The Legend of Zelda may be the only hope of breaking the video game curse

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Jun 16, 2017

In 2015, it was reported that Netflix was developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series, but then like a month later the CEO of Nintendo shot that report down.

To this day, there continues to not be a live-action Legend of Zelda series, which is disappointing for many reasons, not least of which is that The Legend of Zelda is the perfect adaptation to break the video game curse. More than any other media, video games pose a unique challenge to film adaptation, largely because of worldbuilding. Games offer dozens — if not hundreds — of hours of intricate worldbuilding and mythology, and that cumulative storytelling can, instead of enriching a film, strangle it. But a television show? That has some room for expansive worldbuilding.

Television offers a longer form narrative that inherently suits the elaborate worlds of video games better. A Zelda movie would be, at most, two and a half hours long—let's say eight, total, if there's a trilogy. But a Zelda TV show could tell stories for ten hours every year, for several years running. Zelda could have, say, fifty hours of storytelling to fit its adaptation. With that kind of room, you remove the stress of trying to compact a long-running story into an easily digestible narrative, which is so often the downfall of game adaptations, such as Duncan Jones' Warcraft, which isn't a bad movie so much as it's just too much to fit into two hours.

The comeback is, of course, Lord of the Rings, which was effectively adapted as a trilogy of films. But LOTR, when you break it down to nuts and bolts, is a pretty simple story: These guys have to take this thing to a mountain, and those guys are fighting that army. Compare that to Game of Thrones: Well, there's this family, they're fighting those angry pirates, and also the gold people from the south, and then their neighbors turn on them, and also the gold people can't stop fighting with each other, and then there's this dragon lady, she's doing a whole bunch of stuff, and also there's the sad boy who doesn't know anything, and he dies, but then he comes back, and there are ice zombies — it just goes on and on and on. Taking Thrones down to nuts and bolts still involves at least a dozen characters and twice as many plot points.

Some stories are just more complicated than others. In the same way that LOTR was capable of film adaptation, a video game like Tomb Raider is also a comparatively easy task — it's just lady Indiana Jones. You can strip Tomb Raider down and fit it into an archetype cinematic audiences already know and love. (Ditto for Uncharted which is just Indiana Jones, if Indy was much less concerned about whether or not it belongs in a museum.) But the games that come with elaborate alternate realities — your Zeldas, Skyrims, and BioShocks — are better served on TV, where you can explore their worlds and keep some semblance of their elaborate character ranks.

And the television landscape is ripe for a Zelda show. Game of Thrones proves people are willing to embrace high fantasy on a large scale, and a Zelda TV show certainly fits into the same mold. And because it's called The Legend of ZELDA but the protagonist is Link, there are built-in options to tell a multi-part story with two compelling leads. There are so many ways you could pair Link and Zelda as protagonists, and in most scenarios you don't even need to put them on the road together. You could separate them by location, by time, by magic — two Hyrules! — and create a story with a built-in hook: How are these two related?

But even more than that, Zelda's mythology is built to be flexible. It started as an eight-bit game, limited by the format to keeping things simple. Now you can have a cut scene delving into the history of this or that magic doodad, but back then it was like, “Take this potion! It's magic! That's all you need to know!” And throughout its life Zelda has been a cartoon, children's books, a breakfast cereal — it's already been adapted into other media. So there's a blueprint for the most important pieces to keep in an adaptation: Link, Zelda, Ganon, Hyrule, the Triforce, and general magic, as defined by user. That's really just your protagonist(s), villain, location, and McGuffin — the building blocks of every narrative. (Plus magic, for flavor.)

Film has yet to produce a truly good video game adaptation, and they've been trying for almost thirty years. But television has a fair shot of getting it right the first time, simply because their format is kinder to complicated narratives, and The Legend of Zelda is extremely well-suited to adaptation. It's a long-running, beloved series with a built-in fanbase, it fits into the Game of Thrones fantasy niche, and it offers an opportunity to craft a twinned narrative revolving around two protagonists, which satisfies the Prestige TV formula for "dense drama."

There's so much opportunity with The Legend of Zelda, it's a waste to leave it on the shelf.

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