An Embarrassing, Baffling Journey To 'Zelda' Never Getting A Movie
Video games usually sell themselves on their complexity—the most detailed graphics, the most customizable experience, the most ways to pet dogs, and so on—but The Legend of Zelda has always gone for the simple approach. The series doesn't need to get tied up in knots with continuity or timelines, or not being true to earlier installments, because every Link and Zelda and Ganon are brand new versions who have free reign to be a pirate or werewolf or a spy in a world of chimpanzees ... wait, no, that's not Link, that's Lancelot Link.
As we were saying, you'd think that would make Zelda way easier to adapt than most video games since change and new versions of the story are so fundamental to the series that it might as well be the empty space between the three Triforces. Even with video games and their 40-year run of bad luck at getting turned into movies, you'd think that there would have been an attempt or two. But our theaters have stayed Zelda-free for three decades, even as most of the games are huge hits.
How did that happen? Strap in because it's a long journey, and unlike the Zelda games, a horse won't speed things up ...
Remember The Zelda Cartoon?
The first time someone actually had to write a character for Link and come up with things for him to say that weren't shouting or screaming was the now-infamous cartoon from 1989. This was back when there were only two games in the series, so nothing was really set in stone yet. That's how they could get away with throwing out most of the games' story and creating something closer to He-Man without the muscles.
In the cartoon's version of the story, Ganon was basically Skeletor with a pig nose, Zelda was stuck-up and mostly an afterthought in her own show, and Link was a perfectly weighted balance of annoying and creepy, with each side weighed down by having dark hair for some reason.
The show was a flop, even by the low, low standards of '80s cartoons. Before the full season ended, the show was already folded into the way more successful Super Mario Brothers Super Show, like a baby duckling running back to the nest and nestling inside its mom's feathers, except here the mother duck is Captain Lou Albano.
We Did Get One Nintendo Movie
Mario definitely had a lot more momentum than Zelda when it came to adaptations. Fantasy movies really hadn't gotten very far back then, when "CGI" meant creating a green wireframe 3D model and rotating it to show science was happening. But an Italian-American plumber was a lot easier for American audiences to wrap their heads around, and so Nintendo's first stab at a movie was the 1993 film of Super Mario Bros.
People have probably spent more time online making fun of that movie than they have crushing candies, so we won't go over it. Instead, we'll just note that they really tried their best. They hired a good team: Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, cast as Mario and Luigi, are two serious actors. More than that, they're two silly actors who both have the kind of energy you need to play a cartoon. Plus, the movie was written by the same guy as Bill and Ted and Men in Black, so you'd think he'd be perfect for another story about two regular guys in a crazy magical situation. Maybe that's why the movie ended up making things too crazy and magical, where the Mushroom Kingdom was Blade Runner for some reason.
Worst of all, the movie lacked this rap theme song.
What went wrong? Ultimately, the best parts of Mario are kind of impossible to put into a movie. You can put real people in the hats and overalls and make people up to look like Toad or whatever, but the joy of the Mario games is the satisfying way a block breaks when you smash it, or how exciting it is to pick up a power-up at the perfect time, and it's not easy to actually write a story where that happens to the characters.
That's one problem with trying to take the story of a Zelda game and add character arcs and drama. Another problem is literally every time people have tried it, it's completely fallen apart.
Some Zelda Games Almost Killed The Brand
You can see why Nintendo would be pretty gun-shy about adaptations after the faceplant off Bowser's castle that was the Mario Bros. movie.
But what really put Zelda under lock and key were Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, two games that came out the very same year for an experimental game console called the CD-i. If none of that sounds familiar to you, allow us to jog your memory:
Let's not kid around here. You're reading Cracked right now; you recognize this from all those stupid YouTube videos, the ones that are so old they're getting close to voting age as if the future of politics didn't already have enough to be worried about.
The Light Of Courage, The Movie That Wasn't
But if we're talking about Zelda adaptations and yesterday's internet, we should take a moment to mention The Legend of Zelda: The Light of Courage. That isn't an actual game or movie or anything; instead, it's the brainchild of a rando from the IGN message boards, who presented his forum buddies with a vision of a Zelda movie he would write himself and send off to big movie studios.
That isn't actually how filmmaking works, but this was the old internet. Back then, online communities were just a bunch of dumb kids and weird nerds, instead of the default form of social interaction, so if someone had a stupid idea, there would be way fewer people to tell them how stupid it was.
Of course, since this was the old internet, the whole thing devolved into a lot of trolling (and animating) pretty fast, but the reason we bring it up is that this single deluded guy made more public announcements about adapting Zelda than Nintendo did for decades.
What About That New TV Show?
The next official word on the subject came in 2015 when it was announced that Netflix and Nintendo had partnered up for a live-action Zelda TV show that it was calling "Game of Thrones for a family audience." You'd think that taking away all the nudity and murder would take away the #1 and #2 reasons anyone gives a shit about Game of Thrones, but in terms of stupid ideas on the internet, betting against Nintendo and Netflix would be pretty far up there. The Castlevania show has enough fans to prove that Netflix can make non-embarrassing video game shows, and comparing it to the huge and popular Game of Thrones shows the ambition Zelda deserves, even if it was probably meant for dumb investors who only want to hear "This is our version of this popular thing."
So what happened? Expensive, extensive TV shows take a while to make, but we're going on six years now without a single other announcement, especially since you'd think every skinny blond guy with a SAG card would be lining up for the chance to play Link. Earlier this year, we learned that the first announcement itself was the problem: According to Adam Conover, who was working on a top-secret Star Fox animated series, Nintendo had a whole series of TV shows planned but wanted to keep them all under wraps until they were ready, which is a very Nintendo move.
When the Zelda TV show news broke in 2015, it was a leak, and the leak happened early enough that the response gave them cold feet. They shut everything down immediately without a moment's hesitation, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve their image. It's one of the biggest cases of taking your ball and going home ever. To extend the metaphor, it's closer to throwing the ball into the Sun because someone else asked if they could play with it.
It's easy to get annoyed or outright angry with Nintendo for being so protective of their games that they end up keeping them off-limits forever like a princess locked away in a dungeon. On the other hand, every time the princess has left her dungeon, she ends up completely embarrassing herself, getting her crown dirty and tripping over her fancy princess dress.
But it's still been a long, long time since she was let out. In the meantime, the Zelda games have made the series more and more popular with every installment. Who would have thought that so many people would seriously think Breath of the Wild was the best game in the series when that series has been going for three whole decades? It shows that there's still so much left to try in Hyrule, so many stories left to tell about Zelda and Link and Ganon.
There's no reason some of those stories couldn't be told in other forms than video games. Plenty of things have gotten a few bad adaptations before a good one comes along. Just look at some other great fantasy series: Before the Lord of the Rings movies, all Tolkien fans had was a mostly forgotten animated movie and some discarded plans for a live-action movie that would star The Beatles (yes, really).
Wanting to see Treebeard and the Elves on the big screen back in the '90s must have felt a lot like wanting to see the Deku Tree and the Gorons now. After such a long time and so many broken promises, you would treat any news as more of the same. To quote Lord of the Rings, you wouldn't trust to hope, but the fact that you could quote that shows there could still be light at the end of the tunnel.
Top Image: Nintendo