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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The writer is a commentator on culture and technology
We gamers are used to being disappointed by Hollywood. Every year, more of the games that we grew up playing are mined for their precious IP and adapted into TV series and films which range from mediocre to abysmal. Beloved characters are stripped of their charm, recognisable locales are invoked for a quick blast of nostalgia and then forgotten. It’s all spectacle, no brains or heart.
Yet fool that I am, I couldn’t quell a flutter of excitement upon hearing on Wednesday that Nintendo are adapting The Legend of Zelda into a live-action movie. Zelda holds a special place in the hearts of generations of gamers: since the first 2D title in 1986, the elf-like hero Link has donned his green cap 19 times to save Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf.
These games are the platonic ideal of fantasy adventure. You play a hero awakening in a strange land full of magic and mystery. The most recent titles, Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, widely considered two of the greatest games ever made, are peerless expressions of the joy of exploration, offering the player a vast, glittering world, which they are free to roam any way they choose.
At times, when I have found the real world bleak and overwhelming, Zelda is an outstretched hand, beckoning me to disappear for a few hours into fantasy. To a place where I am capable and empowered. To a world that I know can definitely still be saved. I emerge feeling soothed and joyous. Could a film capture this magic?
It makes sense that Nintendo would choose to adapt Zelda following the huge success of this year’s Super Mario Bros Movie, which made more than $1bn at global box office, making it the most lucrative video game adaptation ever and boosting sales of their games and consoles. The film itself was distinctly average, a colourful exercise in family-friendly nostalgia packed with references but little plot or character. Nintendo’s cinematic history might explain why they played it so safe — the previous Mario movie in 1993, which cast Bob Hoskins as the plumber in a role he later described as the very worst of his career, was such a monumental flop that it took them 30 years to dare to try again.
The big difference between games and films is the active role of the player. Video games don’t just tell stories, they give players the raw materials to tell their own. This vital ingredient cannot be translated into TV or film, and filmmakers haven’t quite worked out how to make up for it. It’s telling that the high watermark of gaming adaptations to date, the excellent HBO series The Last of Us, is based on a game that is adored precisely for its cinematic qualities.
The Zelda movie will surely draw on the beguiling kingdom of Hyrule and the memorable soundtrack of Koji Kondo. Yet many questions remain: will the famously silent Link be given dialogue? Which adventure will the plot follow: the beloved Ocarina of Time, the Lynchian Majora’s Mask, or a new tale entirely? And who will play the core trio? Of the suggestions I’ve seen, I think Timothée Chalamet would be suitable for the androgynous hero, Zendaya for Zelda and perhaps a steely Charles Dance as villain Ganondorf. But who could capture the unexpected sex appeal of half-fish, full-heart-throb Prince Sidon? The release is probably years away, but the feverish fandom offers a wonderful sense of community.
No matter how well they pull it off, I’m not sure a Zelda movie could ever broach the hallowed place in my heart where the games reside. This was a place I accessed easily as a teenager, when I could love songs and movies with every fibre of my being, staking out my very identity. Even as an adult, games can still unlock this space within me. I’ll be curious to see the film, but I’ll try to remind myself that even the most disappointing adaptation could not undo the hundreds of hours of unfettered joy these games have given me. Nothing can ever take those away.