Welcome to Lost in Translation? – the Ready Up series where we look at the rocky two-way road of media adapted from video games and games based on films and TV shows, in a bid to decide whether the juice was worth the squeeze, or if what made the source material great in the first place got lost in translation.
Here on LIT? we’ve had some highs, and rather a lot of lows, but this time round we’re going back to the source, to the original live-action game-to-film adaptation. Ladies and gents, I present to you – Super Mario Bros.
Released in 1993, Super Mario Bros. starred Bob Hoskins as Mario, John Leguizamo as Luigi and Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, the film was reportedly a commercial flop and didn’t fare too well with critics either, with Super Mario Bros. holding a 13% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s the trailer:
At the time of the film’s release, the latest main game in the Mario series was Super Mario World for the SNES, released in 1990, 1991 and 1992 in Japan, North America and Europe, respectively. Super Mario World continued many of the game series’ traditions in terms of plot and gameplay mechanics, with players assuming the roles of Mario and Luigi as they take a holiday on Dinosaur Island, only for Bowser, King of the Koopas, to kidnap Princess Toadstool once more.
Naturally it’s up to the plumbers to right this wrong, running and leaping through a plethora of colourful environments and using power-ups such as the Super Mushroom to make them twice their original size, Fire Flowers to grant them the ability to throw fireballs and the Cape Feather, which can grant the power of temporary flight. For those of you who didn’t get to experience it the first time round, here’s what Super Mario World looked like:
What it got right
As an adaptation there is at least some semblance to the recurring plot of the game series – in the Super Mario Bros. movie, plumber brothers Mario and Luigi are inadvertently recruited in a bid to rescue Princess Daisy from the clutches of King Koopa.
There is a bit more to it than that, naturally. Daisy has in her possession a mysterious piece of rock, a meteor fragment that is the only clue to her past. When Daisy (named after the Princess in the Game Boy classic Super Mario Land) is kidnapped by Koopa’s henchmen Iggy and Spike (named after two of Bowser’s offspring from the main Super Mario games), Mario and Luigi set off in pursuit, leading them to a portal deep underground. Unable to rescue Daisy, they end up in possession of the meteor fragment and leap through the portal, ending up in Dinohattan, a dark, dank, over-crowded city that has the slightest resemblance to the dystopian metropolis seen in Blade Runner. Swiftly separated from the meteor fragment, Mario and Luigi embark on a journey to rescue Daisy and foil King Koopa’s plan to use the meteor fragment to merge Dinohattan with Manhattan.
The film loosely uses some elements from the games, with Bob-ombs making an appearance and fireballs that are thrown, albeit via a flamethrower rather than any sort of flower. Also included are characters who – despite not resembling their namesakes in any way – are named after in-game characters, such as Big Bertha (originally a large fish seen in Super Mario Bros. 3) and Toad. Also turning up in the film is Yoshi, albeit distinctly different from how you’d think of him in the game series.
What it got wrong
It’s easy to initially dismiss Super Mario Bros. as an adaptation based solely on its aesthetics. Put simply, you think of any game in the Mario series and you think of glorious cartoon-style Technicolor environments, larger than life monsters and the infectious run and jump gameplay. Instead, the world that the Super Mario Bros. movie introduces us to is dark, grimy, unpleasant and unwelcoming. It’s as far a departure from the Mushroom Kingdom and Super Mario World’s colourful Dinosaur Island as you could possibly get.
But is Super Mario Bros. deserving of its reputation as a dreadful film, and as one of the worst game-to-film adaptations out there? In my opinion, and I’ve seen a lot of game-to-film adaptations, no.
Yes, it’s daft, the acting is dreadful, the effects have dated badly and it barely resembles its source material, but think of the challenge of adapting such a franchise into a live-action movie, using the effects available 20 years ago and with a limited budget.
The core problem here, and it’s a problem found in many, many game-to-film adaptations, is that the wrong game is being adapted for the big screen. The Mario games were never known for their narrative. If a conversation came up about Super Mario, not a single time would someone comment on its plot. It’s a game about action, about reflexes, about active discovery – all of which are tailored to the videogame experience, and (apparently) difficult to translate into the narrative medium that is film.
Flawed as a film, virtually unrecognisable as an adaptation, Super Mario Bros. just about works as a film aimed at kids and does at least stay true to the bare-bones plot the games carry. It’s hammy as hell, and perhaps a little dark for its target audience, but I’ve seen far worse films. Nonetheless, here we’re judging the film as an adaptation and in that regard, this one is lost in translation.