Episode 40: Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Super Mario cover site

Film chosen by guest Em, introduced by Devlin

GOOMBA! On this episode, we turned over the reins of the film picking to the delightful and talented Em, creator and host of the phenomenal podcast Verbal Diorama, and she, without hesitation, chose the 1993 Nintendo bob-ox office bob-omb Super Mario Bros. Even after she rewarded our hospitality with this calamity (kidding! We’ll let you listen to the episode to get our reactions to this… unique movie experience that we all recall very fondly from our formative years), we heartily encourage you to go and listen to her impassioned, funny, and very informative podcast – visit her here, find her on social media @verbaldiorama, and seek her out on all of your preferred audio platforms. We’re all big fans here, and having such a charming guest on was an absolute pleasure.

Now, sacrilege as it may be to admit in 2020 now that the medium has taken over the world and everybody has a Twitch and gamers are millionaires, I’ve never really spent much time at all on video games. I did a little bit of button bashing in the early 90s with my NES though (geez if I sound like my Dad now), and like most kids in that era, was suckered in by the jaunty theme tune, creative and wacky design, and addictive gameplay of Mario. Several years after it left its unprecedented mark on youth culture, some enterprising producers felt it was time to harness the huge and still-growing popularity of the game in to the cinematic realm.

In retrospect, literally nothing about the adventures of Mario indicated any sort of cinematic story lurking in there, waiting to be mined and shaped in to a compelling blockbuster. It’s a collection of squares, vaguely shaped like a bloke in dungarees, jumping over things and banging his head on metal question marks. The possibilities for adaptation are almost limitless, given the oddness of the world of fire-breathing lizards and murder toadstools and lack of pre-existing story to handrail to, and perhaps it was this surfeit of potential story avenues which offered the first of the many, many speedbumps this film took on the road to cinema release.

MarioThis does not strike me as a lucrative protagonist.

As somebody who has limited exposure to gaming as a whole, I don’t really see why, after the monumental failure of this film at the box office and with contemporaneous critics, anyone chose to return to the console/arcade game well. Sure, IP and all that, but from my hazy recollections of the era, there was more to be gained from generating your own IP to trademark and merchandise the hell out of, rather than hitch your wagon to an already-powerful media entity who’d demand a slice (Nintendo even retained all merchandising rights to Super Mario Bros. in 1993). If anything, there was more money to be made adapting your film in to a console game (did anyone play Stallone Cobra, as we insisted on calling it in our house, on ZX Spectrum, without ever having seen the film?) Still, cinema has always been a magpie art form, adapting existing stories and characters to its own ends since its inception. Unfinished novels are optioned in galley form; word-of-mouth sensation novels are snapped up in a bidding frenzy; novels by long-dead authors are picked cleaner than a vulture’s supper by repeated adaptations/remixes/universe-expansion stories ’cause those poor corpses don’t require a cut of the earnings. Comic books can, if used right, basically act as pre-made storyboards, and form the vast majority of the last decade’s most lucrative output. Cartoons and TV shows (the latter less commonly, or certainly less commonly in straightforward adaptation, rather than ironic spoofs like Starsky and Hutch, The Brady Bunch Movie, and Charlie’s Angels, to name a few, as old grudges against insurgent media types die hard) can be ported over to the multiplex without much hassle. Reboot, revive, recycle. Franchise, sequelise, cannibalise. Thing is, most of these adaptations are adapting the stories. While comic book character designs are iconic and instantly recognisable, we’re still invested in their character traits, origin stories, and ongoing adventures. If anything, filmmakers seem keen on subverting or toning down or in some way ‘rationalising’ the inherently silly costumes of most classic superheroes, the old ‘underpants over trousers’ problem undermining their attempts to grittify and ground the exploits so as not to embarrass the actors tasked with keeping a straight face on all this. But the core of the characters remains somewhat intact, as do the basics of their plots.

All of this is taking the long way around to illuminating the central problem with adapting computer games – story. In the old days, the stories were simplified to a level roughly equivalent to playground games. A nascent industry favoured puzzle over personality, in line with the limitations of the time, so our sprites hopped and spun and gathered and responded to our primitive instructions until our luck ran out and they popped off to bloodless deaths, only to regenerate again as we interrupted the countdown to CONTINUE? I’m uniquely unqualified, when compared to pretty much everyone else on the internet, to discuss the evolution that took place from the dawn of the 90s, from I guess Zelda onwards, where expanding graphic possibilities allowed creators to invest their games with more complex narratives, but certainly by the time I stopped really paying attention, even the more complicated games I’d played bits of were basically just pinching their plots from gangster movies and so on to string together relatively simple quests (I’m aware that Final Fantasy has a sprawling universe of story but I’m almost totally ignorant of what it entails so will leave that to smarter people to elucidate, and discuss why the revolutionary animated film adaptation failed to take off in the eyes of the general public). But even as the medium clearly evolves quantum leaps every couple of years in technology and concomitant depth and intricacy, there’s still two things that I think act as stumbling blocks for successful transfer of video games to the cinema screen.

One, as mentioned above, is gaming’s similarly magpie approach to storytelling as cinema, but this time using cinema as its main source of inspiration. Hence, GTA riffing on gangster and crime flicks. Uncharted pulling from Indiana Jones. Archetypal story types abound, allowing for established genre tropes to fill in the gaps and allow players to immerse themselves immediately. Certainly in the last 15 years or so, games seemed to be aiming to be described as ‘cinematic’. Adapting those properties back to a medium that may have moved on by a decade or more since the influence filtered down through the development process in gaming, then back through the studio development process, means that what was once fresh has been more or less discarded and supplanted by a newer, shiner object. The other, is the players’ relationship to those stories. In gaming they are an active participant. In cinema, a passive observer. Cliché stories or rote, expository dialogue are helpful when encouraging a player to navigate a series of tasks. In cinema they’re just a drag. It’s all very obvious, but for whatever reason (MONEY) studios seem intent on not learning these simple truths. It’s probably why the development process for almost all of these films seems so tortuous. That, plus the paralysing effects of the fiscal expectations of multiple corporate stakeholders; a committee approach to story plotting that inevitably follows, which all but guarantees that any quirks and rough edges are likely to be sandblasted off by the time the edit is finished; and the pre-emptive second-guessing of the hardcore fanbase (usually both very vocal and, proportionally, not especially large) whose sniping ends up magnified by the distorting lens of social media campaigns.

Super Mario Bros. kickstarted a genre, one that could be easily argued to have not yet produced a single ‘good’ film. Certainly, the hyperkinetic Mortal Kombat, released the following year, irritated myself and Gali to the extent that we canned a potential episode about its infamous sequel because we thought it, upon rewatch, legitimately too bad to critique. But its trailblazing, however ignominious that trail is, should be acknowledged in the annals of cinema, and whatever else we may say about it, you cannot accuse the creators of this film of playing it safe, at least. As a non-gamer, I’d be just thrilled if some canny filmmaker managed to wrangle the first legitimately, artistically satisfying game-to-movie adaptation, and perhaps legitimise this film’s legacy a little along the way (whether it deserves it or not is, of course, the subject of our episode!)

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