How to Make a Zelda Movie:
In Which Suggestions are Posited on What Should Be Done
Joe Morriss has a dream. But it’s not his own. Indeed, it is shared by many people in the Zelda community, and even those who’d be loathe to admit it have probably entertained the tantalizing idea. Mr. Morriss deserves special note, however, because he’s backed by fan site Ganon’s Tower, which never fails to flog the cause in its updates despite a near year lapse in any development.
I am talking, of course, about a Legend of Zelda movie.
Morriss devised a trilogy of films based on the Zelda mythos, scripts which are held secret for fear that someone dastardly might steal his ideas. Based on the short excerpt published on the site (a conversation between the invented ‘Rand’ and the borrowed ‘Link’), I think he’s overestimating. Kudos to him for trying – his ambition and dedication are noteworthy even if the proposed project is, for all limited appearances, not. Nintendo was contacted on behalf of Morriss by Ganon’s Tower and plainly stated if Joe wants to write a movie, he needs to secure the rights. The likelihood of an unaccredited individual accessing the license of a multi-million dollar franchise is understandably, and deservedly, slim. Nintendo has recently proven itself as a bit of a stickler for its property, as dozens of fan-made game projects were shut down last week for copyright infringement.
Which is a move I can get behind in spirit if not in practice. Perhaps Nintendo learned a valuable lesson from Super Mario Bros. The Movie; even qualified professionals, with their hearts in the right place, sometimes have their heads up their butts.
I sincerely hope that Joe doesn’t get the opportunity he so desperately wants. That’s not a shot against him – I’m sure his script has its bright spots. But from what I can tell it’s not the Zelda I’d like to see on screen. And believe you me – if a film ever gets made, I’ll be there opening night. I’ve wasted whole afternoons in speculation. Hours I will never get back. So whatever is done, if it is ever done, will be worth seeing for that reason alone.
Cult property is experiencing a Hollywood renaissance. Popular American cinema is obsessed with mining cult industries; comics have replaced literature as the first stop for a film studio looking to make a buck. There are a bunch of reasons, but forefront is the fact that these stories, in comics, have a proven market. As a fan you’re already familiar with the characters and the presented situation; if there is an unspoken axiom in Hollywood it is Give them what they’ve already had. To a large extent, the rise of the comic-based-film has been met with approval from the buying public – Spider-man 2 is edging into Titanic territory in box-office gross – so it is likely we’ll see more of the same for some time to come.
The video-game industry has been the sometimes supplier of concepts and ideas for Hollywood to mixed results, but more often than not is that last place any given comic/film property ends up. Games based on movies and comics abound, but the reverse is only now starting to be true. Even though video-games drastically outpace comics as an industry, bringing in the billions each year that used to be unheard of for any popular media outside of film, they lack the necessary street-cred. Comics are stories, first and foremost – told in a different way, but stories in their core. Games have storylines, but are burdened with other factors. Watching Milla Jovovich totter down a darkened hallway toward the grunting unknown has it prurient pleasures, but the joy of Resident Evil, that which makes it distinct, is its game-play. Without it, there is little to distinguish RE the film from any other zombie hack-n-slasher. Comics and films are objects of kind; games are burdened by the nature of play and participation. All three form a fairly interesting and powerful entertainment triad. Yet ‘based-on’ for a property developed from a video-game historically meant a significant distance from the source material.
Which is changing. While play will always be an inevitable consequence of anything titled ‘game,’ the gaming industry is gravitating towards story – gone (or going) are the paper-thin plots of old. I could (and would, if given the opportunity – if you can’t tell by now I like to ramble), go on endlessly about the motives, contributing factors and subsequent outcomes regarding this trend, but let’s just assume we’re all on the uptake so I can comfortably say the overwhelming trend in gaming nowadays is to create an interactive narrative experience. In this games are moving closer to what films are; in this, games are becoming easier to adapt, as opposed to being the last stop of any given franchise.
All of which sets the stage for Zelda: The Movie being a very real possibility. From the daydreams of ardent fans and coming to a googleplex near you – it may never happen, but if there isn’t a sudden and drastic shift in the nature of the two industries, a film is more likely sometime in the next decade or so than it ever has been.
