From Amstrad to Hollywood: How Prince of Persia hit the big screen

Game-to-film adaptations have largely proved to be blockbuster flops. So why does programmer Jordan Mechner believe this month's Prince of Persia movie will buck the trend? David Crookes finds out.

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:00

There is often a sense that Hollywood, if it really wanted, could tweak a film out of the most thinnest of stories. It only needs a semi-interesting report to hit the headlines for a few days and studios start knocking each other sideways, their elbows and cheque books flying, in a bid to snap up the film rights. A Summer hit about the life of SuBo, perhaps? You're too late – it has already been discussed.

What, then, would the film industry make of Jordan Mechner, on the face of it a humble computer programmer who, in 1989, created a game called Prince of Persia for one of Apple's earliest machines and, in doing so, made himself very rich and well known among players who instantly lauded it as a classic?

It may not sound too hot a story – one that was played out many times during those heady days - but it is certainly one of struggle. For despite Mechner's success in gaming, he wanted nothing more than to be a film-maker. Yet each time, he would be sucked back into gaming, his attempts at making it in the movies thwarted.

First of all, this led to a sequel, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, second came his blessing for Prince of Persia 3D in 1999 and third was the development of a cinematic adventure game called The Last Express. Gaming just kept calling him back.

In the midst of all of this, Mechner had enrolled at a film school where he shot Waiting for Dark, a short documentary looking at the terrible living conditions in Havana. Film-making is a tough business, however, and it still didn't lead to the opening he so craved.

Then came a phone call. It wasn't from Hollywood but from Yves Guillemott, president of the French games publishing giant, Ubisoft. He wanted to reboot Prince of Persia for a new generation of fans and he needed Mechner's agreement. He got it. But something began to brew in Mechner's mind. Here, he thought, was a golden opportunity.

“I suddenly realised that I hadn't really made the most of Prince of Persia in the 1990s,” he says. “I'd produced a game with a great backstory and we'd built on that with the sequel but that was it, to be honest.”

The new game, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, was released in 2003. A sequel followed a year later but Mechner wasn't directly involved. Instead, he was in Los Angeles, showing Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer a trailer he had created using the Sands of Time game. His time had come – he was pitching the movie of the game and, to his delight, Bruckheimer was interested. So much so, he bought the film rights.

“Sands of Time gave me a second chance to push the franchise,” explains Mechner. “I'd always had the belief that Prince of Persia could be turned into a wonderful movie. My inspiration was Indiana Jones and the idea was taken from the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That was the kind of feel I wanted and so I created a hero and I had an emphasis on adventure and exploration. It's the great stuff films are made of.”

Gaming and film have long had an uneasy relationship. On the one hand, many games try to ape the cinematic scope of a big-budget screen production. The globe trotting adventure series, Uncharted, on the PlayStation 3 is similar in style and story to Indiana Jones and David Cage's Heavy Rain has attempted to blur the game-film boundaries with an absorbing, emotional narrative-led crime drama populated by a host of believable characters.

Historically, though, game-to-film adaptations have tended to be staggering failures. With the notable exception of Tomb Raider, which has grossing $300m globally, others – from Street Fighter, Resident Evil and Super Mario Bros. to Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat and Wing Commander – are best forgotten. Prince of Persia is the latest attempt to prove the doubters wrong but no matter how film fans take to it, others will line up. Indeed, Sony is reportedly in talks with the director, David O'Russell, about a future movie adaptation of Uncharted.

Mechner understands the pitfalls. “One thing I wanted to avoid with Prince of Persia was not making a direct film of the game,” he says. “When I pitched it, I made it clear that the game and the film were distinct in many ways and that although there are many elements from Sands of Time, the story has been reconfigured. The bottom line is that films are watched and games are played. You have to produce something which takes that into account.”

In the game, the main character was known simply as the Prince. Understanding that it would be difficult to create a film in which the protagonist is never referred to by name, Mechner named him Dastan (“it was easy to keep him nameless in the game because the person playing could project themselves on to the character but you don't do that in film,” Mechner explains).

Dastan is played by Jake Gyllenhaal who spent seven months getting into peak physical shape for the role. Gemma Arterton was snapped up to become the fiesty princess, Tamina and Ben Kingsley is acting as the villainous nobleman, Nizam. The film draws its influence not just from The Sands of Time but other Prince of Persia games too and it tells the tale of street urchin, Dastan, whose life is turned around following an impressive battle which catches the eye of the king. Dastan is adopted and groomed to become the next king and, together with Tamina, he sets out to rescue the mythical ‘Sands of Time’ from Nizam.

“It's going to be a big, family friendly, spectacular summer movie,” says Mechner, who wrote the initial script which, as it often the case, has gone through some revisions since. “Those who have played the game will spot the differences. The dagger doesn't have the same kind of power as in the game where is can be used to undo mistakes. I had to limit that because if Dastan was able to just go back in time and make amends, it would remove any tension in many situations. There isn't the same emphasis on monsters either – it's not a film all about fighting.”

Now aged 45, Mechner is clearly loving the big time. He has forged a close friendship with the film's British director Mike Newell, the helmer behind Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, among others. The pair are looking at other projects together, with Newell having admitted to being impressed with Mechner's meticulous attention to detail and enthusiasm for film.

“When I think back to how this all began, I feel a real sense of awe,” says Mechner. “I've been involved with Prince of Persia for half of my life and I never really believed it would have taken me this far. I make a living out of telling stories and I love it.”

Prince of Persia is in cinemas from May 21

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