The Art Of Adapting GRAND THEFT AUTO Into A Movie

The Art Of Adapting GRAND THEFT AUTO Into A Movie

Video games tend to get a bad rap when it comes to film. Among the negative criticism, there is one area that appears to be a common factor (most noticeably amongst the fandom of said video game property). This would be the movie’s loyalty to the source material.

I remember a friend who bashed the 2006 adaptation of Silent Hill (read my article about that film adaptation here), because it was blending material from multiple games. I’m a fan of the movie and the game series, and I personally didn’t find much of an issue. When a director adapts a work of art, the idea is to take on a brand new vision, while maintaining a sense of the original idea.

It is with this said that I began considering a video game that has commonly come up amongst my friends and I in regards to whether or not it could be a movie, Grand Theft Auto (GTA).

Since its inception, the series has been known for its chaos and controversy. It’s a game that is able to let you commit acts of violence, poke fun at the real world, and has become one of the highest selling forms of entertainment around. With a game that has garnered so much controversy, and is known for so much violence… how would one translate this into a movie?

The Main Challenge Of The Video Game Movie: The Character

For the sake of this idea, I’m going to break down video game characters into two broad forms: There’s your standard protagonist, along with what I’m calling the “host”. The standard protagonist is someone you play to progress the story, watching as their character develops.

We have characters like Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us that feel like fully fleshed out people. Like film, we may find something within them that we bond with as we watch their progression throughout the story. These types of characters allow us to feel closer to them, making their thoughts and actions more relatable.

The “host” is a protagonist we get to each objective, except that character acts more as an avatar for us (the player). Think of games like The Legend of Zelda where you play as a specific character (Link in this case). You are a distinct individual, but that being said, you don’t really learn about the character beyond your own actions.

The Art Of Adapting GRAND THEFT AUTO Into A Movie
source: Rockstar Games

Unlike The Last Of Us, Zelda misses out on the character development of the game’s own protagonist as an individual, since those games want to make YOU the hero. Link is how YOU take on your adventure; you can’t watch Link get into an argument, shed a tear, or laugh at something. We have nothing to latch onto with these sorts of avatars other than what we filter through them (rather than what we connect with).

When I say the character of the video game movie is a challenge, it is because one of the first immediate connections we have with gaming is playing as a character. This can create a distance within the audience watching a movie based on a game, since they have to relate to someone who they would traditionally have control over. Grand Theft Auto is able to take care of this, given the down to earth origins of its protagonists.

In the beginning of the Grand Theft Auto series, players took on their avatars as “hosts”, but in more recent titles, the series has begun to flesh out its characters. It is in GTA 4 and 5 where we find people with a variety of emotions. Grand Theft Auto’s characters have always been regular joe schmos, always portrayed in the backdrop of rags to riches stories. This creates a character that is easier to relate to off the bat, and say more to us than a mute elf or some science fiction space marine.

There’s more room to create a character like GTA 5’s Franklin, or GTA 4’s Niko. These are common guys coming from a sense of nothing, and reaching out to explore. There is a much more human element to them, in a world that is already seeped in realism. It’s like being able to connect with Tony Montana from Scarface, or Michael from The Godfather.

Sure, these two characters may enter into extreme lifestyles that we can’t fully relate to, but we can relate to their emotions (and sometimes their desires). Franklin and Niko can act as your avatars for chaos, but both of them make it clear that they have their own desires and goals.

Given the origin of these characters, it is possible to create someone brand new for a movie adaptation that doesn’t distance the audience. By presenting a character that can come from any background, and is not tied to any lore, Grand Theft Auto is able to hurdle over that difficulty in portraying video game characters in movies.

Pure chaos In a Lifelike Satiric World

The Grand Theft Auto series has always been known for their high levels of satire seeped in realism. The games have always poked fun at politics, religion, and pop culture. Both GTA 4 and 5 take a look at the difficulties, false hopes, and hypocrisy’s of the American dream. GTA 5 also pokes a lot of fun at our obsession with technology. There’s one mission where you partake in hacking some tech within the company “Lifeinvader”. One step into the west coast hipster office breathes that of similarities tied to Facebook. There’s even phones under the name “iFruit”.

