Script: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

So reasonably, I ought to be using this space to talk about the game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. What makes it a brilliant game that balances amazingly smooth gameplay and first-rate storytelling chops, that sort of thing. But since I'm allowed to talk about whatever I like here, I'm going to indulge myself by going waaayyy off on a tangent and ask the age-old question: why can't we get a decent movie based on a video game? The answer, as I see it, is largely one of timing. Specifically, the timing of the movie Super Mario Bros. Let's face it, we were not ready to adapt popular video games into major motion pictures in 1993. There were a few games, mostly text adventures and RPGs, which had passably fleshed-out stories, but for the most part video games at the time had stories like - well, like Super Mario Bros.

As good a game as it is, Super Mario Bros. is not a story but a jumble of random psychedelic imagery where an Italian plumber punches mushrooms out of bricks and eats them to grow larger, and kills flying turtles with hand fireballs gained from eating flowers, and climbs beanstalks up into clouds to get floating coins and so on and so on. The movie is exactly what you'd expect to get when you pay Hollywood screenwriters to ask themselves: "So why exactly is Mario teleporting through sewer pipes? Where did he get a pet dinosaur exactly? How do we explain goombas?" That is to say, it's a nonsensical pile of garbage.

But the problem is, that as universally loathed as it was, it was still a Mario Bros. movie, and kids HAD to see it, so it made money. And a precedent was set. Studios got it into their heads that video games were pap that could be lazily turned into a different kind of pap in order to turn a quick, small profit. Then followed films like Street Fighter and Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat, all following that exact formula.

Of course, in the meantime gaming matured. We started to get sophisticated narratives and eventually we would have games with stories and characterisations so good that the story would be the single biggest selling point - let's face it, nobody was buying Mass Effect for the cover-based shooting or resource management. But the problem was, Hollywood still had a winning formula on its hands. Sure, they could start developing quality films based on these actually fleshed-out stories, but why bother when they were still making an easy profit with their churned-out garbage?

And so we got Tomb Raider, and Hitman, and Max Payne, and Doom, and the Resident Evil franchise, and Need for Speed, and the works of Uwe Boll. Ugh. There were only two adaptations that showed any degree of ambition. One was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, an interesting film but also a failure on more levels than I could possibly go into here. The other was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

This film was at the time the single best film I'd seen based on a video game, and also the biggest disappointment. It was a disappointment because they gave the movie a good director, a good cast, a decent budget and a fair amount of studio support, and it still only turned out okay; but beyond that, it was a disappointment because for once they actually were adapting a game with a solid narrative, something that could have been faithfully adapted into a very good movie, and instead they just threw almost the entire thing out. Gone was the prince's redemption arc; he was turned instead into a dull non-entity with no flaws.


All they kept from the game's story was the time-changing dagger, the treacherous vizier, and the third-act twist - except while the leap back to the start of the story was a brilliantly set-up surprise in the game, in the film they actually told the audience in advance that that was how the hourglass worked, a fact that still dumbfounds me to this day. Basically put, the movie version of Sands of Time was depressing to me because it showed that, even under ideal circumstances, Hollywood was not interested in actually adapting a video game's story into a film.

The future doesn't look much better; if early hints of the upcoming Assassin's Creed movie are any indication, the relation between the game's narrative and the film's will be tenuous at best. Incidentally, you might note that I said Sands of Time was the best video game movie I'd seen "at the time." As that suggests, yes, I have seen a film since then which is not only good, but also follows the story of the game surprisingly closely. It is, believe it or not, the Japanese motion picture based on the original Ace Attorney, by - of all people - Takashi Miike, director of Ichi the Killer and Audition.



Add new comment