Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What the upcoming Tomb Raider film needs to achieve, and why Roger Ebert needs to crawl back to his cave.

I'm ashamed to say that my first thought upon hearing that yet another Tomb Raider film had been greenlit was:

"Oh please no, not again. The last two films made Tomb Raider fans look stupid."

Before you tell me that it shouldn't matter what the rest of the world thinks, consider the competing representations of video games available to non-gamers, and try and come up with one that is:
  • More insightful than the Tomb Raider films (or in possession of even a smidgen of insight).
  • As well publicised and funded as the Tomb Raider films.
When the highest profile interpretations of video games available to the general public are as stupid as the Tomb Raider films, it is no surprise that the notion that gamers must therefore also be stupid continues to pervade.

Of course, my high-minded concerns for the future of video game film adaptations are informed by my personal attachment to the Tomb Raider franchise. The pang I feel whenever I think of Angelina Jolie bouncing around in her pyjamas to Missy Elliot is that of a loyal fan betrayed. I think that if a film is going to plunder a brand for its bucks, the least it could do is try and represent it accurately, if only for the fans who made it so valuable in the first place.

That said, a film should never sacrifice quality for fidelity. If it so happens that an entirely accurate adaptation would result in a bad film, then it is wholly excusable to make considered narrative or conceptual changes. The film adaptation of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman is a good example of this, Michael Winterbottom's inspired adaptation of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, (A Cock and Bull Story) even better.

But when drastic changes still result in a dreadul film, there is no excuse for not sticking to the plot. If Paramount had preserved Lara Croft's backstory and lifestyle, Lara Croft Tomb Raider may well have been a boring film with no intellectual or artistic merit. As it happened, they played fast and loose with the Tomb Raider mythology, erased Lara's rift with her family and added a pair of contemptible sidekicks, and the resulting film was nevertheless humourless, rambling and dull.

However, the production company that have secured the rights to the next Tomb Raider film has an impressive track-record of thoughtful, entertaining pictures such as The Aviator, The Departed and Gangs of New York. Should GK Films (for it is they) decide that the Tomb Raider mythology is unworkable as a film in its current state, I hold out some hope that they will at least produce a film that is a) enjoyable to watch and b) does not insult the game's loyal fan base with cheap thrills and tiny bikinis.

Besides, if they want to know what not to do, they need only watch Paramount's previous efforts, Lara Croft Tomb Raider and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Like air traffic control wardens waving planes away from unstable ground, these films have strewn every artistic decision that GK Films will need to avoid making with strings of luminous vomit.

The greatest of these (greater even than "Lara's Party Mix" and the shower scene) is the unfortunate attitude of its leading lady.

Back in 2000, I was encouraged to hear that Angelina Jolie had beeen cast as Lara Croft. She looked the part, she's great fun to watch and her dedication to the stunt work was very impressive. In anticipation for what I was certain would be the Best Film Ever Made, my thirteen-year old self tracked down numerous interviews with Angelina. Sadly, her comments left me disillusioned.

In a 2001 interview for, Angelina utters some depressingly familiar words:
"I don't like video games."
Oh dear. Why not?
"My ex husband used to play Tomb Raider. I would walk by him and say, 'Oh, look at her breasts'."
Now, if I was married to someone who repeatedly indulged in an activity that I did not understand, my instinct would be to try and find out more about it. But then I am a rambling hippie and Angelina is a phenomenally successful United Nations Ambassador with an Oscar, so maybe I'm not the best example to follow.

Besides, I don't believe that an actor should have to lie through their teeth and express adoration for a franchise or medium they dislike. On the contrary, it's entirely possible that the right actor for the job might have strong misgivings about a film's subject matter that add depth and complexity to their performance.

But Angelina seemed neither interested in exploring her conflicted feelings about Tomb Raider games, nor researching them in order to give a fuller performance. Instead, her further comments suggestes that she felt adapting the games into films would have a gentrifying effect on the Tomb Raider universe.
"I met with the director and he told me it wouldn't be campy or stupid. I realized it was a real movie with a solid character."
The implication that the "real movie" was able to transcend its campy and stupid video game origins is insulting. It perpetuates the myth that video game adapatations make bad films because video games are inherently lacking in substance, not because their stories are unsuited to the medium of film.

The interview concludes with Angelina admitting (post production, no less) that she still can't play Tomb Raider. As the highest-profile ambassador that that Tomb Raider franchise as ever had, it is beyond disappointing that she couldn't even be bothered to learn to play.

