Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.
Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games
Boardgames and card games are the oldest form of gaming, found in all cultures throughout history. From mere diversions to gambling to war preparations, boardgaming has spread far and wide. While there are some games designed for just one person, such as the various solitaire games for cards, the vast majority of games require at least two people. And, yet, there are few projects based on a boardgame. There are many movies that feature a game or are centred on a game, but very few that bring the game to the screen. Part of the reason is that the conflict is between the players. The musical Chess** features the drama between two chess players during the Cold War. Poker is a fixture in many movies, from Maverick to God of Gamblers where, again, the conflict between the poker players is the focus. Battleship became part of the plot in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
As for boardgame movies, there is Clue and there is Battleship. Jumanji, for all its appearances of being based on a boardgame, is based on a short story. The boardgame came out after the movie. Hasbro does have some movies in the works based on their game lines, detailed earlier.
Last week, I listed key elements that needed to be dealt with to adapt well: plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Unlike video games where the game needs an icon for the player***, boardgames might just have a coloured token that has no backstory at all. Game bits may include money equivalents, miniatures to represent items, tokens for keeping score, and parts to add to the board. In a few games, the players’ pieces are identified by colour, with the shape of the tokens representing in-game elements.
For the vast majority of movies centred around games, the game shows up as itself within the work. The plot comes from the drama and conflict between the players as they play the game. Gambling games tend to be the focus of this type of movie. It isn’t the poker tournament that is the focus, but the players in it. The setting is where the game is played, whether it’s a saloon on the American frontier, a high class casino in Europe, or a back room in a seedy neighbourhood pool hall. The gameplay is on screen, performed by the characters.
Lately, though, as Lost in Translation previewed last year, boardgames are now being adapted as movies. Monopoly, Risk, Candyland, and a remake of Clue have all been announced. Risk and the similar in scope Axis and Allies involve a world at war, the former set in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the latter during World War II. Typically, movies set during wars of those times would focus on a particular historical element or figure and not need the game at all. Boardgames like Monopoly are about trading and getting rich, again, plots that can be handled easily without the baggage that a boardgame would bring. Monopoly, however, does bring with it a setting, Atlantic City.
For traditional boardgames, the plot can be pulled from the game itself, based on what the winning condition is. Some games, such as The Game of Life and Redneck Life, fit the bill poorly, covering the lifespan of the player’s token. Others, like Battleship, handwave away why there is a conflict between the players, assuming that if the players didn’t want to play the game, they wouldn’t. This leads to the writing staff having to create the reason for the conflict.
In terms of characters, again, few boardgames name their tokens, with Clue being the main exception. Some characters may be named, such as Monopoly‘s Rich Uncle Pennybags and Redneck Life‘s Uncle Clem, but they’re not playable. Typically, the players aren’t placed into a role. They just play the game. To adapt a game, characters will have to be created and cast; few people will pay to see a giant dog token hop down the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Boardgames do give the adapters a break on setting. The board itself can be turned into the setting. The movie Clue adapted the game’s board well, including the secret passageways and the relative locations of all the rooms. Battleship was set on the Pacific Ocean, providing the nice rich blue sea the game’s boards represent. The exceptions are games similar to Life and Redneck Life, where the boards represent a metaphorical journey instead of a physical one.
Gameplay is going to be the hardest part to adapt properly. Unlike games, people don’t walk a number of steps based on a die roll and don’t move one at a time in order. Games that have inter-player negotiation, such as Monopoly and Diplomacy**** fare a little better here, as players interact with each other in a dramatic conflict, as dramatic as the players want to get.+ In a work of fiction, the desires of both sides of the negotiations can be played up and the movement on the board can be downplayed.
Boardgames will take a deft hand to adapt properly, to keep the feel of the game while still producing characters and a plot that works within the constraints of the original work. The difficulties explain why few boardgames have been adapted directly. Clue managed to keep the feel of the game and worked with the existing characters to produce an entertaining movie. Battleship tried, hard, but might have been a better movie without the name attached.
Next week, part III looks at adapting tabletop role-playing games and wargames.
* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Someone made the leap.
*** Yes, there are exceptions like Duck Hunt, but the player still is represented by the crosshairs.
**** Diplomacy and, to a lesser degree, Risk and Axis & Allies could also be covered next week as wargames.
+ “Hey, want Reading and B&O for Illinois and Oriental?” “Only if you toss in Boardwalk.”