In a previous article I argued that direct adaptations of games into films were misguided and that perhaps something slightly more abstracted could be the way forward. Well, us here in the videogame dungeon of the HeadStuff Fortress got to discussing what exactly a good GTA film *would* be and what films you’d draw on. It’s an interesting question because while the series has a certain representation and imagined persona in the popular consciousness, the actual games can be a little more of a mishmash of tone and styles with a clear parallel being tough to find. But nonetheless the question does warrant thinking about as you can near guarantee some studio somewhere has the option for this property ready to go.
First off you have to acknowledge that this series is very much invoking cinema at every turn. GTA 3 – for all intents and purposes, the “first” GTA in what we now understand the series to be – was heavily influenced by Scarface and even loaded it’s radio stations with recognisable songs from that film’s soundtrack. When it came to the sequel Vice City, they literally just made a Scarface game right down to recreating Tony Montana’s mansion, taking the overall neon and cocaine-infused aesthetic/soundtrack and even putting the infamous chainsaw bathroom into the game, complete with horrifying bloody smears and a free chainsaw that was yours for the taking. Then of course there’s GTA IV with its Koyaanisqatsi trailer, not to mention directly lifting from Heat for its big central heist set-piece and most of its tone. This was the grownup, serious GTA (until the DLC restored proper order with the outlandishness of The Ballad of Gay Tony). So how do you make a film of a game series that’s largely based on films anyway, without it becoming a cheap copy of a copy?
In that previous article I argued that the opening of Drive is basically the whole GTA experience, mainly from the standpoint that it recreated the very immediate tension of a GTA mission where you have to lose the police. Fun as the games look – especially when you’re watching someone control it – when you’re actually playing through a chase sequence it is a tense and at times nail-biting experience which that opening chase of the film invokes.
The rest of that film fits neatly into the series’ style to; a stunt-driver-turned petty-criminal lets his last shred of morality get him in trouble with organised crime and has to brutally murder his way to freedom like the goddamn Punisher. The premise is heightened enough to justify the wacky violence and literal stunt-driving but the situation is treated with enough gravitas that you stay invested and – more importantly for what a GTA movie would need – you can accept and even sympathise with a violent sociopath as a protagonist.
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This to my mind would be a key stumbling block of any GTA film. The protagonists of these games would be the villains in any other story. Niko “Cousin! Let’s go bowling!” Bellic is probably the most overt attempt to make the audience feel sorry for the psychopath-with-a-moral-centre protagonist in a very Drive way but he’s ultimately an outlier for the series. Rather, think about when you watch Westworld and see the random Guests in the background just indiscriminately fucking and murdering the Hosts because they can, that feels more like what a GTA protagonist would look like “in-world” given how most players interact with the games.
So in many ways a film like The Purge may actually be the more honest direction for a GTA film to take even if it doesn’t feel like that from the inside when playing it. Look at the chaos of GTA Online for a more accurate visualising of how your player character probably looks to everyone else diegetically as you hurl grenades at old ladies for shits and giggles.
Another example which has been suggested is Baby Driver. Action-wise this is absolutely what a GTA film should look like and the tone is in places quite fitting – the Mike Myers mask mix-up before the heist, as both a pop culture reference and an extended gag, would be very at home in the franchise’s reference-heavy and childish humour.
Ultimately though the film leans too heavily on schmaltz and traditional romance plots and while the lead is undeniably an asshole, it’s ultimately the characters who surround him that feel more true to the GTA spirit if we’re picking protagonists. Which leads to the conclusion that you’d likely be looking toward a more Baby Driver-ified Drive as the closest type of film you could hope to have as an at least partially authentic GTA experience onscreen.
Of course, a more pertinent question is: why bother? GTA as a cultural entity exists generally more as a punchline or scare-tactic for the media, and a shorthand for a type of free-form gameplay and design in the games industry itself. It doesn’t really have an identity that easily translates into an adaptation because any such identity is too fluid; each game has a different protagonist, often in different cities (and even when it’s the same city, it’s a different map) and frequently jumps around in terms of decade for its settings.
A film would at best just be telling any other crime story or worse a tonally messy action caper with moments of deeply disquieting violence while simultaneously trading in highly juvenile humour. “You can’t please everyone” may as well be the marketing tactic for every film based on a game but a GTA film would be that notion at perhaps its most hubristic.