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Game Changer

By BRETT MICHEL  |  June 4, 2010

And while the first Tomb Raider movie (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) became a modest hit (it cost $115 million to produce and earned $131 million domestically), the second film (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) slipped back into the money-losing pattern of many video-game adaptations (its $95 million production budget begat a slim $65 million domestic gross). What was wrong?

Kill screen ahead
Part of the problem is filmmakers' failure to recognize that, while video games and movies have been bordering on convergence for years — watching someone play a compelling game like Sony's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (itself slated for an upcoming movie adaptation) can simulate watching an incredible action film — they remain very different mediums. A game that might take a player 10 or 15 hours to play through affords a healthy amount of time to become invested in the characters and the game's world, and distilling one of these digital creations into a satisfying two-hour narrative has proven elusive. Still, films boiled down from 500-page books have done it, so why not movies made from games?

A major issue — a fatal flaw, if you will — is that every filmed version of a video game has failed, in varying degrees, to respect its source material — until last week's release of mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Mike Newell's action adventure, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, and is clearly intended to replicate the success of Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, while launching a new summer tent-pole series for distributor Walt Disney Pictures (who have $200 million riding on the gamble). And the adaptation of the classic 2003 entry in the video-game series — originally created by Jordan Mechner for the Apple II back in the 8-bit days of 1989 — has an ace in the hole. Namely, Mechner himself.

Enter the Prince
The fledgling video-game designer Mechner had found early success in 1984, when he released Karateka, a martial-arts game that laid the groundwork for Prince of Persia, while he was still a student at Yale. Profits from Karateka had paid off his student loans, and after graduating from college in 1985, he dove into crafting Prince's potent mix of side-scrolling sword-fighting and flip-screen adventuring and primitive (though advanced for the time) rotoscoped animation. But what Mechner really wanted to do was write screenplays and make movies.

Spending his first year after college trying to finish a script, Mechner accepted a job with game developer Broderbund, who were hoping for a sequel to Karateka. The young cinema fan had other ideas.

Inspired by both Raiders of the Lost Ark and the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, Mechner fashioned an action adventure that owed an obvious debt to the opening 10 minutes of Steven Spielberg's 1981 blockbuster. But he was most interested in creating an emotional involvement for the user. Although it featured some silent-film-style title cards, the game was a story you played, not one that was told to you, which was quite an innovative idea in those days.

A sequel, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, followed in 1992, but broke little new ground. Indeed, Mechner's shifting interests found him releasing his first film, the short documentary Waiting for Dark, in 1993. Prince of Persia 3D, released in 1999, was made without Mechner's involvement, and it's best left forgotten.

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