When you compare this careless dismissal of the original game to the dedication she applied to her physical preparation for the role, a stark discrepancy is revealed:
"One night, I was sitting in my bathtub with all my bruises and cuts. I was crying and thinking, 'What am I doing? I can't pull this off? I can't even keep the guns straight. I keep hitting myself with her stupid braid. [...] But after a few months of pushing yourself, you're suddenly swinging on a bunji rope and realizing, 'Wow, I'm not hitting the wall.'"
Now, the Tomb Raider games are hard, but they are not that hard. When an actor is willing to push her body to the limit to look like a character and yet cannot see any reason why she should learn about who the character is, there is a problem. Not necessarily with the actor (Jolie is well-known for her deep involvement with roles), but with the pervading attitude that not even an actor embodying such an iconic character has anything to learn from the source material.

You see, when the physical manifestation of the second-most recognisable video game character that has ever existed thinks nothing of dismissing video games, it's really no surprise that no-one outside the video game industry ever discusses video games sensibly.

When Roger Ebert, the celebrated film critic, declared from his cave that video games can never be art, everyone sat up and listened.

Why? What sort of authority is Ebert? The man, by his own proud admission, knows absolutely nothing about video games, and says, in reference to selection of games which people suggested he play:
The three games [chosen] as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic.
How is he fit to judge something that he can't even be bothered to play because they don't "deserve his attention"? Why do we care what this dinosaur thinks? With an astonishing lack of self-awareness, one of Ebert's main criticisms of games is the fact that they are so commercially-driven.

Unlike films, Roger?

Simply reading that article makes me judder with rage, but not because the man who wrote it is guilty of intellectual arrogance. No, it's because the comment section is so long that it made my browser crash.

Why on earth are so many gamers giving Ebert's ill-educated blitherings any attention at all, let alone bestowing his ravings with countless comments?

When someone who understands games dismisses them, then we should all wade in. If someone has taken the time to play games and yet still believes they are unworthy of critical attention expresses such a view, then let us join the debate. But legitimising the rambling of a man who knows nothing about the medium he criticises only serves to perpetuate the view that there is nothing to be learned from playing video games, that the opinions of someone who knows nothing about them are as valid as those of someone who has taken time to explore the medium.

Funnily enough, there aren't many criticisms of gaming as a medium (as opposed to individual games) from people who actually play games. I'm guessing this is because all gamers know that the medium itself is not responsible for bad games any more that the film medium is responsible for the Scary Movie series.

Normally, I try not to let the Eberts and the Jolies of this world trouble me. But as I move further into the tangled forest of adulthood, I become acutely aware of how video games are percieved.

Take job applications, for example. Outside work and socialising, I play and write about video games. That's it. That's what I do. I learn new technologies so I can play and write about video games more effectively, and almost all the professional skills I have gained outside work for the last two years have been acquired in the pursuit of communicating my love for games to more people. Should I wish to apply for a job, I could not avoid talking about video games since my entire portfolio revolves around them. I don't plan to either, and I must be prepared for the consequences.

This article brings to light the policy of a recruiter (for an online media company, no less), who deliberately and openly discriminate against World of Warcraft players. Now I'm sure they have their reasons- World of Warcraft has a reputation for being addictive - but a private and legal hobby seems a bizarre reason not to hire someone.

Most disheartening are the comments. Bearing in mind that The Escapist (and Kotaku, where the story also appeared) are gaming Web sites, it is mightily depressing to see the resignation with which gamers agree that it's not a good idea to mention gaming at any point during the recruitment process. I'm not saying that applicants should mention gaming on their CV, but I think it is ridiculous that public perception is such that gamers are being encouraged to lie about what they do in their free time.

This is the practical reason why films like Lara Croft Tomb Raider are so dreadfully unhelpful. Of course it's heartbreaking to see something you love being cannibalised for the sake of a few bazillion dollars, but it's worse to have a nice conversation come to a grinding halt when you let slip that you like video games. Honestly, there are times when I may as well have said that I voted for the BNP.

And yet such reactions are hardly surprising. Because the routes into video gaming are expensive and technologically-challenging, many people get their information about games from large-scale adaptations and the drivel of popular critics like Roger Ebert and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Everyone knows what Lara Croft looks like, but only gamers have actually sat down and played Tomb Raider. I understand that Lara's pixillated exploits aren't for everyone, but then neither are novels, and no-one automatically assumes you are either a) mentally defiiciant, b) socially compromised or c) a violent misogynist when they find out you read them.

