With the news that Nintendo is finally making a live-action movie adaptation of The Legend of Zelda, it’s not hard to theorize where it’d look to take inspiration from. With over 30 million copies sold, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most successful Zelda game ever made, released on one of the most successful Nintendo consoles ever released. Why wouldn’t the live-action movie try and adapt the most successful Zelda game of all time?
To which I say: Nintendo, don’t. It’s a trap.
It’s not been confirmed that Nintendo, Arad Productions, and director Wes Ball are looking to adapt Breath of the Wild, though Ball has tweeted a lot about that game and its sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. So at the very least the director is a big fan of these specific games in the series.
Since I could never even hope to have the chance to direct it… the next big mo-cap Avatar-like movie should be… THE LEGEND OF ZELDA.
— Wes Ball (@wesball) January 29, 2010
And he should be, they’re amazing. Two of the best Zelda games of all time, even. But the very thing that makes Breath of the Wild one of the best Zelda games is the same reason why it wouldn’t make for a great movie adaptation.
Let’s Start With the Story
Before we address the gameplay-sized elephant in the room, let’s get this out of the way first. As far as stories go, Breath of the WIld is probably the most straightforward Zelda story you could tell. While other Zelda games rely on time-travel, dream worlds, or alternate dimensions, Breath of the Wild tells the story of a knight who must rescue the princess with the help of four mystical allies and their powers.
Sure, all the Zelda games are about rescuing the princess with the help of new powers in one form or another, but Breath of the Wild is especially straightforward in terms of narrative, in a way that’s almost like a cut-and-paste from other fantasy stories. If you’re going to make a Zelda movie, I’d adapt one of the games where the story is a bit more center-stage, whether it’s the pirate adventures of Wind Waker, the classic sword and sorcery of A Link to the Past, or arguably the most cinematic Zelda game of all-time, Twilight Princess.
But on the chance the studio looks to adapt the single most successful Zelda game of all time, the reason why it’d be a mistake is…
You Can’t Play a Movie
Between Breath of the Wild and its sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, these two games contain some of Nintendo’s boldest, most sophisticated gameplay designs and physics in the history of the company. I remember the first time in Breath of the Wild I started running through a thunderstorm with a metal weapon raised, only to accidentally turn Link into a lightning rod. Or using stasis on a boulder to catapult Link miles towards a destination like a makeshift teleporter. Moments like these are Breath of the Wild.
The creativity on display is so vast that years later we’re still convinced there’s more to be found in Nintendo’s 2017 Zelda game. We’re still kitbashing barrel airplanes, or utilizing the forces of nature against enemies. And that lightning rod thing from before? It didn’t take long for players to discover throwing metal at enemies in a storm created improvised lightning missile strikes.
Game devs have marveled at the power of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom’s engineering, calling the way its systems interact with each other near-magic. It’s not just showing audiences Link’s cool abilities but playing within an entire world, with its own laws of nature that just simply cannot be conveyed by looking at a screen alone. While there are plenty of fun moments a Breath of the Wild movie could include as fun easter eggs — like Link discovering he gets a stat bonus when he cooks during the blood moon for example — the game’s sense of discovery can never truly be captured on camera. Breath of the Wild’s moments of emergent gameplay are why these specific Zelda games in particular are so beloved, more so than any other game in the series. Past Zelda games like Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time turn players into heroes on an epic adventure, but Breath of the Wild turns players into theoretical physicists, experimenting with how the interlocking rules of the game play off one another – which, unless the director plans on making a movie similar to Oppenheimer, would make for not a lousy Zelda movie
The same thing about Breath of the Wild’s gameplay could be said about Mario and the subsequent Mario movie adaptation though, no? While short on story, the joy of the Mario games exist in the gameplay and the animated movie still did a pretty good job of evoking that, right?
First, I’d argue that despite all of the things the Mario movie got right, translating the gameplay was not something the movie did particularly well. While the training montage was meant to capture the excitement of a classic 2D Mario platformer level, I don’t think it succeeded in making me feel the same level of excitement I’d get from if I actually just went home and started playing a Mario game.
But you don’t necessarily need to translate gameplay to make a successful video game adaptation. HBO’s The Last of Us series did away with gameplay features like Joel’s echo-location and was all the better for it. Instead, it focussed on the things that would translate well.
Of course, The Last of Us had a lot of material to mine beyond just gameplay. The characters of Joel and Ellie, as well as its vision of post-apocalyptic America, was full of such rich details that the creators of the show were able to effectively jettison much of the game aspect of The Last of Us and focus on its world and characters to prop up its successful TV adaptation.
Breath of the Wild, by contrast, is almost solely about its gameplay. There is very little in terms of actual story to draw upon, which could be seen as an obstacle or an opportunity depending how you look at it. Also, its stunning visual style would surely look amazing were it an animated movie, but as a life-action film? I cannot see it.
How Would These Scenes Look in Live-Action?
It feels cynical to write-off a potential adaptation of Breath of the Wild even though we just got the announcement a live-action movie is in production. But my gut reaction comes from a place of love. Not only are there more suitable Zelda games to adapt, or better yet an original story within the game’s universe ready to be told. But adapting Breath of the Wild would do a disservice to one of the best Zelda games of all time.
Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom epitomize Nintendo’s play-first philosophy and what stayed with me years after finishing Breath of the Wild wasn’t the story, but how I experienced its adventures first-hand — interacting with the world and uncovering its many laws of nature. Strip all that away and you’re left with Breath of the Wild’s least memorable part to then turn into a movie.
Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.