Now back to Morriss. When any film studio decides to acquire rights to a proven property they have a lot of balls to juggle – the end result, ideally, should be something that pleases the fans, the creators, the studio itself and the ignorant public. It needs to respect its history but not alienate newcomers with endless in-joking. Morriss’ project hopes to do this, but as a fan, I can quite honestly say that any Zelda film with a boy and his dog as a narrative device would give me a nasty fit of the WTFs. It’s the wrong way to go. And rather than go on about why, I’ve decided to set out a few ‘rules’ for a successful Zelda film. As a matter of personal preference, I’m setting my scene in Ocarina of Time. Of all the games, OoT strikes me as the most appealingly cinematic – perhaps because it was the first to feature filmic cut-scenes, and left the strongest, most realized impression. Not for plot, but I’ll get to that later.
1. Boil down the games to their essential parts (character and setting/context).
Characters. I’ve already touted ‘a boy and a cave’ as the simple defining principal of a Zelda game – but this does not an interesting film-premise make.
We need Link, Zelda and Ganon. Those are the big three. How we treat these characters is essential – there shall be no overt romance between Link and Zelda, nor shall Ganon sing (no singing! This is a Disney-free zone!) about the one thing money and power can’t buy. Too many popular films, based-ons or not, throw romance at the characters as if they were white-washing a fence with pig’s blood. It’s sloppy, broad and untrue. Zelda has never been about a love affair.
Link should be a young man. Zelda should be a young woman. Mid-teens, let’s say – young enough to be earnest, old enough to be plausible.
As for the others: a King with no Queen, and at least one Wise-person (though six is a nice round number); the repulsive Moblins and the Hylian rabble; Fairies, but perhaps not the variety that follow you around at ear-height and shout useless information. Any number of Zoras, Gorons, Korikis and Dekus will be admitted upon inspection.
Setting and Context. Hyrule. Inescapably, it must be so. This is the land Zelda is princess of, home-world to Link, Ganon, and the Triforce. I lean towards an OoT visualization of the world, but as long as it’s called Hyrule, I’ll be satisfied. The Triforce is tied into the mythology of Hyrule, and the fates of our three key players, so it fits.
2. Develop the story based on the games, but not limited by them.
Having extracted the necessary bits, we now need motion. What should happen? It’d be foolish to adapt the storyline directly from any one of the games – some are light, some heavy, and all too bloody convoluted to make a decent cinematic narrative. So we steal. And in our thievery, we find Hyrule + Ganon + Triforce of Power / (Zelda + Triforce of Wisdom) + (Link + Triforce of Courage)(Master Sword) = Legend. Forgo the sake of desperate and tenuous continuity; the Zelda film should be an iteration of the story in a different form, not fitted in the Jenga-house of the games. As such it could take from whichever best suited this purpose.
Following the heroic tradition we have a quest, and in this quest our hero will come across at least one dungeon, (though three’s appropriate – both AlttP and OoT start the grand adventure with a three-dungeon task, so there’s our respect for history). The dungeons should have some clever puzzle element (a la Indiana Jones), and be the lair of a fan-familiar monster. Every Zelda has a few.
After that, plot kinda takes care of itself. What the filmmaker borrows from the games is his or her own business. The main point is to not stray too far – no boys and their suspect mutts. No ‘point-of-access,’ or any other hackneyed plot-device. The story is itself.
3. Be mindful of light and dark.
Classic good-versus-evil situations need a healthy atmosphere; first of all things perfected in the series is tone. Mist in the Lost Woods; the Forest Temple dank and cold. Rustic farms, medieval castles, the bright ocean-side. Part of the thrill that comes from exploring these areas is the change in mood – from grim to the sunny, the atmosphere should run the gamut.
Pacing is connected to tone – you have spots of wonderment between your action set-pieces, which mimics the games’ own ebb and flow. Ganon walks the line between camp and Jurassic-Park creepy; Ganondorf has a Hitler vibe. The former puts the latter in context, and keeps things working on multiple levels.
At first I was convinced animation was the way to go with this one; since Lord of the Rings I’ve become ambivalent. Both live-action and animation have their draws and drawbacks. Again, this is a matter that can safely be left up to the filmmaker.
That’s them – it’s not a long list. They’re based on what I’ve seen ‘work’ in other adaptations – Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and Resident Evil, mainly. Tomb Raider is a lesson in characterization; Resident Evil teaches us about setting, context and tone. Neither film is perfect, but they come a sight closer than Super Mario Bros. Zelda could be the one that gets it right, if filmmakers take their lessons learned.
Finally, an admonition to fans – if you think you’re uniquely qualified to write/direct/produce a film based on your favourite game, try to reason why. Passion for the source material is a good start, but if you’ve never worked in the industry, never written a produced script, never stood behind a camera that wasn’t pointed at your tubby uncle picking his nose at the beach, chances are you’re not the person for the job.