This is because there is balanced discussion of individual novels in the public sphere by people who actually read novels, rather than blanket discussion of NOVELS about all novels by people who have never sat down and read a novel and only know about novels because they saw a movie once that was adapted from a novel and it was rubbish.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider and its wretched sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life are not abominations in themselves. But as the most prominent ambassadors that the video game medium has to people who don't play video games, they are woefully deficient. They are part of the reason why gamers sometimes feel they have to pretend they don't play games because so many people think gaming is some sort of deviant lifestyle choice.

No, it shouldn't matter what ignorant people think, and no, there's no point getting annoyed with unscrupulous producers flogging a tired horse for every penny concealed within its withered flanks (bears, woods, shitting etc).

But I don't relish the prospect of a future where I have to apologise to prospective (or current) employers for the content of my portfolio, and I am so very tired of meeting people and having nice conversations which come to an abrupt end with the other person saying "I really don't like video games" or "I am anti-video games" (yes, really).

I think that a production company who stand to make a lot of money through the use of some intellectual property has a small duty to honour the community that made the franchise worth so much in the first place. I don't mean that they should stick rigidly to the plot, but they should at least demonstrate that the franchise is worthy of an intelligent adaptation.

Games deserve better. And although gamers cannot stop the tide of bad adaptations, we should at least refuse to engage in debate with those who criticise games without having played them. Neither should we succumb to the pressure to conceal or apologise for our love for games. The longer we tacitly accept the opinion that gaming is something to be ashamed of, the longer it will prevail.

And GK, if you're reading this, please make sure whoever you cast as Lara actually sits down and plays the game.

It really is the least you can do.


  1. I love both the games and the movies, but I really dont see why so many people thought the movies represented the games badly. Sure, they might have changed her background, but Lara Croft is still Lara Croft. It might not be Lara's style to wear small bikinis or have sexual relations, but that is what the public wants. Just think: It wouldn't have been a good movie if I didnt get to see Angelina Jolie half-naked and in a bikini.

  2. Howdy!

    Well, I agree completely with what you say about Ebert in this case. I think he's a good film reviewer, but he is not qualified to speak about video games. On to Tomb Raider:

    It's funny how I actually saw a lot of the same expressions of the character between the games and the films. The stories/concepts have uniformly been better than the actual script executions (actually, Anniversary, Legend, and Underworld hit decidedly higher quality lately, with the actual lines of dialogue)

    I have actually always had a bit of cognitive dissonance when I think of Lara portrayed even in the games. The developers haven't exactly shown consistent respect to their property either:

    Lara *is* wearing short shorts and a tank in the Himalayas; the designers *have* increased her bust size to insulting proportions, despite the mental, physical, and research capabilities of our heroine.*

    In the games, it took until Underworld (the 8th game in the series!) for her to even have proportions that a "real" gymnast-archaelogist-action heroine should: Interestingly, as Jolie is a real human, the films had no choice but to get it more right!

    Personally, I would rather see a film version of the groundbreaking and original Atlantean script than anything else I've seen so far. Obviously, these continuing stories we've played through have had their direction turned toward interactivity, with the requisite "boss" challenges, mazes, etc. But a film has a chance to get things more right than a game from the get-go: Even at this height of our cgi capability, filmgoers need some basis in a real physical world, with stories that are touching, exciting, and engaging. I'm glad that the property seems to have fallen into more capable hands, and I look forward to finding out whether they have the mettle to produce an adventure that stays true to the values of the players that first latched onto this iconic and careworthy character of Lara Croft. Certainly the rest of the public could use a female heroine of her stature as a role model.

    *The comics mangled her body further, and while they did manage to increase the number of adventures we could go on with Lara, they failed to break any new ground, and appear to never have had anyone British involved in writing her dialogue--such horrible Americanisms in both her speech patterns and the storytelling style.

  3. And Well-Rendered has its first troll! Congratualtions @Anonymous.

    Firstly, if you want to see Angelina's ladybits, there are loads of films where she wears even less than a bikini, ones that don't exacerbate the problems for gamers and Tomb Raider fans that the article was actually about.

    Yes, the "public" does want bikinis. But I'll wager that people with the patience to play the Tomb Raider games want a more fulfilling experience. Admittedly there aren't enough real Tomb Raider fans to account for the film's massive takings, so in a business sense, you're right. But to express this rather misses the point of the article.

    Thanks for dropping in!

  4. @gary (nice to see you again) I agree with pretty much everything you said.

    You make an extremely valid point with regards to the different developers' approaches to Lara's backstory. At first I was a little uncomfortable with the changes CD made to the original backstory and Tomb Raider mythology, but they were intelligent changes that allowed them to tell a really good three-part story with great voice acting and a good script. Underworld especially was a high point.

