they had no more luck than the many stalled projects that came before.
American McGee's Alice
Notable names: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Wes Craven
Rumors of an adaptation of this moody first person shooter/platformer surfaced not long after the game hit the PC in 2000. The project bounced between several studios, with horror mainstay Wes Craven once slated to direct for Dimension Films. After Alice shifted to Universal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, was attached to lend her martial expertise to the movie. But she eventually dropped out. So did new director Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The project pretty much died on the vine once Universal let the rights lapse. Even the emergence of the long-awaited sequel game didn't do anything to revive the movie's lost momentum.
Given how successful Tim Burton's recent Alice in Wonderland movie was, we imagine there has to be some audience for a darker, more violent movie featuring Alice in a mental institution and cutting a bloody swath through Wonderland. But we may never know.
Notable names: Roland Emmerich
Is it really possible to make a movie out of source material as inherently simplistic as Asteroids? Well, they did it with Battleship, so the question is more - can they do it well?
We almost found out. Last we heard, Universal holds the rights to an Asteroids movie, with Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers) producing. Roland Emmerich was attached to direct at one point. The movie would have been familiar territory for the man behind Independence Day and 2012.
The script reportedly centered around a group of human refugees who fled Earth's destruction and established a new home in an asteroid belt. Aliens, not asteroids, would have been the primary threat in this space adventure. Emmerich has long since dropped out, and the fact that we haven't heard any new developments since means we may never know whether a good Asteroids movie is possible.
Notable names: Gore Verbinski, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
With its underwater dystopia setting, unique art style and atmosphere, and intellectual plot, BioShock seems tailor made for a movie adaptation. Clearly Universal thought so too, as they acquired the rights to the franchise and quickly began developing an adaptation. Pirates of the Caribbean's Gore Verbinski was attached to direct the movie, which reportedly would have relied heavily on 300-esque CGI environments in order to depict the city of Rapture.
Unfortunately, that reliance on special effects coupled with Verbinski's desire to deliver a rare video game movie with a hard R-rating made BioShock a serious financial risk. The project stalled in 2010 because of budgetary concerns, and eventually Verbinski moved on to the CG-animated movie Rango. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) was subsequently named as director, with Verbinski possibly staying on as producer. Unfortunately, Universal is no longer tied to the movie, and the challenge is in finding a studio willing to support such a huge financial investment. It's possible BioShock will rise from the depths, but after so many years of false starts and stalled momentum, we're not getting our hopes up.
Notable names: Paul W.S. Anderson, James Wan
News of a possible Castlevania movie first surfaced in 2005 when the rights were acquired by Crystal Sky Pictures. The one constant element since then has been director Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson has seem intent on adding Castlevania to his video game movie resume (which includes the Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil franchises). Anderson indicated that the movie would focus on the origins of Dracula and his rivalry with the Belmont family of vampire slayers, and that the movie would focus on different time periods.
The project cycled between several studios and went through multiple rewrites over the years. It appears to have come close to filming on at least one occasion, with locations having been scouted in Hungary and Romania. But the onset of the WGA strike in 2007 seemed to put a permanent stake through the movie's heart.
2009 saw the project briefly revive under new writer/director James Wan (Saw). Anderson likely would have remained involved in some capacity. But no serious news has surfaced in the four years since. This project is not so much undead at this point as just plain dead. Watch what Anderson had to tell us about the project last summer:
Gears of War
Notable names: Len Wiseman, Kate Beckinsale
Gears of War is another adaptation that came agonizingly close to filming. Len Wiseman (Underworld) was attached to direct for New Line, with a budget of $150 million to bring this violent, bombastic first-person shooter to life. Wiseman's movie would have been a prequel to the first game, focusing on Marcus Fenix and showing how he acquired his signature scar. Interestingly, Wiseman's wife and Underworld star Kate Beckinsale was rumored to be starring in the film, giving the movie a somewhat more feminine touch than the testosterone-laden games.
