Imagine that the year is 2001, and you’re off to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. You love the books and can’t wait to see them brought to life on the big screen! You get your popcorn, take your seat, eagerly wait as the lights go down… and then watch a movie that follows a bunch of characters you’ve never heard of as they infiltrate a fortress never mentioned in the books. None of Tolkien’s characters appear, and while a few monsters do menace the heroes (orcs, uruk-hai, and a warg), the story ultimately has nothing to do with his books.
How would you feel after the movie was over? Probably infuriated that you got something that has a passing resembles its source material but is more interested in showcasing the writer’s own ideas than the story you paid to see. That’s what the Resident Evil films feel like: a series of movies that had a mountain of material to take inspiration from, but chose to go its own way for better or worse. And while the films were critical failures, they were financial successes, going on to become – for a time – the most successful live-action video game movie franchise, and the most financially successful horror film series in history.
But no matter their financial and critical success, the Resident Evil films were always destined to be B movies meant to provide lots of action and thrills with little to no philosophical musings about the human condition or discussions of morality. And by that criteria, the films largely delivered on what they set out to do, thanks to three things:
1. All the films have simple stories with clear, achievable goals for the characters.
2. They take the basic idea of the games (zombies get lose and have to be stopped before they infest the world) and expand on it (zombies get lose, take over the world, and have to be stopped before the human race is wiped out) in a way that feels true to the spirit of the series, allowing fans to see characters and monsters from said games in new and unique scenarios.
3. They have lots of unique action sequences featuring monsters and characters from the games, sometimes re-created shot for shot.
Yet, for all their success, the films don’t quite reach the height of what they could have been; they suffer from an overarching story that feels disjointed and held together with staples, duct-tape, and Elmer’s school glue when viewed back to back, due to said story being made up film-by-film as the series went along. And while all the elements for great action movies are present, the biggest obstacle holding the films back boils down to one thing: Alice, the main character.
For all the anecdotes listed above, the Resident Evil films have another, unofficial distinction: they’re the most expensive fan-fiction story of all time in that they follow an original character throughout her adventures in the Resident Evil universe. And like poorly-written fan-fiction, said character is a black hole sue whom the entire universe revolves around. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is either:
1. Trying to kill or capture her.
2. Taking orders from her or trying to save her, often at great risk to themselves.
3. Admiring how awesome she is.
Furthermore, Alice is extra-special in-universe because she’s one of only two people in the world to successfully bond with the T-virus without any side effect, the other being Angela from the second film. But then Alice gets a one-up on Angela by becoming the only person on Earth to get psychic powers, and then she gets an army of clones who also has psychic powers, and then she defeats the Umbrella corporation and saves the human race from extinction, sacrificing her life in the process, only to return to life, making her a modern-day Jesus (if Jesus went around killing zombies with guns and psychic powers, that is).
But did you notice something about that description? The established characters from the games – Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Claire Redfield, Carlos, Albert Wesker, etc. – have almost no part to play in the fight for humanity. While they may shoot guns and kill zombies, they’re reduced to supporting characters, only existing to help Alice accomplish her quest. If they get a moment to do something cool that has nothing to do with Alice, she’ll swoop in and steal that moment (see: Jill trying to save Becky, Claire trying to defeat the Axeman, etc.).
While she has her sympathetic moments, and ultimately goes from being an unlikable jerk to a heroic clone trying to save the human race, there’s no escaping the fact that Alice is the biggest problem with the Resident Evil films. If she had been replaced with, say, Jill Valentine, and not gotten any special powers, we would have gotten a series that went like this:
Jill Valentine – a cop with the Raccoon City police department – teams up with her allies to fight off a zombie apocalypse, only to learn that their employer, the Umbrella corporation, is responsible for the outbreak. Armed with nothing but guns, their wits, and their determination, Jill, Claire, Chris, Barry, Carlos, Nicholai, Sergei, Leon, Ada, and newcomers Luther, LJ, Rain, Chase, and Betty roam the apocalyptic wastelands, trying to stop Umbrella and save the human race, eventually having to team with their arch-nemesis Albert Wesker in a final, desperate assault that leaves them just narrowly managing to save the human race and destroying Umbrella once and for all, allowing Jill and her friends to begin rebuilding a ruined world.
Doesn’t that sound like a great story? If we had gotten that, it’s my belief that the series would have been better recieved by both fans and critics. But instead, it was foiled by a newcomer who shoves everyone else aside so she can be the messiah. And in that lies the one lesson the ‘Resident Evil’ films offers to writers:
When adapting a franchise from one medium to another, stay true to the spirit of the source material while keeping the focus on established characters instead of newcomers.
While things will inevitably be changed in any adaptation, writers need to still present the story fans come to see. Tell the story from the original book, show, or game, respect said story, and use new ideas and new characters to compliment and support the original, not overshadow it.
Viewing the Resident Evil films years after the series concluded was a fascinating experience for me: I can’t think of any other series adaptation that has good production values, a real sense that the filmmakers were trying hard and learning from their mistakes, but still runs the gauntlet from awful to fantastic (in a B movie way). Most frustrating is that there was always the feeling that the films were always a few inches away from reaching their full potential, and it does happen a few times! Most of the action sequences – save those from the last film – are a lot of fun, the post-apocalyptic world is well done, the monsters are mostly great, and, despite all the changes made, it really does feel like a Resident Evil story come to life… it’s just not the one we should have gotten.
In the end, despite its missteps, the Resident Evil film series mostly accomplishes what it set out to do, in my opinion. It started weak, gradually got better, reached its zenith, then fell flat on its face at the end, but managed to get to its feet and cross the finish line. If you’re a fan of action movies, zombies, horror, and video games, I believe they’re still worth a watch. But most of all, they’re an important reminder that when we, as writers, are adapting someone else’s work, we’re stewards for that story. It is up to us to faithfully adapt it as best we can and respect it, even when we have to make changes. If we deliver a faithful and respectful adaptation, we’ll not only delight long-term fans, but introduce others to a world that they’ll want to explore, guiding them towards the original books, games,and stories, ensuring that a beloved story will earn a new generation of fans and be kept alive for years to come.