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On Warcraft movie, critical reception, and cultural heritage

Why I think the Warcraft movie is a big win for video game adaptations in the long run despite the negative critical reception.

Stanislav Costiuc, Blogger

June 13, 2016

11 Min Read

While this post is not about any of the Warcraft games, as the content is very closely related to games (video game movie adaptations to be precise), I thought it would fit Gamasutra as well. It's a repost from my personal blog.

The Warcraft movie. Panned by most critics and reviewers, well-received by most audiences, and adored by most Warcraft fans. This is a flick that was expected to be the ‘messiah’ of video game movies, one that would turn the tides and show that video game adaptations can be absolutely fantastic for critics and viewers alike. The general consensus, due to the huge discrepancy of opinions, is that it did not succeed. I think that it did. It’s just something that will get to us in about a decade or two just how well the movie has succeeded as a video game adaptation and a start to a beloved movie branch of the franchise. After all, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings also received mostly negative to mixed critical reception when first printed, and look where it is now almost a century later.

Before I go into the topic of how I think cultural background has defined this reception of the Warcraft movie, I’ll delve a bit into my personal history with Warcraft and what I thought of the adaptation. This is not a review, so the thoughts are going to be quick.

Most of my Warcraft time comes from Hearthstone, which is not exactly story-driven nor does it give a deep understanding of the lore. I’ve played the strategy games many years ago, though remember only some of the important plot points from Warcraft 3, some characters overall, and that’s about it, and strangely enough I have never played World of Warcraft in my lifetime, though after watching the movie I want to try it out.

Because, honestly, I loved it. So did everyone else I went to the movie with (who had even less Warcraft world knowledge than me if that matters). The arcs of the most prominent characters, the movie’s themes, the emotions, it gripped me so much that I can’t wait for the sequels.

I also want to delve a bit into my history with The Lord of the Rings, for reasons that will become clearer later. While the books were on the shelves of my home for a very long time, I have never read them or knew anything about them until I was 10 years old when I watched Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring upon its release. I was enthralled by the movie, went to many repeat viewings of it, read all the books instantly after that, couldn’t wait for the film sequels. And I absolutely adore the Extended Editions, to the point that I actually can’t watch the theatrical versions now, they feel… off.

Now, I’m telling all of this to hopefully establish that the point I’m going to make in this post is at least a bit more than simply theoretical thoughts, but something that I have experienced myself (if that helps to add any validity), and even though I was 10 years old at the time I watched Fellowship, I think what I’ll say does not apply to age. Also, one note, I don’t want to make this a ‘Warcraft/The Lord of the Rings comparison’ post, because that’s pointless, Warcraft is Warcraft, Lord of the Rings is Lord of the Rings. Besides, Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s adaptation are very close to my heart for the past decade and a half, so I’m pretty biased. This post is not about comparing the two movies themselves, but about adaptation reception.

Looking at the feedback of the Warcraft movie, I see some criticisms that in one form or another are repeated across many reviews or opinions or statements about it. And I find it really curious, because all these criticisms can be applied to the theatrical version (extended is a bit different beast so in this post I’m not going to take it into account) of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as well. Yet nobody mentioned them when reviewing Fellowship.

So let’s take the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring, forget about the sequels and extended editions and their possible existence, just take a look at the movie absolutely on its own and how criticisms regarding Warcraft can apply to it:

The movie features an extensive cast, yet only some characters are properly fleshed out, yet others have little to no progression, some are used as plot devices, and some are indistinguishable as characters.
The Fellowship of the Ring has 9 prominent characters, yet the only properly fleshed out one is none other than Frodo. The second most fleshed out character is Boromir, as he dies in this movie and his characterization (happening across only 4 scenes) is important to push Frodo’s characterization further (so he’s also a plot device). Gandalf is a static mentor character, Aragorn while bad-ass has his arc only set up. Sam is on the sidelines until the very end of the movie. Merry and Pippin don’t really have any differences (they might as well be just one person), while Legolas and Gimli are tokens. The Elf and the Dwarf with nothing else defining them. Not to mention all the extra characters that appear for just one time never to be seen again.

The movie has a romantic subplot that doesn’t go anywhere.
The Fellowship of the Ring has a couple scenes establishing the love between Aragorn and Arwen. Those scenes don’t lead to anything and Arwen doesn’t appear or gets mentioned again.

On a side-note topic of Warcraft, by the way, I would hardly call what it has a romantic subplot, more like an ‘establishing affection’ which in my opinion didn’t take away time from anything.