However, the project stalled as New Line sought to reduce the budget and commissioned script rewrites. The studio was looking to cut the budget to $100 million and, reportedly, aim for a more intimate storyline in the vein of Cloverfield. Wiseman dropped out of the project at that point. If Beckinsale was ever slated to star, she departed with him. The continued popularity of the games means a Gears of War movie may still happen, but it won't be with these two aboard.
God of War
Notable names: Brett Ratner
God of War creator David Jaffe first brought word of a potential God of War movie when he revealed that writer David Self had penned an adaptation of the first game. As we reported back in 2009,the script was apparently very faithful to the game's events apart from a significantly altered ending. Later, Brett Ratner confired his involvement with the project but noted that he was waiting for Universal to green-light a script. Nothing ever came of that, obviously, and Jaffe later expressed doubts that the movie would ever come to fruition.
Currently, however, the movie has a new script penned by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. When we interviewed the duo last August, they expressed a desire to humanize Kratos and that the movie will be a prequel of sorts to the first game.
So there may well be a God of War movie in the future. But it's interesting to wonder what might have happened if Ratner had actually directed it himself. Ratner has a fairly rocky history with popular franchises, and we wonder if his God of War would have been more Red Dragon or X-Men: The Last Stand.
Notable names: Peter Jackson, Neill Blomkamp
Like BioShock, Halo's cinematic style and epic action pieces make it a natural fit for the Hollywood realm. But it faces a similar series of hurdles along the way. One of the big challenges has been Microsoft itself. Frank O'Connor has noted the company's desire to wait for the ideal partner rather than rushing into an adaptation. Microsoft's fairly steep terms for royalties made many studios reluctant to commit, though they did finally strike a joint deal with 20th Century Fox and Universal.
At that point, it looked as though Halo would have Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) produce and Neill Blomkamp (District 9) direct. Though District 9 had yet to be filmed at the time, Blomkamp was chosen because of his prior experience filming a live-action Halo 3 promo. Unfortunately, Fox and later Universal dropped out because of budgetary concerns and disagreements over financial terms.
Since then, Jackson and Blomkamp went on to make District 9, and Microsoft has gone back to playing the waiting game. Blomkamp has dismissed the idea of returning to the project, citing his frustration over months of fruitless labor. There were rumblings in 2009 of Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks tackling Halo, but we haven't heard anything on that front since. For the time being the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn web series is the closest thing there is to a live-action Halo feature film.
Kane & Lynch
Notable names: Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis
The violent action games featuring two gun-toting Death Row escapees almost made the jump to Hollywood. Kane & Lynch was scheduled for a 2011 release from Lionsgate. Kyle Ward penned the script and leaked the involvement of actors Bruce Willis and Jamie Foxx via Twitter. Willis was signed on to play Kane, while Foxx would have played Lynch (reportedly portrayed as being less psychologically damaged than the character in the games). Jon Lovitz was rumored to be playing a character named Mongo.
Director Simon Ward was slated to direct the film, but he dropped out and the movie seemed to lose momentum afterward. The 2011 release date has been pushed back to 2013. Obviously, that timeframe is no longer realistic either. IGN interviewed Willis recently for A Good Day to Die Hard and he confirmed that he's no longer involved with the movie.
Notable names: John Woo
Has there been any video game adaptation languishing in development hell longer than Metroid? Of Nintendo's many popular franchises, Metroid is arguably the one best suited for a film transition. But aside from the fact that John Woo acquired the rights in 2004, there's been very little in the way of concrete information on the project.
In December we had the chance to interview one of the employees of production company Tiger Hill to find out more about the Metroid movie that might have been. According to Brad Foxhoven, the movie would have explored the early years of interstellar bounty hunter Samus Aran. However, the movie never progressed past the script treatment stage, in large part because of difficulties working with Nintendo. Nintendo, for their part, were cautious about the project after the massive critical and commercial failure of the Super Mario Bros. movie. Nor was there much consensus about how Samus should be portrayed outside of the action scenes.
At this point, Woo has long since moved on, and Metroid is no closer to becoming a movie than it was ten years ago. We have to wonder if this could have been the elusive great video game movie we've been waiting for all this time.
