Over the past ten years theaters have seen an abundance of films based on video games, but there’s a new addition to the from-game-to-film fray: movies inspired by board games and toys. We’ve seen multiple films based on action figures, including Transformers in 2007 and G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra in 2009. Both films hit the box office hard and have since spawned sequels; Transformers was followed by Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon (aka Not A Pink Floyd Album), with discussion of a fourth film in the works. Meanwhile the G.I. Joe sequel G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation is set for release next year, and earlier this week we saw our first glimpses of a film based on the children’s game Battleship–a film appropriately titled, well, Battleship. The film is due out in 2012 and stars a pretty impressive line-up of actors including Liam Neeson and Alexander Skarsgard. Oh, and also Rihanna for some reason.
Yes, whether you like it or not, your childhood is coming to a theater near you, thanks in large part to the brains behind Hasbro, Inc., the board game and toy company that owns the rights to all of the products that spawned the films listed above. The company is developing into a one-stop shop for all your entertainment needs–a new Disney. It’s really a brilliant bit of strategy worthy of Battleship–the company’s placing its pegs in the biggest entertainment markets in order to win big. More and more children find themselves playing games on computers, smartphones, and video game systems, rather than playing with good ole reliable pegs and boards, so a move to other forms of entertainment makes financial sense. In fact, a move into film development is pretty ingenious, since film franchises often lead to increased sales of film-related merchandise likes action figures and branded lunch boxes (kids still use lunch boxes, right?). With films like Battleship, Hasbro gets two pieces of the pie: a piece of the film profits, and a bite of the toy sales that (they hope) will go hand-in-hand with ticket sales.
So moving into the film field makes financial sense to Hasbro, but does it make sense for the studios involved? It certainly paid off for Paramount when they helped produce the Transformers movies. Thankfully, studios seem to realize, however, that the success of Transformers does not mean every action figure can spawn a film franchise. Universal, for example, recently paid a rumored $5 million to back out of a deal to develop a Ouija board movie with Hasbro. Hollywood screenwriters have been playing hot potato with the screenplay ever since, but despite Universal’s decision to pull out of the project, the Ouija board movie is still in development. The rumor mill indicates that Hasbro is also developing films based on Candyland, Risk, Micronauts, Stretch Armstrong (allegedly Taylor Lautner is attached to that gem), Magic: The Gathering, and (gasp! no!) Clue. Why Hasbro would try to adapt Clue a second time is beyond me–you can’t beat Madeline Kahn and Tim Curry in the 1985 film.
Whether or not you disagree with me about the veritable merits of Transformers and the game-to-film concept, I think we can all agree that board games and action figures give studios little to work with in the adaptation process, especially since most toys (especially board games) lack any sort of developed characters or narrative. Action figures like G.I. Joe are fairly amenable to film adaptation because they come with what is tantamount to a loose back-story and setting, but they certainly offer very little with which to work. On the board game front, Clue only worked because the set-up for the board game is driven by a traditional whodunnit plot, which could easily be converted to film. Not to mention the fact that there was already an actual cast of characters set up before the film adaptation process even began. But Clue feels like the exception to the board game rule; after all, Chutes and Ladders doesn’t exactly lend itself to film adaptation. There aren’t any characters and certainly there are no complex plot twists. Who would be the villain? A mutant monster slide? My hope is that Hasbro will realize what Universal, in all its ‘oh my god you want to make a movie about a board that summons ghosts’ wisdom did: that not every little toy can become a decent (and watchable) movie.
For my part, I’d love it if Hasbro would simply leave everyone’s childhoods well enough alone. I didn’t particularly enjoy G.I. Joe or those orgies of explosions Michael Bay calls the Transformers franchise. If the latest trailer for Battleship is any indication, that film is going to be a hot mess that even Liam Neeson can’t save. Honestly, it looks so ridiculous that my roommate thought the trailer was a joke. I have to admit that (perhaps irrationally?) what also bothers me about Battleship is the fact that the film is about an alien invasion. Battleship is a game of “tactical combat” involving the strategic “sinking” of your opponents naval brigade–so why couldn’t the film adaptation just be about two human-run navies facing off? Why did they have to go all Independence Day on it? Okay, maybe it’s irrational of me to complain that they don’t stick to the rules of the game, but it just feels like they had a perfect set-up within the game and they just ignore it. Maybe it’s because Hollywood thinks aliens make everything better. And I’m sorry, but a Ouija board film is just unwanted and unnecessary. The only way I see a Ouija board movie working is if the producers go the horror movie route and make a film about a girl being possessed by an evil spirit she conjured through a Ouija board. But we all know Hasbro won’t go the horror route because they’ll want kids to see the movie and buy the game.
I think what really bugs me is this idea that any game or toy out there can (and should) be turned into a film. Not every object in the world can be the inspiration for a movie. It feels like Hasbro is trying to shoehorn its products into the forms of previously successful films; a simple game of military strategy like Battleship becomes a kind of Independence Day at Sea. The blatant self-serving nature of the entire production doesn’t help either, since we as spectators know that the impetus of the film is to encourage the purchase of not just a theater ticket, but also the products upon which the film was based. But then again, I guess that’s not different from every other blockbuster out there, is it? Maybe most spectators don’t care where the inspiration for a movie comes from, but I can’t help but think that a hollow and flimsy set-up like a board game “plot” will make for a crappy film. And I’m sorry, but no one is going to benefit from (or enjoy) a Ouija board movie. Once Lawn Darts Redux is released into theaters we’ll know we’ve reached a new level of absurdity in film.