Why Aren't We Seeing Movie Adaptations of JRPGs?

Plenty of video game movies are on the way, whether we want them or not, but why are no JRPG's making their way to the big screen?

Although most movie adaptations of video games are mediocre at best, they keep getting made year in and year out. Each time a new film is announced, fans get their hopes up -- but in their hearts, they know the adaptation (probably) won't do their favorite game justice.

Other than the infamous live action Super Mario Bros. movie, these adaptations are most commonly based on action games like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry, horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, and even fighting games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. More recently, we've seen these types of movies expand to other video game genres, from MMORPGs like World of Warcraft to adventure-platformers like Ratchet & Clank. And wouldn't you know -- there's even a Tetris film trilogy in the works.

So with all these new video game movie adaptations, why is it that there haven't been that many based on JRPGs? Since so many of them are narrative-driven and feature fascinating characters, it seems like JRPG series would be the perfect candidates for movie adaptations -- especially for animated films. Let's investigate!

JRPG Adaptations Work Best as a Series Rather Than a Single Film

Quite a few JRPGs have seen anime adaptations, with most of them being rather successful and not straying too far from their source material. Persona 4 had two entire anime series -- one based off of the original game, and another based off of the enhanced PlayStation Vita version, Persona 4 Golden. These anime series adapted the games almost exactly as you'd expect, with a few minor differences and added filler content that's based on parts of the game.

Persona 3 also has a series of anime movies, rather than an anime TV series. And like the adaptations of the other Persona games, it follows the source material closely enough while slightly altering and expanding a few things. This is one of the few (and most notable) JRPG movie adaptations in recent memory.

MegaMan NT Warrior, an anime series based off of the MegaMan Battle Network games, is another well done anime adaptation that borrowed material from a few different games in the 7-part series. The series takes quite a few liberties, though, with some original storylines. Although it may not be as direct of an adaptation as the Persona 4 anime, MegaMan NT Warrior still successfully recaptured many aspects of the MegaMan Battle Network series.

Tales of Zestiria is a more recent anime series based on the game of the same name. This series is a special case, since many fans would argue that the adaptation actually tells the story better than the original source material. Many JRPG stories are known for being somewhat convoluted to begin with, so an adaptation telling the game's story in a more understandable way without making any massive changes -- such as completely changing or leaving out significant characters -- is a rare feat.

These anime series work because they are able to cover a considerable amount -- if not all -- of the material from the games. JRPGs are rather long games, and are only getting longer as technology improves over time. Because of this, any JRPG adapted into a film would have to be split into multiple parts. And a lot of content would probably be cut out, if not completely changed. So that makes them far more suited to an episodic format for television rather than a multi-part film for the big screen.

That's why we've seen so many adaptations in anime series instead -- because they can split the length up into several story arcs and episodes. Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 are great examples of this. And with two of those games having already been adapted, it's likely only a matter of time before we see a Persona 5 anime TV series. 

JRPG Movies Are Usually Animated Supplemental Material

With the exception of the Persona 3 movie series -- and perhaps other similar ones -- movies based off of JRPGs are usually animated prequels, sequels, or general auxiliary material related to the game, which aren't necessary to watch if you just want to play it. And that doesn't bode well for being a blockbuster hit.

Tales of Vesperia First Strike, the  prequel movie to Tales of Vesperia, is a good example here. This prequel may help fans understand the story of the game better -- especially those not familiar with the stories in the Tales series -- but they can just as well play the game without watching it.

Another example is Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, the CGI animated sequel to Final Fantasy VII. This movie is also not a required watch for those who have played the game. Some fans actually completely disregard it due to Cloud Strife's characterization and the odd plot that seems a bit out of place, even for a movie sequel to a Final Fantasy game.

Even Persona 5 The Daybreakers isn't technically a prequel or sequel, but more of a sample of how the Phantom Thieves do what they do -- and a preview of how certain parts of the game works that's intended to intrigue players and anime fans.

The point of these examples is that, on the rare occasion movies based on JRPGs are made, they're usually animated additional material rather than full on adaptations of the games themselves. So even the fanbases that are passionate about these series don't necessarily have to see them -- and sometimes don't really feel compelled to. Outside those fanbases, these films have even less appeal. And that's not going to translate the volume of ticket sales that a studio would need to see in order to profit from making such adaptations.

Adaptations of Other Japanese Media Are Terrible

Let's be real for a minute. The lack of true JRPG film adaptations isn't just about the structure of JRPGs and how it doesn't always translate well to the big screen. There's also the fact that Hollywood seemingly can't produce a good film based on Japanese media (I'm looking at you, Ghost in the Shell.)

There have been plenty movie adaptations of various anime series and movies, in both America and Japan, which have ranged from decent to just plain awful. Since JRPGs are often formulated similar to anime series, why even take the chance? Technically, we already had one movie adaptation of a JRPG -- if you can even call it that --with Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, which was a massive failure in the box office and a huge disappointment to fans of the actual franchise.

Instead of expecting a proper adaptation of a JRPG from Hollywood, it would be wise to expect something more akin to Dragon Ball Evolution, The Last Airbender, or maybe even the upcoming live action Netflix Death Note series. Movies with bad acting, terrible effects, and a habit of not properly following the source material and changing things up a bit too much. This is definitely not what fans want, and many would be happy with no Hollywood adaptations at all rather than giving them the chance to dig into -- and inevitably screw up -- yet another beloved franchise.

But contrary to popular belief, shoddy adaptations aren't solely an American problem. Even Japan has had problems adapting its own anime and video games as well, although less frequently than Hollywood. 

The live-action adaptation of popular anime and manga series Black Butler was released to negative reception. Despite adapting the source material rather well -- other than changing the main character and removing half the cast -- this movie still managed to be a total flop. Which shows that even when an adaptation does some of the most important things right, it still may not be a good enough representation of the original source material to please fans or be profitable.

Hollywood Shouldn't, But Will Try Eventually Anyway

Frankly, it might be better not to adapt JRPG's into movies at all, unless they're animated movie series that don't stray away from the source material much -- like Persona 3. But these movies would likely be made in Japan rather than America, and even then there's no guarantee that they'll at all capture what fans want them to. There's something magical about JRPGs that filmmakers just can't seem to capture, no matter how hard they try. And that really says a lot about how unique these games and franchises really are.

This would have been a plea titled "Hollywood, For the Love of God, Just Don't Do It," but it's doubtful they would pay attention.

Just look at all the studios that fought over film rights for Pokémon recently --specifically for a Detective Pikachu movie which many fans agree would probably only be watchable if Danny Devito provided the voice of the electric rodent. So it's only a matter of time before Hollywood tries and fails at adapting game series like Persona, Tales, and Dragon Quest into live action features on the big screen.

For now, let's just hope that this article hasn't given them any ideas...

Published May. 23rd 2017

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