Silent Hill and the Problem with Video Game Movies

There are some experiences you would give anything to forget about. For me, seeing Silent Hill (dir. Christophe Gans, 2006) ranks somewhere between getting my wisdom teeth extracted and getting called on in math class. I saw it on opening day. After weeks of putting up with my nonstop begging and pleading, my parents finally gave in and agreed to take me. They sat in the theater on both sides of 13 year-old me, enduring the whole film — all two hours and twelve wretched minutes of it. The mental pain and abject humiliation that came from watching that movie has haunted me for almost fifteen years: when I left the theater, I swore that I would never watch it again.

So of course I had to watch it in preparation for this article. Of course I had it on while I was writing this. Of course it was just as bad as I remembered and made my body want to fold in on itself, why do you ask?

There’s a very good chance that many of you who frequent this blog also play video games. If so, the name Silent Hill won’t be unfamiliar to you. For everyone else, Silent Hill is a legendary series of survival horror video games, long considered some of the best in the genre. They’re some of the more cinematic games out there, with a focus on narrative and atmosphere rather than combat. Naturally, this made them very appealing to Hollywood. With a premise perfectly suited to film, you would think a Silent Hill movie would be a runaway success. But you’d be very wrong.

As I banged out another two hundred words on my computer, I heard the incredibly off-putting sound of an emergency siren. I glanced up quickly and clicked the window where Silent Hill was streaming. Instead of a scene that furthered the plot, it was just another fan-service-y moment filled with references and imagery that had no context for people who didn’t play the games. I wouldn’t have to worry about missing any part of the story for at least another ten minutes. Satisfied, I turned my attention back to the keyboard and got back to work.

That might seem like a gross exaggeration about how shallow the film’s story is, but Silent Hill is a movie that prioritizes spectacle over plot in the worst possible way. With its nonsensical plot, bland characters and incongruous allusions to the source material, it’s a showcase of some of the biggest problems film adaptations of video games suffer from. Of course, there are exceptions like Detective Pikachu (dir. Rob Letterman) and Sonic the Hedgehog (dir. Jeff Fowler, 2020), which we’ll get into later. But on the whole, the number of good video game movies number in the single digits, the two being Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog with the rest ranging from unmemorable to unspeakably horrible. All of them struggle with the same issues, and all of them seem to prove a point video game fans have been saying for ages: it’s not possible to make a good video game adaptation.

On one hand, I want to disagree with this claim of impossibility. I believe anything can be adapted with the right minds behind it, whether it’s a book or a video game. On the other hand, I also understand that there are some things that just don’t carry over to film. Movies are paced very differently from other types of media. Not everything in an adaptation’s source material will make it into the film, but game movies face an additional challenge when they’re forced to cut half of the game ‘s plot out. Some of the best games in the industry were designed to be video games and nothing else. When you take away the gameplay, you’re only left with a skeleton of a story. Unfortunately, that’s what many filmmakers are left with, like director Christophe Gans was with Silent Hill.

Loosely based off the first game in the series, Silent Hill follows Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) as she searches for her adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) in the abandoned town of the same name. She discovers that it’s not as empty as she once thought when she finds it crawling with strange monsters and the members of a doomsday cult. With the help of Officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), Rose races to find Sharon before the cult’s leader Christabella (Alice Krige) does, uncovering a dark connection between Sharon and Silent Hill.

Based on what I’ve told you about the story, it seems like there’s more than enough here to craft a good horror movie. Therein lies the first of the Silent Hill movie’s problems: it’s not scary. The Silent Hill games derive their tension from two major things: exploration and isolation. The game’s story is told through a combination of cutscenes and in-game files like newspaper articles and books scattered throughout the town. Both give context to mysteries like the backstory behind the cult hunting the protagonist’s child and what the monsters haunting Silent Hill actually are. You find these files by exploring Silent Hill, sometimes even going out of your way to find the location certain ones are hidden in. This not only makes the game more frightening because it’s forcing you to venture out into the unknown to search for them but it also highlights how alone you really are. Very rarely do you come across other humans in Silent Hill, but whenever you do, they’re either just as confused as you are or purposely withholding information.

The first Silent Hill game uses environmental storytelling and incredible sound design to communicate its powerful feelings of isolation and dread. You might hear the voice of a little girl crying behind a bathroom stall, and when you open it, nobody’s there. You could examine a school desk and find the word “WITCH” carved into the surface, foreshadowing the character it belonged to. Or you might hear a monster scuttling around in the dark, forcing you to be extra mindful of your surroundings as you try to pinpoint its location. Listening to the echo of your footsteps as you run through Silent Hill’s desolate streets, you gradually grow accustomed to the silence, and it gets to the point where you actually feel safer when you know for certain that you’re alone.

And that’s what makes the Silent Hill games so effective. They ease you into total immersion and gradually let the story unfold in small pieces. For a ten to twenty hour gaming experience, it’s a perfectly reasonable length of time. For a film, it’s not logistically doable. Even if it was, it wouldn’t be fun to watch a character painstakingly search every room in a hospital for a box of patient records. The character has to be told the plot in a more direct and shorter way, and they can’t be alone for the entire movie — that would also be boring. You have to surround them with a cast, taking away that sense of isolation.

