Face Off: Would BioShock Infinite make a good movie?
This week’s debate asks whether or not a film adaptation of BioShock Infinite could work, or if it misses the point. "No," says the man from Michigan: Evan thinks that BioShock's themes and intricate plot don't suit a Hollywood reproduction. On the other side, Tyler doesn’t see why Infinite’s great story couldn’t become a great film, if all else goes well.
Read the debate below, continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. Evan, you have the floor:
[We've attempted to keep spoilers to a minimum, but those especially sensitive to story discussion should stay clear until they’ve finished the game.]
Evan: I enjoy the wave of discussion that BioShock games inspire whenever they release. A lot of the comment threads and chatter about Infinite have circled around storytelling—whether Infinite’s intricate ending was a hit or a miss; whether Elizabeth was effective as a companion character; and whether Infinite would make a good film.
It’s an interesting idea, but I’m skeptical that BioShock Infinite: The Movie wouldn’t do anything other than soil our existing, pretty-darn-great opinion of the fiction.
Tyler: It might do that. It’s a very entertaining story told in a very entertaining way—interactively—and a movie can’t replicate that. But I’m devil’s advocate in this debate, and I say it might actually be a good movie.
Film is a different medium, so we’re talking about an adaptation. We’re talking about stripping away the game to see what’s left, and using that to build something new. And what is left? An intricate, fascinating story with characters I still want to know more about. That’s a fantastic place for a script to start, and with the right vision behind it, we’d get to experience something we love in a different way.
Evan: What would that film look like? I know it’s unfair to ask you spontaneously become a screenwriter, but what would a BioShock movie be about?
Tyler: I think we’d most likely see a new story in the “BioShock universe,” and that’s probably the best choice, but for the sake of argument I’ll test the idea of seeing Booker’s story, as we played it.
Obviously, the film would spend more time establishing Booker’s relationship with Elizabeth than showing him shooting dudes in the head. Actually, it might do a better job of that. The game’s cutscenes were fine, but Elizabeth was a very confused character when dynamically reacting to Booker’s violence. A film wouldn’t need to make that story concession, because it wouldn’t have to support gameplay.
Likewise, Comstock could be more intimidating, and all the foreshadowing could be better paced and less heavy-handed. Film is a one-sitting, two-or-so hour medium. It wouldn’t have to repeat itself to remain understandable and communicate its themes.
And when it comes to shooting dudes, imagine a choreographed skyline battle. Oh man, Evan, how cool would that be? Acrobatic ultraviolence is fun to play, but it’s also a helluva lot of fun to watch.
Evan: I think you’re underestimating how well BioShock’s good things would migrate onto film. So much of what happens hinges on a first-person perspective, on having control given and taken away during different moments. The Voxophones—being able to get on-demand exposition, essentially. Exploration. Think about the elegant way Infinite introduces Vigors with contextual, interactive carnival games. I feel like a film’s only solution to explaining something like Vigors—and they’d have to, right?—would be clumsy dialogue.
Tyler: It’s true that interactivity helps with exposition, but why couldn’t the film Booker play those same carnival games? And in this version, we could actually see his astonishment. In the game, he takes it all very matter of factly, I thought.
Regarding Voxophones—OK, you got me. Films are much shorter, and no one would accept watching Booker listen to audio logs. Every medium has limitations, strengths and weaknesses. I think the story could still be told, but we’d lose a portion of the backstory, the sense of being in a place at a point in time that you get from examining your surroundings in the game. The film medium would make up for that with the things it’s better suited for.
Evan: The idea of Film Booker just miming what you did as a player sounds awful. It undermines the meaning of those first impressions you have as a player. It gives me two slightly-different versions of the same events. And worst of all, it indicates to me that an Infinite movie at its best would just be a series of references.
The Watchmen film adaptation demonstrated that not every respected work of fiction should be forced onto film. The graphic novel was too long to make into a movie, and separating some of its thematic heart into a direct-to-DVD extra (Tales of the Black Freighter) was a clumsy solution that meant you were left to judge the movie itself based on how well its creators converted the frames and speech bubbles (it’s word for word, in some scenes) into moving pictures.
That’s not storytelling. It’s a paint-by-numbers exercise that lacks its own purpose, and it arises from film creators—understandably, to some extent—consecrating an original text that’s really, really good. And the alternative to rigid reproduction in instances like BioShock and Infinite isn’t any better, I think. You’d be deviating and telling a secondary story within a place like Columbia. I don’t think that’d be any more interesting, considering how integral Comstock, Booker and Elizabeth are to the setting and its downfall.
Tyler: I liked Watchmen, actually, but I was just giving an example of how interactivity isn’t wholly intertwined with Infinite’s story or the telling of it—of course I wouldn’t expect or want a film to mimic the game exactly. It should have its own purpose, and adaptations generally do.
We’re constantly telling and retelling the same stories in different ways. Are we bored of seeing adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing? Should Joss Whedon not have bothered with his new film?
Evan: I don’t buy it. An unusual amount of BioShock’s themes are contingent on interaction. Booker’s redemption and absolution are intertwined with your agency as a player, just as BioShock’s twist on free will depends on the creating the illusion of it.
