Stranger Things head Shawn Levy recently revealed that he’s begun work on a film adaptation of Naughty Dog’s mega-hit adventure video game series, Uncharted. It’s no surprise as the franchise is arguably PlayStation’s biggest tentpole, with this year’s fourth installment supposedly closing the book on Nate Drake’s adventures. Bringing Nate and his fortune-hunting crew to the big screen must seem like the best way for Sony to make a tidy profit. But here’s the thing: There’s already four Uncharted movies — they just also happen to be games.
Whether Sony realizes this itself or not is immaterial; the factors weighing against a successful adaptation at this point are glaring and numerous. For starters, Levy and screenwriter Joe Carnahan’s adaptation is by no means the first attempt at making an Uncharted film. That line can be traced all the way back to 2009.
Since then, the on-again, off-again production has shuffled through a fair share of directors and screenwriters, none of which ever seemed to hit on anything that sounded very much like either Uncharted or pulp adventure as a genre. (Special shout out to David O. Russell, whose tone-deaf treatment reportedly portrayed Drake and Co. in a crime family who “metes out justice in the world of art and antiquities.”)
Levy and Carnahans take, which the latter described this week as “an anti-Indiana Jones,” doesn’t appear to have any better ideas than previous tries. But even if they did, Hollywood being unable to agree on how to tackle a mainstream blockbuster like Uncharted after seven-plus years is probably a telltale sign of trouble. I mean, just look at what happened to Halo.
More important, and much more obvious, is that Uncharted has always been a movie. Just look at any of the trailers for Uncharted 4, or try to find any piece written about the series that doesn’t contain the descriptor “cinematic.” Like its genre inspirations, these are far-flung yarns of daring and danger, bursting with breathtaking action set pieces.
Naughty Dog has never disappointed here; while the original Drake’s Fortune now feels a bit modest by comparison (ditto the pretty-good-for-a-handheld Vita outing Golden Abyss), this is a series whose highs contained scenes like a gunship battle atop a moving train hurtling into the snowy Himalayas, and a death-defying escape from a capsizing ocean liner, happening in real-time. Uncharted 4 meanwhile, looks in many places not far removed from actual CG, a reputation that feels sure to improve if and when the tech-obsessed Naughty Dog releases a patch for PS4 Pro.
It’s had a “playable popcorn movie” reputation for years — Sony Japan even convinced Harrison Ford himself to do a hilarious ad campaign for Uncharted 3 before its launch where he says about as much. If you’re the one “controlling” Nate as he clambers out of a blazing French chateau, or is being dragged through the mud by a truck in Madagascar, shooting goons on motorcycles as they give chase while he clings to the cable, what could a real film do that Naughty Dog hasn’t already?
This is to say nothing of Uncharted’s own cast of lovable rogues, all of who over the years have come to define and own their characters’ distinct personalities. This isn’t like making a comic book film, where beloved characters go through various incarnations and a variety of wild interpretations, as they have in drawn form over the years.
It’s probably closer to Harrison Ford’s relationship to Indy. Nolan North just is Nathan Drake, and for as incredibly talented as he is, that affable, everyman rake is the role he was born to play. Nor do I care about the reductive, double standard argument that Drake murders hundreds of people — pulp is an inherently stylized genre, and Uncharted is a video game. If he were a blasé action hero no one would give the body count a second thought.
Still, dissonant gameplay conventions or not, Naughty Dog has never written Uncharted like a video game. It’s ridiculous here to expect the emotional density of an Oscar-winner as it would be for Indy; that’s not the point. The point is that the characterizations and banter — which the actors themselves have played such an integral role in shaping and embodying — from acting out dialogue side-by-side during mocap sessions while giving input on the game’s stories creates a scenario where it’s unlikely fans would be interested in accepting anyone else’s voice, or style, in their place. And there’s no reason they should.
As a rule, I don’t necessarily have anything against game adaptations that don’t stick religiously to the source material, as bad as they almost universally have been. Yet time and again, Hollywood has proven that they don’t really care one way or another about how to handle games in film. In general, it’s a rarity for the screenwriters or directors to have played the source material they’re adapting, making the film industry seem utterly out of touch.
There is also the seldom successful tendency to fundamentally change established elements, like Russell’s mob family take on Drake or, even more egregious, the Silent Hill films turning SH2s iconic monster Pyramid Head into a rote bodyguard. To be fair, most games, even all-time classics, would make for terrible films. That’s even knowing that the standards for game adaptations are so low they may as well not exist, though Justin Kurzel’s flabbergasting arthouse approach to Assassin’s Creed might actually buck the trend.
As a contrast, in Carnahan’s interview he claimed to have met with Naughty Dog lead Neil Druckmann, as well as North and Uncharted creator Amy Hennig, who he says loved his subversive approach to the series. But Carnahan doesn’t come off looking great in the interview; later Druckmann took to Twitter to say that he had in fact not met with the screenwriter and has no opinion on his script, having not seen it.
Regardless of whatever Carnahan’s intentions are in wanting to “cut loose” from the source material (and in spite of Levy’s seemingly genuine enthusiasm for the project), perhaps that clarification tells you all you really need to know. Even if the new movie never sees the light of day, we’ll still have essentially four Uncharted movies to live and play through. Maybe that’s for the best.