Like eagles on pogo sticks

Thursday, 13 July 2006 — 6:31pm | Adaptations, Film, Video games

The latest GameSpot Rumor Control takes on a post at The Movie Center suggesting that Tim Burton has, on his lap, the script to a film adaptation of Grim Fandango.

It’s a whisper of a rumour, with almost no ancillary evidence to back it up, but even if it turned out to be completely false, I would remain enheartened that somebody out there shares the same crazy fanboy fantasy.

Grim Fandango is my dream film adaptation. I have devoted a lot of thought as to how I might film it myself, should I ever acquire the skill or the budget to do so, never mind the rights, and it was long ago that I came to the conclusion that it must be done in stop-motion. There is no other way. And – as I have alluded to before – when I saw the designs for the underworld in Corpse Bride, the same convergence of a smoky jazz-beat atmosphere and the calavera figures of the Mexican Day of the Dead as in Tim Schafer’s seminal masterpiece, it was clear to the point of total conviction: a Grim Fandango film should look like that.

For those of you not in the know (as I have realized that those unfamiliar with PC games are really unfamiliar with the recesses of its history, given the short shelf-life of anything that isn’t a blockbuster), Grim Fandango is, in my professional opinion, the greatest masterwork of interactive entertainment in the domains of script, story and artistic concept. If you look at the camp that continues to insist that the nondeterminism of the medium precludes it from being considered “art” (here’s looking at you, Roger Ebert – and do get well soon), I am willing to bet you that none of them have even heard of it. This is the one game I can name that is, beyond any doubt, literature.

Released in 1998, it was the last hurrah of the LucasArts adventure (cf. the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road), the paragon of the genre and at the same time its epitaph. This was the same year that the PC first-person shooter reached maturity with Half-Life, and real-time strategy hit its stride with its own instant classic, StarCraft, so it’s no wonder that linear storytelling driven by dialogue branches and item-based puzzles fell out of vogue.

For all the attention to craftsmanship that branching dialogue is receiving again – consider Bioware’s experiments in using conversation as a concrete, outcome-affecting form of action in games such as Knights of the Old Republic – nothing comes close to the narrative design in Fandango.

In one sequence, a woman rambles on about her sordid childhood while it is your task to pretend to listen, and try to get a word in edgewise and convince her to hand over a tool you require to progress. In another, you improvise beat poetry at a club on open mic night. The range of responses available to you in a conversation is often itself the punch line.

A few months ago, I played through the whole adventure again over the course of a weekend. Thanks to its painterly pre-rendered backgrounds, the graphics have not suffered from too much aging. In the game’s final sequence, there is a haunting shot of a vintage automobile parked at the foot of a flowery meadow, a greenhouse in the distance. See, in the Land of the Dead, plants are a symbol of the final death in the afterlife.

Whenever I start talking about this game, I can’t help but get carried away. I should stop. Find it and play it, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Some home entertainment stores sell old PC games in jewel cases for ten-dollar bargains. I also have a copy.

I had a point in there somewhere, and I hadn’t even mentioned the flaming beavers. If a decent Grim Fandango script has indeed found its way to Tim Burton, and it is being given serious consideration, something is going right. I would be tempted to get Tim Schafer aboard the project, much like how Rodriguez got Frank Miller on the set of Sin City.

Speaking of Frank Miller, you may have heard that one Zack Snyder is currently working on 300, Miller’s graphic novel about Thermopylae. He’d better be worth his salt, because he is now the director attached to Watchmen, which got off the ground again after the modest success of V for Vendetta. Since reading Watchmen a few years ago, I have seen the film project elude Darren Aronofsky, David Hayter and Paul Greengrass, and that’s saying nothing of Terry Gilliam’s aborted concept of doing a twelve-hour twelve-parter from a decade ago. Hopefully Snyder makes it worth the wait; this is another one that needs to be done right.

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