I’m sorry that you liked Watchmen, but surely not every excellent work of fiction should be put into production as films, right? Game movies have an awful track record—what would you say is the best adaptation of a game?
Tyler: Uhh. I guess Prince of Persia wasn’t a total disaster? No, I can’t defend game adaptations. They’re mostly just awful.
But why is that? Is it that games can’t be adapted well, or is it that they haven’t been adapted well? There are tons of horrible book adaptations, but they’re attempted way more often than games, so we have a bigger sampling, and there are good ones in there.
A BioShock Infinite film could be terrible, but if we’re asking whether or not its story is well-suited for film, I think it is. It has a visually impressive setting, interesting characters, a fast-moving plot which takes sharp turns. Yes, its thematic connection to gaming would be lost, but it could turn the camera around on film in similar ways. I’d be interested to find out how it does that.
Evan: In the case of the original BioShock: if it was easy, it would’ve happened by now. What does it say that Ken Levine “killed” the most recent attempt at a BioShock film?
Tyler: It isn’t easy. Levine wanted Gore Verbinski’s direction and a bigger budget. He cares about how his creative work is adapted. He wants it meet certain standards, to respect his vision and introduce the vision of people he trusts. That makes total sense, and doesn’t suggest he hates the whole idea.
On that line of reasoning, what does it say that Gabe Newell is interested in collaborating with J.J. Abrams? I don’t love Abrams, personally, but is Newell known for bad creative decisions or being blasé about the official treatment of Valve’s characters and stories? It’s the opposite—he previously turned down Hollywood’s attempts to court Valve. Now he must see something he likes.
Evan: I think Valve’s fiercely protective approach to adaptations of its games is a great starting point. But yeah, part of my objection is based on the assumption that Hollywood People and focus testing would mutate BioShock into something that it isn’t. If Ken Levine thinks that a BioShock movie needs a $200 million budget, wouldn’t it by necessity need to make creative compromises to appeal to a large enough audience to be profitable? It’s an impossible situation: if $80 million isn’t enough to do it properly according to Irrational’s creative director, I can’t imagine they’d be able to retain full creative freedom and avoid making something that wasn’t watered-down at that level of fiscal risk.
Tyler: It would definitely mutate—it’s an adaptation and the script has to work for the medium—but I don’t see why it would necessarily mutate in a negative “watered-down by Hollywood” way. What’s to water down? It’s already a Hollywood-style story!
I don’t mean that in a bad way. What I mean is that as much as we might want to think we’re somehow above “mainstream entertainment,” Infinite is a gory, action-packed thriller. Yes, it has a complex plot and interesting themes, and so do some big-budget movies. I’m not talking about the latest Die Hard, obviously—I’m looking to Christopher Nolan as a good example. Can you tell me you wouldn’t be just a little excited if he were directing a BioShock film?
Evan: I’d be curious and concerned. The proposition of “two things I love... together!” is such a peanut-butter-and-chocolate way of thinking about creative projects, and I’d like to see gamers cut that s#*& out.
Tyler: Yeah, "this and this are good, so let's put them together" is not a viable creative or business strategy 99.9 percent of the time, but I didn't make Nolan my example just because I like him—he has experience with adaptations, and the kind of tone we might see in a BioShock film. I think Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) would also be a great choice of director.
Evan: I’m still skeptical that someone as talented as Bird or Nolan could overcome the inherent challenges of adapting something like BioShock. I think it’s important to remember that BioShock Infinite is distinct from successful movies like The Avengers or Batman—it isn’t a spacious, decades-old body of work that a writer could pick and choose what characters and story arcs to include.
But more fundamentally, I want to prompt you and our readers to really examine why they want a BioShock movie. Are we just curious about the act of judging a movie studio’s copy-paste job? Are we just crudely lobbying “I want more of something I liked!” and not thinking critically about how being a video game contributed to why we liked BioShock to begin with?
When Watchmen creator Alan Moore was asked how he felt about the graphic novel’s movie adaptation, he very cynically responded: “I find modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms.”
Tyler: Alan Moore is a convenient figurehead for your argument, but I think that’s hyperbolic and cynical (which I guess is what I’d expect from Alan Moore, and I’ll enjoy the film he so despises despite him). You do make good points, though. A bit of the desire is curiosity, as seeing someone else’s interpretation of something we know intimately, like a game we’ve played multiple times, is inherently interesting. And I think we also want to see BioShock succeed in other media because we want to see something we care about attract a wider audience.
But there’s a purer desire, too: we want a film because the game was entertaining and thought-provoking, and we want more entertaining and thought-provoking things. And to get back to the original question, I think BioShock Infinite is plenty rich enough to make this hypothetical film good, or even great.
Now, do I think it would be good, and do I really want my version of events redacted or rephrased on a movie screen? For the sake of this debate, I plead the fifth.
That’s the debate! As always, these debates are exercises meant to reveal alternate viewpoints—sometimes including perspectives we wouldn't normally explore—and cultivate discussion, so continue it in the comments, and jump to the next page for more opinions from the community.