The movie doesn’t provide a sense of space or how any location in the world relates to each other.
The Fellowship of the Ring shows the map of the world just for a couple seconds in the prologue, but not enough to understand where’s what. There are scenes where we switch between Shire, Minas Tirith, Barad Dur and Minas Morgul, and outside of the Shire and Barad Dur we don’t even know what those locations are. And the rest while happens in mostly linear progression (with the exception of Isengard that’s somewhere), you don’t get a sense of where a lot of places are in relation to each other. Where’s Rivendell and where’s Misty Mountains and where’s Moria? Yeah it’s somewhere on the way to Mordor, but how much on the way?

Now, to be fair, when it comes to Warcraft, it does jump quite a bit between locations as it’s not a linear journey, but by the end of it we as viewers didn’t feel like we hadn’t known something that’s required for understanding what is going on and preventing enjoyment.

The movie ends with only a couple arcs resolved, the rest are left hanging, including the big plot points. Plus a bunch of sequel hooks in the end.
Self explanatory I suppose. The Ring is still not destroyed. Hobbits are still far from Mordor. Plus Merry and Pippin are captured. Sequel time!

If you know the source material, you’re at a big advantage over those that don’t and more likely to ‘get it’ and enjoy it.
The Fellowship of the Ring does have a 10 minute prologue that briefly explains history of the world as it relates to the plot of the movie, and yet the viewer is constantly supplied with new information, and there are a lot of things that have to be pieced together, and after the movie has ended there’s still a lot of open questions and uncertainties, ranging from ‘what’s Rohan that was mentioned a couple of times’ to something like ‘so are the Nazgul dead or what?’ and whatnot. However, if you have read the books previously, everything’s clear, and you as well get a bunch of fan-service and in-jokes that people not familiar with the source material won’t understand. Shortcut to mushrooms, ha, get it?

Now, when it comes to Warcraft it does begin in a pretty fast-paced manner, the introduction to the world and characters being a bit more of a crash-course style rather than the slower-paced beginning of Fellowship. That said, in the first half hour you piece together everything that’s needed to fully understand and enjoy the movie, even though after it finishes there’s a lot of open questions and uncertainties.

Here’s why I’m mentioning all of these issues that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has if you look at it as a stand-alone movie. Because nobody looks at it as a stand-alone movie.

People familiar with the source already know that it’s all part of something bigger and of greater mythology. People unfamiliar with the source also understand that it’s part of something bigger and of greater mythology, and can’t wait to return to that world in the adaptation or maybe even check out the source material itself. In the end, The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy forms a very whole and cohesive picture, and the Extended Editions add even more depth and detail to it.

Among critics and reviewers of The Fellowship of the Ring movie rarely would you find anybody that wasn’t at least partially familiar with the world and the works of Tolkien. A lot of them of course have read the books at certain point in time. Because throughout the whole second half of 20th century, The Lord of the Rings was seeping into mass culture, spreading more and more. It’s a part of our cultural heritage.

To not be familiar AT ALL with it when watching the movie for the first time, you’d have to be like me: a 10 year old kid who SOMEHOW managed throughout his childhood to ignore everything related to Tolkien, The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings despite the rest of his family having fully or partially read it. That’s a very specific condition to not know anything about The Lord of the Rings in our time, at least in the so-called western world which I am familiar with.

Warcraft, on the other hand, despite being a worldwide phenomenon by gaming standards, has still not seeped into our culture deep enough. On a relative scale it’s still too young. Most critics and reviewers don’t really know anything about Warcraft or World of Warcraft. And they’re judging the movie as a stand-alone one, despite the very first scene establishing that it’s part of something bigger and of greater mythology. And, yeah, as a stand-alone movie it might be problematic. But as a piece of something bigger it certainly isn’t. After watching Warcraft, the very first words that one of the people I went to the movie with said was, ‘so, Warcraft 2 and 3, am I right?’

And this is why I think Warcraft is a success despite the critical reception. If you look at the viewer reaction, viewer ratings, feedback, many of which are not from pre-existing Warcraft fans, you will see that it’s something that has resonated with people. That they accept this new world in cinema, that they want more of it, that many want to check out the source and other Warcraft material. The movie has opened a floodgate for a lot more people to get in and enjoy the universe, because despite the games’ popularity (World of Warcraft especially), they are still niche relatively to all the existing mass media and most popular franchises.

This is the beginning of Warcraft seeping even deeper into our culture and cultural heritage than it is now, alongside video games in general becoming more and more widely accepted no less. Years will pass, more movies (hopefully) will get released, more people will get to know and enjoy them (and get to know the source as well), and decades later this Warcraft movie will be looked back at as one of the most critically underrated films of this time (if not now, as the audiences do think that it is critically underrated). Because the context of everything surrounding the movie and audience’s cultural heritage will change.

Until then, though, I’ll keep a watch out for movie sequels. And replay the strategy games. And also check out World of Warcraft, because it’s about time I suppose.

Thank you all for reading. Feel free to leave any comments below. If you’d like to keep an eye on my future blog posts, feel free to follow me on Twitter 

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