What the audience is left with is a generic horror film where the only tension comes from watching the main character fight weird creatures made from bad CGI. In a misguided attempt to appeal to fans, the movie is stuffed with callbacks and scenes that perfectly recreate moments from the game. Most of the time, the fan service is so specific that only people who have played the game will understand what’s happening. For everyone else, these moments are distracting and nonsensical. They wind up having the complete opposite effect on the audience, and the impact they had in the game — when you were able to control the characters — is completely absent from the movie.

Even though the story it’s based on explores themes like childhood trauma and abuse, Silent Hill only gives them a passing thought. Anytime the film starts getting scary, the atmosphere is shattered with a fight scene or CGI spectacle. There are moments and characters cherry-picked from other games in the series that have no connection to the one the movie is based on. At best, their inclusion here is confusing at best — even if you have knowledge of the source material. At worst, they’re exploitive and show how disconnected from the Silent Hill series the filmmakers really are. It’s no coincidence that some of the most pointless references in this movie are also some of the most famous iconography in the series, featuring heavily in the movie’s marketing.

But wait, I said the Silent Hill games were cinematic, didn’t I? That should make them even easier to adapt into games, right? Some of the most acclaimed video games of all time have borrowed heavily from movies, and Silent Hill is one of them. Everything from its rust-covered, visceral aesthetic to its focus on surreal, psychological horror is lifted from Jacob’s Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne, 1990), the films of David Lynch, and the works of many other notable horror filmmakers. They’re the ones who do Silent Hill better than what Silent Hill does, but they can’t be excluded when so much of the film’s creative identity hinges on them. As a result, the Silent Hill movie opens itself up for comparisons to the many superior films it’s trying to copy. For example, when it attempts to replicate the game’s aesthetic by leaning into the Jacob’s Ladder look, it leaves out everything else the game’s development team took from the movie that were crucial to the series’ success. The human drama and emotional storytelling that were critical to Jacob’s Ladder and the first Silent Hill game feel like an afterthought in the film, making an already disjointed movie feel even more incomplete.

Even though they’ve had decades to get it right, Hollywood can’t quite seem to crack the formula for a successful video game movie. Instead of trying to directly adapt a game’s story, filmmakers would have better luck if they created a new one set somewhere in the game’s world. There have been failed attempts, like Assassin’s Creed (dir. Justin Kurzel, 2016) and the first Resident Evil movie (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), but there has also been one big recent success: Detective Pikachu.

Unlike Silent Hill, Detective Pikachu isn’t adapting any specific Pokemon game, and it never tries to. The movie uses the first two generations of games as the template for its atmosphere and plot, but any references it makes to them are strictly for world-building purposes. We actually learn more about the main characters and the movie’s world by paying attention to what’s going on in the background of a scene, watching how the different breeds of Pokemon are used in this society as pets and weapons. Using the basic concept of the games, the writers created a relatable and sympathetic story with mass appeal about a young adult trying to reconnect with his absent father. I haven’t played a new Pokemon game in years, but Detective Pikachu fit so seamlessly into that world that I could easily accept it as canonical.

Another movie that succeeds at adapting a game is Sonic the Hedgehog, based on the series of the same name. The Sonic games have become a hodgepodge of plots over the years, with the series now featuring expansive lore and character relationships that spread over multiple games. Wisely, the movie doesn’t try its hand at that type of storytelling. Instead, it harkens back to the first games in the series that were light on plot and heavy on gameplay. The result is a story featuring the characters of Sonic (Ben Schwartz) and Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey) that takes the essence of everything good about the first games — nonstop action and high energy — and uses it to tell a simple fish-out-of-water story about a teenage orphan stranded in a strange new world.

Had the producers opted to adapt a more plot-heavy Sonic game like 1998’s Sonic Adventure, I’m confident the end result wouldn’t have been better than the film we actually got. Instead of relying on excessive easter eggs and references to the games to appeal to gaming-savvy members of the audience, Sonic the Hedgehog just cares about being a good family movie. The result isn’t perfect by any means, but it had more creative effort put into it than the Silent Hill movie. It didn’t feel like the filmmakers had missed the point of what the Sonic series ultimately was: an experience to play a hedgehog rolling around at the speed of sound, fighting evil robots and a mad scientist. That’s all the movie needed to be about and the filmmakers understood that perfectly.

I wish I could say that movies like Silent Hill are a thing of the past and that film adaptations of games are in a better place. In some ways, the success of Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu has proved that the potential is there. There are filmmakers out there who understand that they’re working with the limitations of two different mediums and try to create something that combines the best of both worlds. On the whole, however, Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand how one of those mediums actually works. When I play a game like Assassin’s Creed, it isn’t for the story — it’s for the gameplay. And when I play Silent Hill, I want to feel so immersed in the setting and story that I have to play the game with the lights on. The movie had no way of having the interactivity the game was acclaimed for. As a result, the Silent Hill movie lacked tension and everything else that made the games so effective, failing as both a horror movie and an adaptation.

The scariest thing about video game movies isn’t just how they’re incapable of learning from their mistakes: it’s that they still keep getting made. With upcoming films based on games like Borderlands and Metal Gear Solid in development, the genre shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. They could be good movies, but experience has taught me not to get my hopes up. If there’s anything worse than Silent Hill out there, I’m terrified of running into it.