The Art Of Adapting GRAND THEFT AUTO Into A Movie
source: Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto is our world… yet it isn’t. Picture for a moment driving through the west coast streets of Los Santos, looking up and seeing the “Vinewood” sign in the hills. Same for GTA 4, driving through the streets of Liberty City, taking in the gigantic lights and billboards. We know that these places are absurd twists on Los Angeles and New York. These are buildings that look like what you and I see every day, along with the people who walk the streets.

The world is familiar, while also oddly different. It’s absurdity borderlines the self-aware, either in your face through missions, or passively through radio ads. In my opinion, this is the most important element to what makes the game unique. It would be essential to capture the essence of this realistic oddity in adapting the work.

This weirdness of reality is what allows us to have a mix of “straight forward” characters to the outrageous. It is believable in these worlds to have a Franklin character (or really anyone from previous Grand Theft Auto games). And because of this excellent balance, it’s why we can also buy into a raving lunatic like Trevor.

GTA 5’s Trevor is easily the series’ most outrageous protagonist. While you may act out your aggression through each character, Trevor embodies rage. During the development of the game, Trevor was designed like this on purpose, meant to portray the aggression of people who play to a chaotic nature in Grand Theft Auto games. While the game’s violence and absurdity is off the wall and outrageous, it is rarely ever fourth wall breaking. GTA only makes itself aware to the audience in a “wink wink” manner. Acting more as, “Did you catch the joke?”, and not coming right out to the viewer.

As someone who constantly plays GTA 5, I go by many of the billboards as I’m driving and listening to the radio. Even though I’m aware that a lot of these ads are parodies, they are portrayed in a hyper realistic look, and in a way, I’ve stopped questioning their goofiness. This isn’t that they’ve lost their humorous appeal, but they’ve sold me into buying the reality of this world.

The most recent work that I can think of in comparison to Grand Theft Auto is The Fate of the Furious. What once started out as a straight forward action flick, has now evolved into an explosive picture of hilarity. The series went from drag races too out-driving a nuclear submarine. We as the audience are aware of this ridiculousness, but as the franchise has evolved and included more of these elements, we buy into the Fast and the Furious universe.

The Art Of Adapting GRAND THEFT AUTO Into A Movie
source: Rockstar Games

The characters even comment to a small degree of the antics that take place around them (rarely ever breaking the fourth wall). This is similar to how Grand Theft Auto characters act, both works making a happy medium between portraying realism and absurdity.

If a director and writer were to translate GTA into a movie, they would have to capture this balance. The world would have to be ours, while still having that space for the weird. The satire would have to be goofy, but not thrown in our face. Grand Theft Auto sells us on an alternative reality that skims on our day in and day out lives.

The Promise Of a Unique Adaptation

At the core of each Grand Theft Auto game, there’s the rags to riches story, along with the elements of heists, robberies, and gangsters. Grand Theft Auto pays tribute to films of this nature, most noticeably works like Boyz N Da Hood, The Departed, The Town, and hundreds more. At the end of the day though, what makes the game unique is its masterful blend of satire and chaos.

The action and the comedy is what fuels each mission. It’s the excitement of a car chase and the vulgarity between the character’s bickering that keep players coming back for more. It’s the subtle use and nods of poking fun that get us invested in its digital world.

It taps into a unique vein of entertainment that masterfully blends reality. If the movie was made to be purely outrageous, then it would have no substance, and if it were seeped too deeply in realism, it would lose its magic. I think it would be possible to make a Grand Theft Auto movie. If done right it would be thrilling, hilarious, and could be one of the most ambitious adaptations ever produced.

Do you think that Grand Theft Auto could be properly translated into a movie?

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
Michael Pementel is a Columbia College Chicago graduate of the Creative Writing Program. He began his career in music journalism, while continuing to write film essays revolving around mental health. His writing eventually landed him opportunities to currently write for a variety of publications, most noticeably: New Noise Magazine, Metal Injection, and Broken Amp. His love for film and pop culture has lead him here, where he plans to share his adoration for film even more. When not writing he loves to curl up with his partner on the couch and watch everything from cheesy B-Horror, to artsy horror films.