How a Half-Baked Sci-Fi Movie Changed the Course of Hollywood History
Thirty years later, the industry is finally starting to recover.
Superhero movies aren’t what they used to be, Star Wars is losing cultural capital at a shocking speed, and anime adaptations have proven to be more trouble than they’re worth. What’s a Hollywood studio to do? The answer appears to simple: video game adaptations.
Already in 2023, we’ve gotten two massive hits in HBO’s The Last of Us and Minion-maker Illumination’s Mario movie. And a quick tour of IMDb reveals countless more video game-inspired shows and movies in the works. So it may come as a surprise that the very first movie to adapt a video game was such a trainwreck that it took three decades for Hollywood to get back on track.
We’re talking, of course, about Super Mario Bros, the 1993 movie that starred Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi. Inverse published a definitive oral history of the movie earlier this year, but on the occasion of its anniversary we’re revisiting some of the best details — and examining how much damage this trainwreck of a film actually did.
Before Super Mario Bros, the idea of a movie based on a video game barely even registered for most studio executives. So it should come as no surprise that the film’s origin story is unique, to say the least. Producer Roland Joffé tells Inverse that he booked a hotel room in Japan and visited Nintendo’s office “every day with different kinds of tea.” Finally, the company’s president agreed to meet with him. When asked why Nintendo should go with the independent Joffé over a big studio, he responded, “Because you’ll get something original out of us.”
Turns out, Joffé wasn’t lying.
This is the part of the article where we’d normally recap the plot of the movie, but you know what, that ain’t gonna happen here. The plot of Super Mario Bros is simply too dumb to bother explaining. Suffice to say it involves parallel dimensions, a king transformed into goop, and the revelation that Mario’s first name and last name are both Mario.
What’s more interesting is the original, discarded story dreamt up by Super Mario Bros co-director Rocky Morton. The director tells Inverse that his script was essentially a “love story between two brothers.” In his version, Mario and Luigi were orphans whose difficult childhood drove a wedge between them.
“Luigi resented having a mother figure and not a big brother figure.” Morton says. “Mario resented Luigi for holding him back from his life’s ambition of being an artist. The story was this incredible, long adventure that they go on, and they learn to love each other through this extraordinary adventure.”
Of course, none of that is in the actual movie. Neither is the ending Rocky Morton filmed that would have solved the film’s biggest mystery: why the plot has absolutely nothing to do with the actual Mario games.
“There’s a scene missing, that the producers cut out. The scene was right at the very very end when the Mario brothers were back in Brooklyn. And there’s a knock-knock-knock on the door, and it’s two executives from Japan from Nintendo. They’ve come to buy this story — the life story of the Mario brothers — because they want to use it in this video game they’re producing. They write down the story, dictated to them by Mario and Luigi, and it all gets lost in translation. And that was the crucial scene of the movie because it made sense of the entire movie and why the movie was so different to the video game, because it got lost in translation by Nintendo. We shot it and everything, but they cut it out.”
I know, right?
Behind the scenes, Super Mario Bros was total anarchy. Sources describe sets so hot you could cook an egg on the floor and a script that was cut up and taped back together like some deranged kidnapping ransom letter.
Bob Hoskins, who took the leading role with no idea who Mario was, has publicly called it one the worst decisions he’s ever made. According to his co-star, Fiona Shaw, he would ship in expensive whiskey from England to numb the pain. “We would drink those copiously in his caravan,” Shaw tells Inverse.
As a coping mechanism, the cast would also assemble on the beach each Sunday and perform Shakespeare plays. “Bob was Macbeth and I was Lady Macbeth,” Shaw recalls.
But what is the legacy of Super Mario Bros? Joffé claims “the film was well ahead of its time, actually,” while Morton points to packed out screenings for the movie’s 30th anniversary earlier this year. But at the time of its release, Mario was a blaring alarm for Hollywood to stay away from video games.
Super Mario Bros was a financial flop, grossing $38.9 million on a budget estimated at $42–48 million. While a few other video game adaptations followed directly, there’s a clear gap in the mid-’90s where Hollywood pulled back to reassess the entire idea. And while there have been plenty of attempts in the decades since, it wasn’t until the last few years that fans and critics began to admit that video game movies could actually be good.
Is it possible that, if not for Super Mario Bros, we might have gotten “good” video game movies a whole lot sooner? You’d have to travel to an alternate dimension like the one of the movie to know for sure, but it’s almost impossible to argue that Mario did much to help.