Books. Movies. Games. The three of those media each specialize in certain forms of narrative storytelling, forms based around presentation and audience participation. In this essay, I’m going to briefly go over how I interpret these three forms of storytelling and how each differ in their pros and cons.
First, books: the classic form of sharing tales. It is known nowadays that opening a book is signing a contract, an agreement with the author; the author will present the story and the reader will interpret it as close to how it was intended. If the reader skims certain sections or forgets to pay attention, the contract is broken and the reader’s perception of the story is no longer valid. For movies and games, this is much harder to do. The reason that there is even this unspoken contract is because imagination is required. As long as the author writes well, the reader can imagine what they’re being told. For movies, games, and other sorts of visual presentation, this contract is void. The entire responsibility lies in the hands of the filmmaking crew to present the story as they’ve intended.
Of course, another entire essay can be written on how a movie trailer is the studio’s promise to you regarding the story you’ll be paying to experience, but that’s for another time.
Of the three media, movies are the most “escapist” without a doubt. Games and books require some level of participation but movies are usually the most passive of the three. Literally, books require you to turn pages or scroll but more seriously, think and process information. Games require you to control characters and events but also weigh options, act on them, and then either correct your mistakes or proceed through the story. Movies require you to have your eyes open and ears attentive, with optional speculation and contemplation occurring as well. However, speculation and contemplation are less important during films because all of your questions will be answered in less than two hours from when the questions are presented to you. For the other two media, you may have dozens of hours to piece together puzzles or conjecture what will happen later in the plot. Because of those reasons, movies are the easiest to experience. Often times, they require little thought (for the average consumer) and the least amount of participation. Passivity.
On the other side of the spectrum lie video games, easily the most active experiences compared to movies and books. The developers work for years on a single title, and then release it to the consumer. The promise here is that the game will be complete on launch so that the player has a glitchless and fluid experience. Analogy: a video game is a sandbox, and the developer is responsible for filling it with sand while the player is only responsible for not mixing the sand with water or any other destructive act. Game developers as storytellers are the most trusting of the audience. While reading demands collaboration between the author and reader, gaming demands cooperation. It may seem similar, but a book is simply a blueprint that the reader builds off of while a game is a complete building that the player runs around in. And movies are recordings of somebody walking around in the buildings.
The relation between the three media doesn’t stop at how active or passive the experiences are, though. The method of storytelling just might be the biggest differences. Organization. Presentation. These two factors can shape, make, or break the entire audience experience. While that goes for all three media, the specificities are where true analysis begins.
Since we’re comparing books, movies, and games, we need control variables to accurately contrast the three. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King will be our book representative, Iron Man will be our movie representative, and Halo will be our game representative. Each of those titles as adaptations in the other two media, so no bias will be present as we compare the three.
The Return of the King
As many of you know, Return of the King is a fantasy epic written by J.R.R. Tolkien and serves as the conclusion to his The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2003, it was adapted to film and the following year, the film was adapted into a game. The differences in the platform are enormous when looking at the same story, and one worry that many fans had pre-film-release was that nobody could ever capture the epic proportions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, nor the characters’ depth and likability, or the emotional impact that the main narrative and side stories had on millions of people. Because of the nature of film as a shorter medium than novels, a lot had to be cut out but fans hoped that the most important things would be left in. Luckily, the movie is acclaimed, beloved, and held in the highest regard even sweeping the 2004 Academy Awards for every category it was nominated in. Still considered one of the greatest movies of all time, Return of the King became a rare exception of the movie being as respected as the book.
The video game, on the other hand, fell flat. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any good video games set in the Lord of the Rings / Middle-Earth lore, because there are, but what worked great as a book, and as a movie, didn’t work as a game. There are a few reasons why I think this is [excluding (for now) graphical limitations of 2003 video games] and the main one is consistency. The Return of the King movie worked because it didn’t change the essence of the novel but the game changed the essence of the movie: it became less story-driven and more action-driven. That’s not what Return of the King was about but a video game has to do more than just tell a story, it has to let the player help tell the story. More on this later.
You can look at Harry Potter, Narnia, or any other novel that has been adapted to screen and console to see similar trends: quality drops immensely. One other reason that books don’t translate well to video games and movies is that the reader has a specific picture of what the world looks like, what the characters sound like, and what the tone of the story is. However, every reader reads each line differently which means the screenwriter, director, and producers of the film most likely won’t adapt it how you imagined it. Then, whoever develops the game simply copies whoever made the movie. It’s a failed business model and that’s why you don’t see many games based on movies anymore. Books, however, you can find anywhere with your eyes closed because they offer unique experiences to everybody.
Now, one could say (rightfully so) that Iron Man didn’t start out as a movie, but actually a comic book. However, I would argue that a comic book is still a type of visual storytelling and this specific story that occurs in the film is separate from the comic book origins. So…
When a property that starts out as a movie and then is adapted to prose and game, it usually doesn’t see much (or any) success across other media. Marvel’s Iron Man is one such instance as the novelization and video game adaptation both failed to capture the tone and story of the film (starting to see a trend?). The novelization was based on the movie and is only written as a bland summary of what one would see on screen. Really, anybody could write the novelization during/after watching the movie and since the film itself was such a unique and fun breath of fresh air…how could a book capture that aesthetic? Some things, such as Robert Downey Jr.’s acting, the soundtrack, and visuals, could never accurately be captured by words on a page.
The game, on the other hand, was abhorrent. Even to my 13 year-old self, the game was boring, repetitive, and glitchy as possible. It captured not only nothing of what made the story great, but the action and characters were seemingly ignored as well. Any game based off of a movie is usually this way, as it’s just a cash grab to try to expand on story to another medium with no effort in adaptation.
On the other hand…
Of course, video games aren’t always bad (which may be what I’ve made it seem like when talking about the dumpster fires of video game-related adaptations). And, to keep these comparisons from getting stale, I’ve chosen adaptations that aren’t direct translations from the story in the original game. Halo Combat Evolved has, of course spawned sequels, prequels, and spinoffs but also inspired books and movies that further explore the worlds and characters depicted within the “universe.”
The Halo-inspired stories featured in books such as First Strike or Forward Unto Dawn tell their own stories and don’t tie themselves down by trying to stay as close to the original plot as possible. First Strike takes place between the first and second games and that’s why it works: it tells it’s own story and takes it own time doing so. I haven’t seen FUD and don’t plan to because of a few reasons. A) It doesn’t seem as epic as the franchise deserves to be and B) you can’t make Master Chief into a movie character. There are some things that absolutely do not translate between media and a character like Master Chief is certainly one of those things.
In the game, Master Chief is a soft-spoken bad-ass master of combat but in a movie, he’d seem boring, stale, and pretentious. I mean, look at the movie Drive. Ryan Gosling’s nameless character says very little and because of that, audience members all seem to have different interpretations of what kind of a person he is. If we were in his head, as we would be in a video game, we’d be able to know much more about him not because we know his thoughts (we don’t) but because the line between player and character are much more blurred. If you play Halo as if it’s a stealth game, you’d say Master Chief is a methodic and careful master of the shadows. If you play Halo in a speed run, you’d say Master Chief is a shoot-first, run-and-gun monster of death. Video games cannot easily be made into movies because the characters are never adapted properly. They serve the story, but in a movie, it’s the story that serves the character.
Reading a book is hearing about something happening, watching a movie is seeing something happen, and playing a game is doing it yourself. It’s sort of like a criminal case: you have hearsay, eyewitness testimony, and the criminal him/herself admitting to the crime. All three of these media are successful in their own way and depending on how passive or active the audience member wants to be, there is an appropriate type of storytelling made just for that person.