Notable names: John Woo, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
Add Spy Hunter to the list of video game movies that almost happened. Universal acquired the rights to this action/racing franchise in 2003, signing Dwayne Johnson to star the following year. Production was scheduled to begin in mid 2004 for a summer 2005 release. The good news continued to flow when John Woo signed on to direct. If we can't have a John Woo-helmed Metroid movie, why not Spy Hunter?
Sadly, the movie staled shortly after as new writers were brought in to overhaul the script. Woo was forced to drop out in 2005 due to scheduling conflicts. Johnson remained committed to Spy Hunter for a time, but eventually he too dropped out. Video game movie veteran Paul W.S. Anderson was brought on board to direct in 2007, though nothing came of that announcement either.
The most recent news surrounding Spy Hunter is that Warner Bros. now holds the rights, with Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) attached to direct and produce. We'll see if Fleischer has any more luck than Woo or Anderson did.
Interestingly, there is one surviving relic of the Woo/Johnson era. Midway published a game called Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run in 2005 that had been intended to act as a tie-in to the movie. The game features Johnson's voice and likeness as agent Alex Decker and offers a glimpse as to how the transforming Interceptor car might have looked on screen.
Super Mario Bros.
Notable names: Tom Hanks, Danny DeVito, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Keaton
We seriously doubt anyone is going to attempt another live-action adaptation of the Super Mario Bros. franchise after the disastrous 1993 movie. Little about the games suggests that such a thing is feasible or even necessary.
But last year, the release of author Jeff Ryan's retrospective book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America provided an interesting glimpse of the Mario movie that almost was. For one thing, Danny DeVito was offered the chance to both direct and star as Mario in the movie. Later, Tom Hanks was cast in the Mario role before being replaced by Bob Hoskins. We suspect Hanks is grateful in hindsight. Finally, both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton turned down the chance to play Bowser, a role that eventually went to Dennis Hopper.
It's interesting to wonder how the movie might have turned out with DeVito in charge or Schwarzenegger hamming it up four years prior to his turn as Mr. Freeze. We doubt the end result would have been much better than what we got, but the extra star power couldn't have hurt.
Notable names: Mark Wahlberg, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Had things worked out, we might have been flocking to theaters last year to see a very different David O. Russell movie than The Silver Linings Playbook. Russell signed on to direct this adaptation of the action/adventure series for Columbia Pictures. Russell assembled an impressive cast for the venture. The movie would have seen him reunite with The Fighter star Mark Wahlberg for a fourth time, with Wahlberg playing lead hero Nathan Drake. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were slated to play Darke's father and uncle, respectively.
Russell was hard at work on developing the script in late 2010, and the movie was expected to go into production the following year. Unfortunately, Russell eventually dropped out due to creative differences, and Wahlberg and the rest of the cast followed. Neil Burger (Limitless) was then brought on board to direct and rewrite the script, though he later dropped out.
It's unfortunate that Russell's Uncharted never came to pass. His resume, along with the credibility of actors like Wahlberg, strongly suggested that Uncharted would have been the video game movie to finally break the mold.
Notable names: Sam Raimi
Count yourself lucky that Blizzard takes an active role in the development of movie adaptations of its properties. Infamous director Uwe Boll (In the Name of the King, House of the Dead) expressed a strong interest in adding Warcraft to his ever-growing lineup of game adaptations. But to their credit, Blizzard's representatives made it abundantly clear that they wouldn't work with Boll.
Instead, it seemed as though Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Evil Dead) would be the man to bring the realm of Azeroth to life. Raimi turned his attention to Warcraft after plans for Spider-Man 4 fell through. Screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) was brought in to pen the script. Unfortunately, Raimi eventually left the project in order to tackle the recent Oz the Great and Powerful. Apparently, Blizzard was unhappy with the script and the generally slow pace of development, but Raimi recently blamed Blizzard for why his movie never happened.
While we never got Raimi's Warcraft, we still saw the director lend his quirky style to another fantasy world. And the good news is that Duncan Jones (Moon) is now slated to direct the movie for a planned 2015 release.