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How do you take a video game and turn it into a compelling narrative?


Hollywood is always looking for the next trend, the next big thing. And these days it appears to be video games. So many games have inspired movies and scripted series. A new one just dropped on Amazon Prime Video, "Fallout," a game based in a world destroyed by nuclear war.


ELLA PURNELL: (As Lucy MacLean) The mission of the vaults should be important to everyone to come up to the surface one day and restart civilization.

MARTÍNEZ: HBO had a hit with "The Last Of Us." "The Witcher" was a hit for Netflix. But how is it done? How do you take a video game and turn it into a compelling narrative? Dmitri M. Johnson is one of the producers behind the "Sonic The Hedgehog" movies. He runs a company that specializes in video game adaptations.

DMITRI M JOHNSON: Now we have film and TV execs who grew up playing games like we did. Video games on their own right are just having a moment of incredible storytelling. And I think when you have writers, directors, actors who also, you know, are kind of part of that community, you get this perfect storm of storytelling, and it really is right place, right time for me and, you know, some of my other contemporaries.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think the attitude of Hollywood has changed since you started producing the "Sonic" movies? I mean, has video games become a property that Hollywood looks to and said, you know what, we can really make some money off of this?

JOHNSON: It is night and day. You know, we were borderline mocked and, you know, run out of rooms when we were talking about game adaptations in the early 2000s. And today, you know, it's the biggest thing on the planet. Like, I don't know if you've seen some of the reviews coming out for the new "Fallout" series, but the reviews are incredible. And I think the more that the source material is taken seriously, you're bringing together the highest-quality elements - you know, as far as writers, directors, the talent - we're going to continue to see those results. And I love my industry, but it certainly chases heat, and right now, video games have never been hotter. So I think that Hollywood absolutely wants to be in this space.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you think are some of the specific mistakes that people have made when it comes to some video game adaptations in the past? Where do you think people have gone wrong?

JOHNSON: I mean, that's a loaded question, but I'll talk about a couple that we certainly keep in mind. So number one, when you look at some of the games especially, you know, you look at like, you know, the PlayStation 2 and, you know, some of the early, early great Xbox, PlayStation games, oftentimes you were playing as you. A great example of that is something like a "Max Payne." Like, "Max Payne" is one of my favorite games, but you are playing as you as Max Payne. And I think if you go into an adaptation kind of with that mindset, you kind of have a shell of a character, which doesn't scream a movie.

The second big one that we try to avoid, and I actually coined this as my mom test, is while you want to make an adaptation that certainly pleases the fans of the game - and, you know, with that, we try to put in fun Easter eggs and things that only the hardcore fans will know - you also have to make sure that an audience who hasn't played the game, who may never play the game, can come in and connect with these characters, fall in love with the story and, you know, in my mom test, I say find out after the fact that it just happened to be based on a game. So that is also a mistake that happened in the past. I think one of the better examples of adaptation was Episode 3 of "Last Of Us."


NICK OFFERMAN: (As Bill) This isn't the tragic suicide at the end of the play. I'm old. I'm satisfied. And you were my purpose.

JOHNSON: You had a character that, you know, you lightly touch on in the game, but that episode, I think, stood out because it went deeper than the game could. It really explore that character and that story in a way that hadn't been done in the game. And I think that's great adaptation.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And you're talking about Nick Offerman's character in "The Last Of Us"...

JOHNSON: Yes. Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Someone who was maybe not a central character in the video game but turned out to be a very memorable character in the TV show.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, that is adaptation, like, at its best. You know, I consider one of the best video game adaptations of all time the original "Mortal Kombat" movie.


FRANK WELKER: (As Prince Goro) This puny mortal will be no problem. I'll crush him in one blow.

LINDEN ASHBY: (As Johnny Cage) All right. Let's dance.


JOHNSON: I loved it from the first minute, you know, the techno, you know, beat hit to the end, but I was also a hardcore "Mortal Kombat" fan, so, you know, I doubt my mom would have appreciated that the same way that I would, you know? So that's one of the things we try to - you know, a couple of things we try to keep in mind, for sure.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, when you're pulling out spines - right? - I mean, out of bodies...

JOHNSON: Exactly.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Moms might not like that unless, you know, they're into that. You know, you never know.

JOHNSON: Twelve-year-old me loved it.

MARTÍNEZ: Absolutely. Me, too. Absolutely.


MARTÍNEZ: Now, we saw a bit of a backlash in recent years against superhero movies. People are maybe a little maxed out on superhero movies. There have been a lot. I've loved them all. But you know what? That's just me.


MARTÍNEZ: How do you avoid this backlash or this kind of fatigue with video-game-inspired material?

JOHNSON: It terrifies me. I lose sleep because I don't think there's going to be any lack of brilliant, incredible storytelling in games, but I do fear that you will have producer studios who think that there's a, you know, kind of cash-grab opportunity and will not only see games that don't necessarily need to be adapted but will see, let's just say, certain people working on them who don't appreciate or understand what makes a great adaptation. So one of the ways we avoid that is we like to say we never chase heat. Don't chase something because it's sold millions of copies. That may have been because it was an incredible game, and it should only be an incredible game. We chase passion. We chase, you know, things that we personally are invested in, and we bet on that.

MARTÍNEZ: Dmitri M. Johnson is one of the producers behind the "Sonic The Hedgehog" movies. He's also co-founder and CEO of dj2 Entertainment and Story Kitchen, production companies specializing in video game adaptations. Dmitri, thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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