In a series of special year-end roundtable discussions, The A.V. Club looks back at the stories that made the biggest impact on pop culture in 2023.
In 1993, Hollywood unleashed a terror on the world known as Super Mario Bros., a loose adaptation of Nintendo’s mega-popular video game series that took some, uh, liberties with virtually everything that people might recognize about the games. Though the film is a cult classic these days, if only because of how thrillingly deranged it is, the debacle made Nintendo swear off movies for decades ... until Illumination, the studio that gave us the Minions, made a great pitch: What if there was a Mario movie that wasn’t completely insane?
The Super Mario Bros. Movie opened to nearly $150 million in the U.S. and went on to make well over $1 billion worldwide over the summer. But it wasn’t the only success story for video game adaptations in 2023: A few months earlier, HBO’s version of The Last Of Us earned rave reviews, and, a few months later, Five Nights At Freddy’s became the highest-grossing film ever released by horror studio Blumhouse. Here A.V. Club staffers Sam Barsanti, William Hughes, and Cindy White talk about how that all happened and—crucially—whether it could ever happen again.
Sam Barsanti: I think the reason video game adaptations really clicked this year is that the people making them finally started treating them the way Marvel Studios treated comic books in the early days of the MCU. Rather than trying to make a video game’s concept fit the mold of a movie or TV show should be, they actually looked at the video games and tried to figure out what would make sense in a movie or TV version with respect to the source material.
I would argue that it’s less about doing some specific thing differently behind the scenes (the three adaptations listed each take very different approaches) than it is about the people who made the originals being hands-on with the adaptations—which made it harder to just toss the things that a regular movie/TV person might not want to deal with. Not to bring up Marvel again, but comic book movies got better when they started being made by people who actually liked comic books.
Unfortunately, I do think this year was a fluke for video game adaptations. Or, at the very least, I think it’ll take another round of good ones before we can begin trusting Hollywood with these properties. I think people will look at The Last Of Us and think every narrative-driven video game will make sense as a serious, gritty prestige play, which is very much not true (I’m wary of A24’s Death Stranding, since the game is all about making you feel the loneliness and the physical exhaustion of that experience by forcing you to play through the most excruciating parts of it). That being said, I’ll absolutely see the Zelda movie, no matter which dumb young dude they cast as Link.
William Hughes: I’ll grant Sam the basic premise that 2023’s gaming adaptations were among the first to meet the medium on its own level—making a Mario movie that actually looks like a Mario game, or a Five Nights At Freddy’s adaptation that shares the source material’s fascination with overly convoluted, charmingly implausible lore. In some part, you can chalk that up to this being the first generation of filmmakers who came up immersed in the visual language of video games, whether that’s all the direct graphical in-jokes peppered around the Mario movie, or something more abstract, like Chad Stahelski deliberately invoking the look of games like Hotline Miami for certain sequences of John Wick: Chapter Four.
I also share some serious skepticism about projects following in the footsteps of The Last Of Us—which only works as an adaptation because it represents the most back-breaking twists of a branch of game design that wants to be movies or TV shows first, and interactive experiences second. Watching Craig Mazin’s show was a bit like seeing a snake choke on its own tail: TV show imitating game imitating show.
To my mind, the apex of gaming film in 2023 wasn’t based on a video game at all: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves stands above the pack because it doesn’t just try to work as a collection of references—it ably recreates the feeling of playing the game itself, fast-talking bards, improvised screw-ups and all. That’s the direction I hope to see these kinds of adaptations go—even if both the box office and the critical consensus suggest I’ll be doing that hoping in vain.
Cindy White: I fully expect studio executives to take all the wrong lessons from the success of The Last Of Us and just start indiscriminately searching out more video games, and horror games in particular, to adapt. But the fact that it was based on a video game wasn’t what made it a good show. It was good because the game already had a fully fleshed-out story and interesting characters that could be easily adapted (by design) into a show. The same is true for Five Nights At Freddy’s. And even, to some extent, Super Mario Bros. That was the problem with the Twisted Metal series that also came out this year. Cool cars and weapons aren’t enough to build a show around. Producers shouldn’t just be looking for popular games to adapt, they should be looking for good stories.
As for the future, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with some of the projects either already made, in production, or announced, like Fallout, Bioshock, Death Stranding, and Portal. All of those have narratively rich worlds to explore and, if done right, could continue what The Last Of Us started. It’s still too early to tell if it’s going to lead to a trend, and what they may look like in the future, but it’s a positive step. I think we’ve still only scratched the surface of what can be done with these adaptations.