Opinion: Netflix’s BioShock Movie Should Be a Prequel, Not an Adaptation

After years of false starts and being stuck in development hell, it looks like the BioShock movie is finally becoming a reality. Netflix has picked up the rights to this iconic sci-fi shooter franchise, and the film now has a director in Francis Lawrence of The Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, if the last few decades have taught us anything, it’s that great game source material doesn’t automatically translate into great movies. If Netflix wants to escape the video game movie curse, there is one fundamental rule to follow. The BioShock movie shouldn’t be a direct adaptation of the original game. Instead, it should be a prequel. Here’s why a prequel movie has a better chance of doing the games justice.

What would a BioShock prequel be about?

What’s great about the original BioShock is that it leaves a lot of room to explore the events leading up to the game. BioShock is set in 1960, with a plane crash survivor named Jack who stumbles upon the underwater city of Rapture. Once meant to be a monument to man’s ingenuity and limitless potential, Rapture has become a crumbling ruin infested with Splicers, humans addicted to a rare gene-altering substance known as Adam. BioShock becomes the story of Jack’s struggle to navigate Rapture, discover the secrets behind its decaying walls, and come to terms with his own connection to the city and its founder, Andrew Ryan.

While the game slowly fills in Rapture’s backstory through dialogue and various recordings left behind by survivors, players never get a chance to see the city at its best or the horrific massacre on New Year’s Eve 1958. That’s where the movie can come in. Instead of focusing on Jack himself, the film could focus on Ryan and other key figures who helped bring this impossible city to life.

The film could show us Ryan as a younger, more idealistic figure, a man determined to show that a society free from the restrictions of government and religion can achieve utopia. It could also focus on his nemesis Frank Fontaine, a talented con man who sees Rapture as an opportunity to get the highest score of his life, and Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, a Nazi collaborator who finds a sliver of redemption by protecting her adopted children. The film could also highlight the many characters who are caught in the middle of that feud, watching a once-promising city turn to chaos and ruin.

That has all the makings of a compelling prequel. It’s also a movie that could accompany the games instead of trying to rehash the original plot. This is a story that is also told in the 2011 novel BioShock: Rapture. But with a franchise like this, it’s one thing to read about the past and another to see that story come to life.

BioShock: The Trouble With Jack

The prospect of a direct adaptation of the original BioShock is not very attractive. For one, there is the inherent challenge of trying to fit a 10-15 hour gaming experience into a 2 hour movie. It can be done, but not without losing a lot of the flavor and fun of soaking up the world of Rapture.

But there is a more specific problem when it comes to adapting BioShock. As a leading man, Jack just isn’t very convincing. He is the quintessential first-person shooter hero: a figure who says little and shows no outward signs of emotion. In fact, he only has one instance of spoken dialogue in the entire game.

None of that is meant to be an indictment of the game. The decision to make Jack a mute, faceless protagonist is very intentional. And while the film may seek to develop Jack as a character and give him more of a personality, that inherently defeats the purpose of Jack and his unique role in the Rapture conflict.

More than once, 2022 has shown us the dangers of trying to adapt iconic video game characters in live action. Netflix’s Resident Evil series debuted to middling reviews (although IGN’s Taylor Lyles gave Season 1 a 7), and the show’s lopsided approach to RE mainstay Albert Wesker drew particular criticism.

Paramount+’s Halo series has also caused divisions among fans. That series embraces its status as a standalone adaptation set in an alternate timeline, embellishing Pablo Schreiber’s Master Chief backstory and even repeatedly showing the character’s unmasked face and taking other unexpected narrative liberties.

Both shows deserve credit for trying to forge their own respective paths with these franchises. But in the case of Resident Evil, at least, those changes did nothing to help the show build an audience or avoid cancellation. Players don’t like to see their favorite heroes and villains transformed. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a reimagined version of Jack would do well with die-hard BioShock fans.

Jack is supposed to be a thin sliver of a character. He is specifically intended to be an enigma and a figure that the player can project their own motivations and choices onto. Therein lies the problem. BioShock is fundamentally a game about choice and free will. Throughout the game, players are forced to choose whether to be merciful in dealing with the Little Sisters that Adam collects or kill them and get the extra rewards. Those choices ultimately determine which of the two possible endings will happen. There’s also the one crucial moment near the end of the game where the player’s free will is robbed of him.

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BioShock needs a certain degree of interactivity to be successful. However, that is not an element that translates into a movie. Better that the Netflix movie focuses on a story with a predetermined beginning and ending.

Concept art offers a glimpse into the BioShock movie that could have been

Building the BioShock Multiverse

There are currently three main games in the BioShock series, along with a handful of expansions. Clearly, there’s room for Netflix to build an entire franchise, and no doubt that was part of the streamer’s motivation for acquiring the rights in the first place.

Obviously, the first movie should focus more on telling a compelling story than laying the groundwork for sequels and spin-offs. Still, the hope is that the movie includes some Easter eggs and gives a nod to the larger BioShock multiverse. A prequel movie offers a lot of potential in that regard.

On the one hand, we would love to see Sofia Lamb as a supporting character in the film. Lamb, the main antagonist of BioShock 2, is retroactively established as a major power in pre-Fall Rapture. It would be nice to see her more smoothly integrated into this world.

The movie could also work on some of the mythology introduced in BioShock Infinite and its expansions. Infinite features many of the same elements as the first two games: a remote, technologically advanced city ruled by a fanatical leader, warring factions made up of genetically modified citizens, etc. Initially, Infinite seems to be telling a completely different story than its predecessors. But over time it becomes clear that the underwater city of Rapture and the floating city of Columbia are linked by the power of the multiverse.

BioShock Infinite’s “Burial at Sea” DLC bridges the gap between the two universes by placing Infinite’s protagonists, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth, within the walls of Rapture. Along the way, players learn more about how Rapture became the underwater hell it did. The movie could easily include elements of “Burial at Sea” in its story. In a multiverse story that is all about free will and universal constants, Elizabeth herself could become the common thread that ties all BioShock adaptations together.

To learn more about the world of video game movies, check out the first trailer for HBO’s The Last of Us series and check out all the video game movies and series in development.

Jesse is a mild-mannered writer for IGN. Let him lend a machete to your intellectual thicket following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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