For those who haven’t been keeping track of the on-again, off-again idea of a live-action Halo feature film, the new web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn may seem to have come right out of left field. But make no mistake: Microsoft isn’t developing a live-action, 9o-minute film following the Master Chief, among other key characters, just to make the launch of Halo 4 this November that much more grandiose.
The truth is, the time has never been better to push a Halo movie from dream to reality, with recent developments in the realm of young adult novels – and, subsequently, the proven success of those adaptations. The respective fan bases may not see eye-to-eye on science-fiction, but a Halo feature film – if done correctly – may have The Hunger Games to thank.
It may come as somewhat of a surprise that one of the most well-known and universally praised game franchises is having trouble finding a Hollywood studio ready to adapt it to the screen, but the road has been anything but smooth up to this point. The cost of such an undertaking led Fox and Universal to partner together (not a recipe for avoiding speed bumps) in trying to get a Peter Jackson-produced Halo feature film bankrolled in 2010. Fans may still lament the loss of a Halo film produced by the mind behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and directed by District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp. With Blomkamp now onto the higher-budget Elysium, that film’s science fiction action will remain a strong example of what might have been (especially given some intriguing similarities to the Halo franchise).
Nevertheless, the expenses outweighed the potential in the eyes of both studios. After the legal and financial mess was settled, one studio seemed to still be interested in the obvious potential of a feature-film set within the video game universe already responsible for close to $2 billion in sales. That foolhardy company was none other than DreamWorks Studios, with Steven Spielberg, a self-professed fan of video game fiction implied as possible executive producer.
A UNSC Pelican Dropship from Niell Blomkamp’s 2007 Test Short
Their solution for avoiding the mess of turning a video game into a feature film without a budget escalating out of control? Turn to the Halo novels for source material, not one of the existing games. The novels, written by American novelist Eric Nylund (well enough to earn a job at Microsoft Games Studios, we might add) made the New York Times Bestseller list their stomping grounds, exploring the details and personal stories of the warriors largely omitted from the action-heavy realm of the games.
The then-reported plan was to use the first novel, ‘Halo: The Fall of Reach’ as a launching point for a trilogy, carving out a separate space from the games – similar to the novels themselves. The only problem? The novel in question follows the Master Chief, John-117, and fellow Spartan IIs long before the alien war and iconic armor that many still see as the heart of what makes Halo popular. Did we mention the fact that these soldiers are kidnapped from their parents and thrust into combat from the age of six?
Touchy subject matter if there ever was, which inevitably raised some doubts about the mass appeal that a possible film adaptation would have. Of course, that was back in 2010, before Suzanne Collins and a book series known as The Hunger Games were on the tongues of anyone with a computer or Kindle. While movie-goers and readers the world over made a tale of teenage violence and will to survive against imposing authority a sales juggernaut, you can bet Microsoft was paying close attention. Not just to see how science-fiction was once again inching farther into the mainstream, but to what this could mean for their most profitable first-party IP.
‘Halo: Reach’ – Bungie’s last game, based on the events detailed in the novel
To truly understand what an alien-shooting space marine has in common with teens being forced into brutal combat against a backdrop of war, insurrection, young romance and the essence of human identity, a little context is needed. First and foremost, these are the exact same subjects which lie at the very heart of Halo. Following a group of young planetary colonists hand-picked for genetic modification and military training, ‘The Fall of Reach’ tells the tale of John-117 and his fellow recruits as they make their way from age six, to age fifteen then adulthood, facing the arrival of the Covenant on humanity’s doorstep.
The skill with which the potentially offensive material was executed in the book – and those that followed – meant the announcement of DreamWorks possibly adapting the novel to the big screen was met with immediate enthusiasm among fans, along with some confusion among the uninitiated. And yet, momentum has still been elusive.
So when Microsoft witnessed the sudden explosion of interest in a futuristic book series exploring child-on-child violence and military training, they had some serious questions to ask. It seems that rather than using the $660 million gross of The Hunger Games film as proof in studio negotiations, those at Microsoft decided to prove a point, and get things off the ground themselves. Enter Forward Unto Dawn.
Microsoft has never relaxed its stance that a Halo feature film or mini-series will eventually happen, on the condition that they had control over its quality and direction. If that meant self-financing – shouldering the costs in anticipation of the greater profits that would, let’s be honest, be as close to a guarantee as possible – Microsoft would foot the bill. Of course, having a sample of what a Halo film or series could ultimately achieve, and the direction Microsoft would be willing to allow a director or studio to take, would go a long ways farther than just promises.
Since major Hollywood studios continue to misunderstand why certain video game properties resonate with audiences over others (read: DOOM, BloodRayne) the developers themselves have begun stepping up. Microsoft may have scared off studios by demanding control over their property on the big screen (and who could blame them), but Hollywood’s track record was the exact reason that Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft formed their own studio. And the decision is already paying off, with Michael Fassbender attached to appear in and produce the film.
Fans of Halo will already be aware of the company’s tendency to go all-out in advertising the more recent releases, garnering attention with their highly-polished live-action TV spots along with international accolades. While the shorter advertisements were required to focus on the atmosphere and action found in the game’s campaign, such a ‘style over substance’ approach wouldn’t fly for longer features – something Microsoft has shown they’re aware of. The visuals are impressive, but a two-hour long film based around nothing but gunfights and explosions wouldn’t be likely to attract any ambitious or well-respected directors (notice the lack of any Michael Bay reference).
If Microsoft and DreamWorks have hopes for a strong, compelling and critically-praised film that kicks off an entire franchise, a serious amount of story and talent will be required. But could a Halo film built on a morally troubling tale of lost youth be meshed with the pyrotechnics and action that fans would have every right to expect? There’s only one way to find out.