It’s official: a live-action movie adaptation of The Legend of Zelda is in the works. After this year’s animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie grossed over $1 billion at the global box office, it’s not surprising that Nintendo has decided to adapt one of its other game franchises for the big screen. But video game films have received generally mixed-to-negative reviews from critics, especially when translated into live-action, and even diehard fans have often walked away disappointed. If the Legend of Zelda movie can learn from the mistakes made by other adaptations, there’s a chance it could join the short list of celebrated video game films.
The Video Game Films That Missed the Mark
What makes a great video game is not always the same as what makes a great movie. For a video game, gameplay shares equal value to the game’s story. Some of the best video games are incredibly well-written, but the primary emphasis for game developers is on how the player experiences the story through the gameplay. Movies share this goal of being immersive, but since audiences aren’t guiding the main characters themselves, filmmakers must prioritize crafting an effective screenplay to keep an audience engaged.
This is the most common pitfall for video game adaptations, but also where The Legend of Zelda can learn the most important lessons.
Two films that demonstrate what not to do are Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Both movies were negatively received by fans and critics alike, and the primary culprit for these bad reviews was weak screenwriting.
The Assassin’s Creed games are known for their story-driven historical adventures, but the main problem with the 2016 film adaptation was its script. The movie looked and sounded like the games, and some of the action sequences were exciting to watch, but the plot of the film was incoherent. An audience can’t be fully immersed in a film’s story unless they understand what’s at stake and why they should care. The Assassin’s Creed movie prioritized style over substance and the final effect was a forgettable film that was hard to follow.
Similarly, the 2021 film Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City combined mediocre storytelling with shallow characters. The film’s central concept and action sequences were true to the spirit of the games, but moviegoers were still dissatisfied because they couldn’t connect with the film’s characters. It is just as valuable for a film to have believable characters as it is for a film to have a coherent plot. One-dimensional characters and cliché dialogue kept audiences from connecting emotionally with Welcome to Raccoon City.
If the Legend of Zelda movie can learn anything from the mistakes of past game adaptations, it is the value of writing a coherent plot and believable characters. Most Legend of Zelda game stories are fairly simple: dark forces threaten Hyrule, and silent protagonist Link explores the reaches of the kingdom to collect the items that can save it. To create a coherent film from this premise, it will be essential for the filmmakers to clearly communicate what Link needs to do in order to succeed in his adventure. Whether Link’s task is to collect Sage Medallions or pieces of the Triforce, the path to victory must be conveyed through dialogue or expository imagery. When audiences can understand the hero’s goal and why it matters, it allows them to become invested in Link’s adventure.
Regarding characters, The Legend of Zelda movie can avoid the pitfall of having one-dimensional characters by including scenes that emphasize character development throughout the film. Action sequences are fun and exciting, but slowing down the pace to include sincere character-building moments will make Link’s adventure more meaningful. Since Link is silent in the games, it is likely that he will not speak in the film, which means it will be necessary to have other characters join his journey to provide opportunities for character growth. The Mandalorian and Mad Max: Fury Road have relatively quiet main characters, but the presence of other characters lends emotional weight to their journeys. Link is often joined in the games by a talkative companion, so the film adaptation can follow this trend by incorporating someone like Navi, Midna, or even Zelda herself as a co-adventurer with Link. However the filmmakers choose to accomplish these tasks, the necessary ingredients for a compelling Zelda movie will be a compelling script and authentic characters.
The Video Game Films That Got it Right
The reputation for video game movies has improved somewhat, thanks to a couple of adaptations that have earned high marks from fans and critics alike. The Legend of Zelda movie would do well to follow in the footsteps of where these outliers have succeeded.
The live-action Sonic the Hedgehog film became famous for its eleventh-hour re-design of Sonic, but the real reason the movie succeeded with fans and critics is because it was actually a lot of fun. In addition to having a great cast and a competent screenplay, the key ingredient that made this movie work was its tone. This adaptation was targeted at younger audiences, which is fitting considering most Sonic the Hedgehog games are rated E for Everyone. Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Dr. Robotnik was enjoyably over-the-top, and the film’s zany antics were paired with a simple buddy story between compelling characters.
This film adaptation was not groundbreaking as far as family movies are concerned, but it broke the mold for video game films by accurately capturing the tone of its source material. Young viewers who picked up their first Sonic game after watching the movie would find that the blue hedgehog’s games are similarly bright and light-hearted.
Tonally, the Legend of Zelda games are just as optimistic and fun as Sonic the Hedgehog, but with more mature themes that have appealed to audiences of all ages. When developing the tone for the Legend of Zelda movie, the filmmakers should seek to match the general tone present in the video games. There are light-hearted moments in the games, but the overall plot is usually serious and emotional. An effective Legend of Zelda movie would have a mixture of light-hearted optimism and palpable stakes in its approach to Link’s adventure.
HBO’s television adaptation of The Last of Us provides another example of what to do right. The first season of this show is arguably the best video game adaptation to date. It helps that The Last of Us game is considered one of the most cinematic video games ever made, but plenty of other game adaptations have fumbled well-written source material. The genius in the way co-showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann adapted The Last of Us was their choices about where to be faithful and where to depart from the game.
There are a variety of scenes in The Last of Us that are direct renditions of those same scenes in the game. However, many sequences and memorable moments from the HBO show are completely new material that expands on the world that the story takes place in. Added scenes about characters Henry and Sam, as well as an entire episode centering on Nick Offerman’s Bill, provide context and backstory for key characters from the game. These departures from the game illustrate a key point: an effective adaptation can take liberties with its source material, as long as those liberties enhance an audience’s immersion and are faithful to the spirit of the game. The new content created for HBO’s The Last of Us was well-written and consistent with the games, adding compelling expansions to an already beloved story.
It has not been announced whether or not The Legend of Zelda film will follow the story of one particular game, but a wise decision that the filmmakers could make would be to craft an original story that expands upon the world of Hyrule. Some moments and sequences could be directly pulled from the games, but a meaningful adaptation would do well to create new scenes that add emotional depth to the story. In the same way that The Last of Us added backstory to its central characters, the Legend of Zelda film could expand upon its central characters by adding relevant backstories and emotional context never explored in the games. In this way, the Legend of Zelda would not only do justice to the games but could also provide a new perspective on familiar characters and events.
The Hope for The Legend of Zelda
For The Legend of Zelda movie to succeed with critics and fans, it will need an engaging plot, memorable character development, a tone that is consistent with the games, and wise decision-making about where to be faithful and where to make compelling expansions. The best video game adaptations elevate their source material, creating new fans for the games by providing an entry point that can stand on its own. The less successful adaptations are incoherent and one-dimensional.
There is hope for the Legend of Zelda movie to succeed. The key will be how the filmmakers learn from the mistakes and successes of past video game adaptations. If the foundation for the Legend of Zelda movie is an engaging and emotionally satisfying screenplay, Link and Zelda will earn the hearts of fans and critics alike.