“Super Mario Bros.” is one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. Little Super Mario sits alongside Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald as one of the modern world’s most recognisable characters.
And yet, even with something as popular and straightforward as “Super Mario Bros.”, the Hollywood movie industry adapted it into something hilariously bad.
This is the norm for video game adaptations taken on by Hollywood, whether it’s a TV show or a film — few expect their favourite game to get turned into a good movie or show.
The recently released “Castlevania” on Netflix, an animated show centered on the “Castlevania” video game series, is an incredible exception. It’s smart, funny, and manages to turn a largely uninteresting game series (story-wise) into a compelling narrative.
We caught up with “Castlevania” showrunner Adi Shankar over the phone last week to ask how he and his team managed to pull off what so many others in Hollywood could not. Shankar said the reason so many video game adaptations are terrible is because of the approach taken by Hollywood: Rather than diving in on what makes the game’s world interesting to the people who already love it, adaptations tend to broaden the scope too far in an attempt to draw in a larger audience.
“Let’s say the game sold 5 million copies, right? [The studios] look at it as, ‘Those are 5 million people who are gonna show up on opening weekend anyways. So let’s get more people to show up,'” Shankar said. “But what they didn’t get is no, no, no, no, no — that’s like your marketing department. Those 5 million people? If you love something, you want everyone else to love it. You want to share that fandom with other people.”
To Shankar, “Old Hollywood” is represented by that old approach: Take a property that people already love, and broaden it instead of appealing to its core. And it’s “New Hollywood” that gave him the chance to make “Castlevania.”
“I was done,” Shankar said. He’d made a handful of successful but — by their very nature — unprofitable films on YouTube. He made what are essentially fan films that he dubbed his “Bootleg Universe”: short films based on stuff like “Power Rangers” and “The Punisher.” Since they’re properties owned by major corporations, he was unable to profit from the films (lest he get sued).
“After that came out, ‘Old Hollywood’ was kind of like, ‘What is this guy smoking? What is wrong with this dude?’,” Shankar said. “But then I guess ‘New Hollywood’ — the internet crowd — embraced me as one of their own at that point. Maker Studios gave me a three-picture deal. And there’s a bunch of stuff that happened behind the scenes that wasn’t even public knowledge. I was in kind of a weird spot because I wanted to leave, and I was like I’ll try out this whole ‘Hollywood Career version 2.0’ for me.”
With one foot out the door, Hollywood pulled Shankar back in.
“I shut down all the infrastructure I’d set up. I applied to graduate school. And then different brands just started hitting me up. It was kinda weird,” he said. “Those same corporations that I was like ‘Ugh, go away!’ — they were calling me. There were rumours of maybe he’ll direct this movie, maybe he’ll produce that thing. And I’m like, ‘What is going on? I’m literally out the door.'”
It was around then that, through a chance encounter, Shankar learned of an opportunity to lead production on a show based on “Castlevania,” a classic video game franchise close to Shankar’s heart. He jumped at it, and the show we have now is the result of that chance encounter.
But Shankar sees his role in Hollywood as similar to that of Joss Whedon (who directed “The Avengers”), James Gunn (who directed “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Jon Favreau (who directed “Iron Man”), only with video games as the medium being adapted rather than comic books.
“The way I see it is comic book adaptations were really bad for a very long time. And really what it took was a bunch of kids who loved comic books growing up, who were then pissed off at how bad the comic books movies were, to be like, ‘I’m gonna change that.’ Right? They went out and made ‘Iron Man.’ They went out and made ‘The Avengers.’ They went out and made all these now-great comic book adaptations.”
And he’s not wrong. Before comic book movies took over as the modern blockbuster, there were dozens of whiffs. Do yourself a favour and don’t watch “Batman Forever,” for instance. It took decades of misses before Hollywood figured out how to consistently make hit films out of comic books. And even then, it wasn’t a measure of the film industry figuring out how to do it — they simply handed the keys to directors who grew up with comics, who love those comics.
Shankar put it as such: “It’s on our generation to fix this problem.” His next project, unsurprisingly, is another video game adaptation: “Assassin’s Creed.”