The biggest distinguishing feature about film is that it’s all about showing, not telling. Sure, you can have a narrator, to a certain extent, but take that too far and it becomes an audiobook with moving pictures. In games, you relate to the character by your choices, while in books, you can live in the character’s head and see what they’re thinking and feeling. Film doesn’t have that luxury.
As there have been many adaptations of video games and books to movies and TV shows, I’ll look at some of them this week to further explain my point.
The game Persona 4 was adapted to an animated TV series last year. In the game, you play a silent protagonist. There’s an overarching story, but you also make many choices such as who you become friends with and what personality traits to develop in the protagonist. He becomes an avatar of the player, who is making the character’s choices.
The TV series tried to be faithful to the game, so much so that the main character was emotionless most of the time. The character felt like a collection of words and actions that didn’t quite make up an interesting, fully-fleshed person. He was missing that element of individuality–particular likes and dislikes, idiosyncratic behaviours and even the irrationality that’s part of all humans to varying degrees. In the game, these elements were projected onto the character by the player; film, however, is a non-interactive medium. All characters must be able to stand on their own merits.
Obviously, bringing a player-interpreted character to life is hard to pull off in film. If done right, it can provide a unique twist on the character, letting the viewers see the world of the game in a different way. Though the Prince of Persia movie wasn’t exactly a critical success, it did a good job keeping the key plot elements–prince invading country, treacherous vizier, and… the ending, which I won’t spoil. It also fleshed out the main protagonist and side characters with additional backstory that increased the tension and the stakes.
In Persona 4, a big part of the story is fighting through levels of dungeons that represent a character’s psyche. The monsters (or “Shadows”, as they’re called) are all themed, providing further insight to that character that must fight them. The TV series glossed over most of the fighting and went to the key story points. It cut out the hours of mind-numbing, repetitive battles required to level up your characters so they wouldn’t get wiped out in the next part of the game. It also cut many sidequests and events to keep the viewers engaged with the main plot from beginning to end.
The pacing of the TV series was an improvement over the game, but there was less of a connection to the world and the characters. Just how much of the game mechanics to throw out is a fine line that the scriptwriters must walk.
As for books versus films, I’ll use The Hunger Games for my example. The main plot revolves around a yearly event where a group of children are thrown into an arena to fight to the death, in an extreme version of a reality show. The novel by Suzanne Collins, written in first person, is as much about the internal conflict of the main character, Katniss, as it is about the wider issues of oppression, power and corruption, and the effects of war and violence. Katniss struggles with her own feelings about her two love interests, decides how she will act for the cameras for the best chance of survival, and forms her own opinions on the state of the society she lives in.
But the movie can only show the book’s internalising and self-reflection to a limited extent. We don’t see much of her internal monologues as she struggles with her feelings for her fellow contestants. The romance scenes, in particular, are missing a lot of texture in comparison to the book. We don’t see Katniss weigh up her feelings for the boy who is her fellow contestant, and her feelings for the other boy waiting for her back home. We don’t have access to her thinking and reasoning as she struggles to play to the watching audience, so they’ll send her gifts crucial to her survival. Film cannot show that. It needs actions and reactions; where characters in books can spend the better part of a chapter ruminating, characters in films can’t go speaking their thoughts out loud for a whole scene.
So to replace the internal struggles, the Hunger Games film focuses on the themes of the book instead. It cuts to the outside world, where we can see how the public are reacting to what Katniss is doing. We see the oppressed rising up and rioting, and the privileged ruminate on the nature of power. It’s a macro view of the story.
But the best thing that film has over books? The triumphal, atmospheric music that plays as the camera sweeps over the incredible grandeur of the main stadium, and all the contestants in the Hunger Games are introduced to the public for the first time. It’s enough to make anyone watching want to stand up and cheer with the audience. It engages more of your senses to draw you into the world and take hold of your emotions so you can simply enjoy the ride.
This is why there are times I choose to watch a movie or a TV show as opposed to playing a game or reading a book. I watch when I want to be drawn into the rich soil of someone else’s imagination and see it brought to life both visually and aurally. (Tell me the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is not touching, haunting, and memorable). I watch when I’m drained of energy and creativity, and need to recharge and be inspired by others.
This is why film will always be a unique, valuable medium for storytelling. It’s why games and books can never replace it. And I think it will be around for a long time to come.