    I'd be happy (as a fan) for the films to make similar changes for the sake of a good story.

    Like you say, it should be easier for a film to tell a good story than for a game. And yet adaptations of games into films almost always flounder.

    Perhaps because even though narrative in film is less complicated than narrative in games, trying to apply a game narrative TO a film is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Not that film-makers shouldn't try. They just need to be inventive and think laterally about what the core elements in the story really are.

    With Tomb Raider although CD really did do a good job with scripting/acting and narrative in their trilogy (whilst still honouring the character), ALL the games have been first and foremost about exploration and Lara's relationship to her environment.

    There are two main characters in every Tomb Raider game: Lara and the landscape. Everyone else is just a supporting actor.

    So I absolutely see the problems facing a film-maker, and I understand why such adaptations are so very difficult.

    Basically, all I would like is an intelligent adaptation. I'm not about to tell a film-maker how to do their job (except with the suggestion that the actress play the game). Just that they understand that, as you say, the stories are careworthy, and apply said care to their adaptation.

    I really love good film adaptations of "unfilmable" books (especially "A Cock and Bull Story"), because it shows that lateral thinking can yield something wonderful from what seems like an impossible premise. There's part of me that would like to see game adaptations that work along similar lines, but I understand it would be a hard thing to pitch (especially to the likes of @Anonymous).

    Anyway, thanks for the input! Much appreciated.


  5. Well said Mary. I stumbled upon this post while trying to find some awesome and motivating pictures of my favorite heroin Lara Croft. My alter-ego. I must say I couldn't agree more that Tomb Raider is the most insightful and intelligent video game ever created. I remember when it first came out...I was only a girl. But I knew then, as I know now, that it was truly special. I just wanted to say I enjoyed your post, as well as your writing syle!
    I hope the newest film does the game justice. (I admit I'm sad Jolie is giving up on Lara Croft....who could give up on such an amazing character?)
    Good day!

  6. Mary, I enjoyed your article to the fullest. Up until the point in the comments where you said LAU made intelligent changes and Underworld was a highpoint.

    You did say in another article that the thing that makes Lara attractive is that she ditched all her prestigious background and followed her passion - tomb raiding and tomb raiding only. CD took all that away and made her into a dull girl with daddy issues.

    Personally, I feel more betrayed by CD than any movie ever could. I separate between the two things, just like I separate between books and their movie adaptions - I accept that it is not possible to realize these things just like the original medium.
    But to take an already well established heroine and turn her into this, IN HER ORIGINAL MEDIUM... it was an insult and a slap in the face for all long-time fans. I'm not even gonna comment on the latest "highpoint" that is said to come out some time this year. My heroine is no longer an idol I look up to, they have turned her into a high-school student for casuals with kittens-posters on the wall and managed to add in some advertisement for expensive headphones (to cite a comment on a TR board I visit regularly: "They are essentiel for her character because now we can relate to her!!!" I really didn't realize that straight up bad ass tomb raiding required the latest fashionable earplugs so that people would finde the character interesting, but this is the kind of audience CD designs the games for nowadays.) As someone who has whorshipped Lara since day one, tattoed her permanently on my body and painted her on my living room walls, it hurts me most to say that Lara Croft is dead.

  7. Hi Silvana,

    While I think that my comment that the CD trilogy was "a really good three-part story with great voice acting and a good script" was overstating it a bit (the story is... ok), I do think that at least the changes they made were respectful (more than I can say for the films), and done in order to keep the series going. This is more than I can say for the film adaptation. I don't know if you've read it, but I wrote about fan reaction to the biography change in this piece, for Katie Fleming of You're certainly not alone in feeling the way you do.

    However, you make a good point when you say:

    "...the thing that makes Lara attractive is that she ditched all her prestigious background and followed her passion - tomb raiding and tomb raiding only. CD took all that away and made her into a dull girl with daddy issues."

    I honestly hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right. A person driven by things their (long-dead) parents have done is a far less interesting character than one driven by something far darker and less easy to pin down.

    I agree that the headphones are slightly annoying, but Lara has always advertised things. Remember those Lucosade ads that CORE Lara did back in the '90s? And when she followed U2 around on tour? I'm very interested to see the new game, and while I don't think it will return me to the wonder of the 90s, I'd always rather a series try and re-invent itself than go around repeating tried-and-tested formulae int eh hope of regaining lost glories.

    I'm sorry you feel like your heroine is dead. But no-one lasts forever (not even Tomb Raiders), and we owe it to the ones we love to remember them at their best.

    As Winston said in Tomb Raider: Chronicles, "She will live on forever in our hearts"...