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Why A Shadow of the Collossus Movie Could Work

Posted by Nick Dinicola on April 17, 2009

shadow_of_the_colossus_29109

This would make a great movie poster.

I was initially upset over the news that Shadow of the Colossus is being made into a movie. OK, I’m still upset about it, especially since the script is being written by the guy who wrote Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and I’m one of those gamers who holds Shadow of the Colossus up as a symbol of this medium’s artistic legitimacy. But many movies are announced and never see the light of day, so I figure it’s still too early to get angry at this announcement. It did get me thinking however: Can Shadow of the Colossus really be adapted into a movie? Of course it can, I’m not going to treat that as some profound question. I’m a firm believer that meaning transcends medium, anything can be adapted into anything else, it’s all just a matter of hitting the same themes. Of course that’s easier said than done, so I started thinking about the central themes that make Shadow of the Colossus stand out in such a crowded gaming space. I came up with 3 key aspects of the story that I believe must be retained in any adaptation in order to keep the “spirit” of the game intact.

The lack of concrete details is a cornerstone of the central theme. Ironically, this lack of context for the story would seem an anathema to current game design. As we start the game, all we know about the hero is that he’s trying to revive a woman, and that he’s willing to do anything to accomplish this goal. We don’t know his name, where he comes from, or even his relationship with the woman–is his love one sided or does she return it? Does she even know who he is? According to current game theory, starting with these kind of vagaries distances the player from the character, hindering any emotional connection, and this is true. I don’t know this woman, I don’t care about her, but I’m intrigued by the man’s dedication to her, and that curiosity, that mystery of their past, is more compelling than any back story could be. I play the game to find out more, I’m hooked, and I think the audience in a theater would be hooked as well.

So I set off in search of colossi, traveling all across this mysterious land, and that brings me to the second key aspect: This beautiful, empty land. Any film adaptation of Shadow of the Colossus must set aside a substantial amount of time to show the journey from colossus to colossus, and it must be serene, the landscape must be breathtaking, and it must invoke a painful loneliness. The journey must be shown because this is when we start to care about the main character. We start to care because the environment reflects his current state of mind: His world feels empty without his loved one in it, and so we see an empty world before us. We’re forced to exist in a world devoid of meaningful human interaction, a world full of beauty but no one to share it with. This fact is never far from our mind thanks to the scattered ruins that dot the fields and mountains and deserts, emphasizing there were once people here, but not anymore. Some gamers didn’t like this part of Shadow of the Colossus, they found it boring and wished to fight smaller enemies on their way to the boss battles, and I suspect that many audience members will feel the same. It’s very important that any adaptation not bow to this pressure because the journey across the land is the only time that we’re able to connect with the hero. To be fair, what I’m asking of the filmmaker is tricky to pull off: Make something purposefully slow-paced, but not boring, and stuffed with symbolism. It’s a challenge, but more than doable, see Into The Wild.

Finally there’s the colossi themselves. It’s obviously impossible to fit all sixteen of the beasts into your average 2 hour movie, and that’s fine. Picking 2 or 3 of the most memorable is the best way to go, I believe, and I actually think it would be wise not to put the last colossus in the movie. On a personal note, I’d love to see the 13th colossus brought to the big screen; it’s just my favorite battle, and easily one of the most memorable. In the end it doesn’t matter so much which one they choose, but rather how each battle is depicted. These are amazing creatures, grander than any animal on Earth, and they should be portrayed as such; the audience should be awestruck by each colossus…then forced to watch them die painful deaths. The colossi are always stabbed repeatedly in a sensitive area and their deaths are always directly by our hand, there’s no falling off a cliff or onto any jutting rock, it’s always us. And we always start the fight, either by invading their territory or by attacking first. In fact, in some cases, like the 13th colossus I love so much, they never even fight back but try to run away. We literally hunt them down and kill them. The death of each colossus is a sad event, and twists our perceptions of the main character. We were rooting for him to succeed, but after seeing the consequences of his actions we wonder if we should. Each death serves as a counterpoint to the loneliness of the environment, and we’re essentially able to see both sides of the argument: We feel the man’s pain, we admire his goal, but we question if this woman’s life is worth more than the life of the colossi.

There are no real “bad guys” or “good guys” in Shadow of the Colossus. The vague story in the beginning puts the “hero” and the colossi on equal ground, the environment then makes us feel for the hero, but then the wonder of the colossi makes us feel for them. We know that this man is fighting to save his loved one, and love is traditionally a cause worth fighting for, but again the vague story allows us to look past this cliched motivation and ask, not just as a throwaway tag line but a real philosophical question, how far should we go for love? This is the central theme in Shadow of the Colossus; a common theme but told in an uncommon way, not through dialogue or exposition but through the environment and actions of the main character. This is what must be adapted, not the epic battles,  not the ending, not the music (though any adaptation should use the same soundtrack, it’s the best of any game I’ve heard), but the subtleties of the theme and story. Climbing a colossus may be a unique concept for games and film, but it’s that unique idea combined with the story that really put this game over the top, and made it the darling of gamers everywhere. Failure to realize that will result in a failure of a movie.

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