The recently released The Last of Us adaptation, which just concluded its first season, has successfully demonstrated what the majority of previous gaming adaptations, such as 1993’s Super Mario Bros., have failed to do: provide us with a compelling narrative and deliver significant financial returns. This ignited interest in bringing other popular video game titles to the big screen, with Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto (GTA) gaming series being among the top contenders for a silver screen adaptation.
To be entirely honest, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem; Grand Theft Auto is one of the most beloved video game franchises of all time, with over two decades in existence and several successful installments under its belt. It offers engrossing storylines, diverse settings, and intense action, which could provide a wealth of material for filmmakers to explore. However, this also poses one of the biggest challenges when it comes to adapting GTA into a cinematic release.
The world of GTA is simply too vast and complex to be adapted into a single movie effectively. Each installment has a unique plot, an array of characters, multiple different locations and cities, and a complex web of smaller, interconnected storylines. To successfully adapt this franchise into a movie, it would be necessary to simplify the story and focus on a specific narrative, characters, and locations from the games—all while honoring the deep and crime-rich legacy of this Rockstar-produced classic.
Admittedly, this is the reason why most gaming adaptations flop. It’s nearly impossible to condense thousands of hours of interactive fun into a two-hour passive viewing experience and still appeal to audiences who are used to more interactivity. So, there are two viable approaches here: either adapt a single game whose characters and narratives best embody the spirit of the franchise and highlight themes of crime, ambition, and vice that define the franchise or simply make a new storyline altogether.
2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and 2013’s GTA V would be prime contenders for an adaptation. All three games have provided players with rich and immersive open-world environments for players to explore and terrorize or just NPC watch, which is a very entertaining thing to do throughout most of Rockstar’s signature series. Los Santos, Liberty City, and Vice City have become synonymous with the franchise, and since they’re based on real-life cities—Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami, respectively—filmmakers shouldn’t have much trouble with recreating in-game locations.
In fact, this could actually help transport the audience into the franchise’s world, as it would allow filmmakers to recreate the game’s atmosphere, architecture, and cultural nuances with ease. The storyline selection would directly affect the location and the main protagonist, which brings us to the next issue—selecting a protagonist. Characters such as Tommy Vercetti, Carl CJ Johnson, Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton, and Trevor Philips are among the most beloved protagonists in the franchise, with CJ and Franklin being the most frequent and memorable.
GTA really owes a lot of its success to its wonderfully quixotic MCs, which provide depth and nuance to their respective games, ensuring that the player remains invested in the now 80+ hour storyline. To give moviegoers a similar option of investment, it’s necessary to develop complex and multi-dimensional characters for audiences to empathize with but in such a way that they also remain true to their video game counterparts—thus avoiding the cardinal sin of insulting at best and alienating at worst the series’ core fanbase.
Creating an entirely new storyline with new characters within the same universe as the GTA games might be an overall better narrative direction. This would allow filmmakers to create an original story that draws from the massive and rich lore and history of the franchise while avoiding the pitfalls associated with retelling one of the games’ existing narratives. Perhaps they need a mix-and-match of some of the greatest aspects of each game put together as a single story, an homage to the decades-old gaming franchise that’s still very much popular with the gaming community.
And this is where we come to the core of the issue filmmakers would have to deal with—that’s capturing the tone and spirit of the games. GTA is best known for its over-the-top violence, dark humor, and social commentary, and successfully incorporating these elements into a single cinematic release is a balancing act all on its own. With too much humor or violence, the adaptation could come off as insensitive or gratuitous, and too little would make it feel like a watered-down version of the games.
Ultimately, the success of a GTA adaptation would come down to the vision and the skill of the filmmakers involved, as creating a cinematic masterpiece that would mirror the games would require collaboration between writers, directors, and producers who understand the GTA universe and would be able to translate it into a compelling and entertaining movie. It would also require a willingness to take risks and push boundaries, both in terms of storytelling and filmmaking, which is why we now take the liberty to “fan-cast” Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie for the directorial role.
To be honest, the idea of making a GTA movie may seem challenging, but there’s no reason why such an adaptation couldn’t be a success. With the highly-lauded videogame to TV transition of The Last of Us, audiences are clearly hungry for film and TV properties that draw their inspiration or direct narratives from well established AAA gaming titles. While a GTA film is not in the works at HBO or any major streaming service (as far as we know), the story itself offers a thrilling and entertaining canvas for a daring film director or EP to create pop culture history.