By Neil Merrett
In the first of an ongoing series of features and podcasts, Squareblind is looking at the storied and somewhat perilous history of videogame movies and their journey to the cinema screen and DVD bargain basket. As well as looking at direct adaptations such as Tomb Raider (2018) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), we consider why titles such as ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Scott Pilgrim versus the World’ are perhaps better narratives about games and gaming, and the medium’s impacts on us as a society, than official adaptations such as Street Fighter.
First up is a quick look at the film of one the biggest videogames of them all – Super Mario Brothers.
“This ain’t no game”.
That was the bold pitch chosen to promote the 1993 live action science fiction/fantasy movie Super Mario Bros – a film whose very existence was the result of a silly and playful videogame that had entranced millions of people around the world.
There is nothing wrong at times from straying from source material. This is especially the case with source material where the essential appeal in based on the sole premise of rescuing a princess from antagonistic mushroom creatures and jumping onto and over things.
Equally, there is something almost admirable in taking the core narrative of two slightly dorky and happy go lucky plumbers and throwing them into a plot about a parallel dystopian world where they must battle through an autocratic police state overseen by humanoids evolved from dinosaurs.
But unlike the broad and mostly critically adored catalogue of Super Mario Bros games and spin offs released over the last two and a half decades, Super Mario Bros: The Movie, despite building a cult following, was seen as both a commercial and critical disaster.
In a recent retrospective in the Guardian newspaper, journalist and writer Keith Stuart covered the behind the scenes drama that sprang up during the complicated making of the film, and how “the stench of it stays with everyone.”
Stuart wrote, “The film’s strange cyberpunk tone, its epic dystopian sets and combination of computer-generated effects and traditional animatronics were groundbreaking and remain visually arresting – but none of it had very much to do with Super Mario.”
In the realm of literature, there is the concept of the ‘unfilmable novel’. This is a term used to describe stories of such narrative depth and complexity, that traditional cinematic structures and conventions cannot be effectively used to tell them. This makes ensuring a satisfying adaptation impossible, or perhaps just pointless.
This could be one assumption about the movie’s problems. But perhaps another is just that the decision to make a Super Mario Bros was ahead of its time. In 1993, mainstream gaming was still seen and viewed as purely an adolescent pursuit. Even acclaimed titles such as Super Mario World with its bright colours and rideable dinosaurs was viewed as having little cultural capital outside the gaming community.
There was limited critical opinion of the merits and value of videogames as an artistic endeavour on to themselves.
Sure, Super Mario Bros the game was great fun. But what was its point. What value did it have beyond being technically, brilliantly, compulsively fun?
We now have games of incredible, sometimes cinematic quality and storytelling, as well as more psychologically challenging or more engrossing mental challenges. These are games that swap out complex story for total immersion in a unique sets of challenges, whether jumping, throwing or speeding down deadly corridors without collision. The gamer’s story is often one of persistence and dexterous thumbs.
While the technology is available to make a Mario game cinematic, the real engagement with the series remains in its creative approach to leaping about and feeling the achievement of overcoming the game’s often devious level design and challenges.
The game’s design and the resulting sense of amusement and personal challenge is its art.
Gamers in the end love Mario because it is, for many at least, a bloody fun way to spend hours of their lives.
Well regarded British actor Bob Hoskins, who portrayed Mario in the movie, may have got the character down better than himself and the movie’s numerous writers realised.
According to Stuart, in an interview from the set, he played down the need as an actor to do some much research of the character, especially considering the constant rewrites on the film’s script.
He was quoted as saying. “My seven-year-old son is quite depressed about my playing Mario. He knows I can’t even program a VCR, let alone play the game. How do I prepare for the role? I’m the right shape. I’ve got a moustache.”
This may have been an attempt to disparage the series of games it was based on. But it could also just be someone not brought up with understanding the appeal and love for spending many frustrating hours trying to crack the challenge of being Mario.
Videogames and roleplaying, are now much more understood for their value, or lack of it, as a form of sometimes costly entertainment. They are a unique, life affirming, yet sometimes depressing time sapping experience, but many of us now understand the unique role they play in our lives and those of friends and family.
In the end, the movie makers and audience had perhaps not fully accepted the central appeal of what was assumed to be, quite correctly, a silly engaging toy. We all have our individual Mario stories and tales of triumph and defeat.
These are stories that might be played out and enjoyed on Yotube, but do not necessarily lend themselves to a passive cinema narrative.
In the best possible way, the ongoing and enduring appeal of Super Mario Bros is, well…. Unfilmable. Even with Bob Hoskins in overalls.
Yet the movie is not without charm. For instance there is it’s score by Alan Silvestri, who just uner a decade before created the unforgettable Back to the Future theme.
For Mario Bros, he gave audiences a playful, heroic and slightly shambolic theme, all the while including nods to the character’s faintly Italian stereotypical with a few subtle homages to the country’s jaunty folk music of the 19th century in the form of Tarantella Napoletana.
Now that is the sound of a hero that has spent decades cartoonishly triumphing, when not throwing himself down endless pits or into fiery oblivion.