How Super Mario Bros doomed video-game movies for a generation

 (Snap/Rex)
(Snap/Rex)

Asked if he had any regrets in his career, Bob Hoskins didn’t hesitate. “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Bros,” the actor said. “It was a f***in’ nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent.”

He was speaking in 2007, 14 years after starring in the notoriously dysfunctional take on the hit Nintendo video game. And yet the tremor in his voice had been unmistakable. Hoskins had graced the occasional turkey across his decades in the industry. Super Mario Bros was clearly a different class of clunker. He sounded more than slightly scarred by the experience.

Video game adaptations are so ubiquitous nowadays that we tend not to even think of them in those terms any more. The recent Detective Pikachu was received as a surreal kids comedy starring Ryan Reynolds. Last year’s Rampage was sold as a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson rather than a bid to revitalise an obscure Eighties arcade title.

Similarly, the imminent arrival of Netflix’s retelling of The Witcher saga is perceived as the streaming kingpin’s attempt to carve out its own Game of Thrones. But, in fact, the new series, starring Henry Cavill as titular anti-hero Geralt of Rivia, comes to us in the shadow of CD Projekt Red’s best-selling trilogy of console romps.

True, the makers of the TV show have insisted their Witcher is based on the original Andrzej Sapkowski novels. Nonetheless, Cavill is known to be a fan of the games and his monster hunter “Witcher” clearly emulates CD Projekt Red’s vision of Geralt. Moreover, the pre-existing fanbase Netflix is seeking to tap is self-evidently that of the games rather than the books (largely a cult affair outside of Sapkowski’s native Poland).

In the early Nineties, however, the relationship between Hollywood and the gaming industry was very different. Video games were regarded as a distraction for children and not something in which it was necessarily appropriate for grown-ups to take an interest. They occupied the bottom rung today reserved for movies based on popular toys.

Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia in new Netflix show ‘The Witcher’ (Netflix)
Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia in new Netflix show ‘The Witcher’ (Netflix)

But that hadn’t prevented Nintendo from letting it be known it was open to bringing its brightest blockbuster, the Super Mario series, to the screen. A Super Mario Bros film undoubtedly made sense: the games were action packed, brimming with visual humour and slapstick fun. What’s more, the plot, in which moustache-sporting siblings Mario and Luigi set off to rescue Princess Daisy from dastardly King Koopa, felt perfect for kids.

So how did this straightforward premise end up as the bizarre and, frankly, disturbing Super Mario Bros movie? More Cronenberg than Donkey Kong, it imagined a secret city underneath New York where the dinosaurs have taken refuge after an asteroid struck Earth (“Dinohattan”). And instead of the bouncy Mario, Luigi and Koopa, it set the odd-couple pairing of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo against Dennis Hopper, reprising the maniacal energy he had brought to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The surprise ultimately wasn’t that Super Mario Bros brought in just $20m (£15m). It was that anyone saw it at all.

“It doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be,” wrote Adam Bertocci in a recent appraisal of Super Mario Bros published on fanzine Smbmovie.com. “It’s a kiddie movie sometimes, a weirdo cult comedy at others, part dark sci-fi, part wacky-ass romp, and the disparate elements collide like bumper cars when they ought to resolve into a satisfying whole. Plot threads never quite congeal, and stray ideas stick out like sore thumbs on reptiles that somehow evolved them.”

In hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that the film would be a shambles. Rather than pair up with a bigger studio, Nintendo had opted to partner with fledgling mogul Roland Joffe. The director of The Killing Fields and The Mission was looking to get into producing. He convinced Nintendo to entrust him with Super Mario after granting it exclusive merchandising rights (which a bigger studio would have refused).

His pitch to Nintendo executives in Kyoto centred on the idea of a “darker” Mario universe. This was to be as much for adults as children. Nintendo’s logic was that Super Mario was such a commercial juggernaut that a big-screen version wouldn’t really impact much either way. Why not dip a toe and see what transpired? “They looked at the movie as some sort of strange creature, [intrigued] to see if it could walk or not,” said Joffe at the time.

The 40 best films of the decade

40. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A helter-skelter ride of a movie, satirical, very witty and showing its director’s immense affection for the B-movie actors, stunt men and hangers on who make up its cast. It’s also a tribute to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Who would have believed that a film set just as the Sixties in LA turned sour could be so uplifting? <i>Geoffrey Macnab</i> (Sony/Columbia/Rex)
40. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A helter-skelter ride of a movie, satirical, very witty and showing its director’s immense affection for the B-movie actors, stunt men and hangers on who make up its cast. It’s also a tribute to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Who would have believed that a film set just as the Sixties in LA turned sour could be so uplifting? Geoffrey Macnab (Sony/Columbia/Rex)
39. The Master: The world isn’t scared enough of Scientology, but perhaps it would be if enough people had seen The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson depicts (a fictionalised version of) the cult as a trap for bruised masculinity. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix contort themselves into primitive creatures of greed and desire. It’s an ugly film, in the very best sense of the word. <i>Clarisse Loughrey</i> (Snap Stills/Rex)
39. The Master: The world isn’t scared enough of Scientology, but perhaps it would be if enough people had seen The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson depicts (a fictionalised version of) the cult as a trap for bruised masculinity. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix contort themselves into primitive creatures of greed and desire. It’s an ugly film, in the very best sense of the word. Clarisse Loughrey (Snap Stills/Rex)
38. The Irishman: Scorsese summons all his sad captains for one last reunion in his magisterial gangster epic. De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and (newcomer) Pacino are all cast in a film as much about friendship, memory and betrayal as it is about corruption in the Teamster union or Mafia violence. <i>GM</i> (Netflix via AP)
38. The Irishman: Scorsese summons all his sad captains for one last reunion in his magisterial gangster epic. De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and (newcomer) Pacino are all cast in a film as much about friendship, memory and betrayal as it is about corruption in the Teamster union or Mafia violence. GM (Netflix via AP)
37. Inside Out: This is Pixar’s boldest and strangest animated feature. It takes us deep inside the mind of its heroine, 11-year-old Riley, where her unconscious is shown as akin to a magical theme park; emotions like Joy and Sadness feature as characters. Director Pete Docter deals with complex subject matter in a lithe and inventive way, and without too many Freudian hang ups. <i>GM</i> (Moviestore/Rex)
37. Inside Out: This is Pixar’s boldest and strangest animated feature. It takes us deep inside the mind of its heroine, 11-year-old Riley, where her unconscious is shown as akin to a magical theme park; emotions like Joy and Sadness feature as characters. Director Pete Docter deals with complex subject matter in a lithe and inventive way, and without too many Freudian hang ups. GM (Moviestore/Rex)
36. Shoplifters: Hirokazu Kore-eda is like the Charles Dickens of contemporary Japanese cinema. He tells melodramatic family stories which would seem mawkish if they weren’t so brilliantly observed. Winner of the Palme D’Or in Cannes, this is one of his very best movies – a heart-tugging story about impoverished members of a makeshift family doing everything they can to survive. <i>GM</i> (Thunderbird Releasing)
36. Shoplifters: Hirokazu Kore-eda is like the Charles Dickens of contemporary Japanese cinema. He tells melodramatic family stories which would seem mawkish if they weren’t so brilliantly observed. Winner of the Palme D’Or in Cannes, this is one of his very best movies – a heart-tugging story about impoverished members of a makeshift family doing everything they can to survive. GM (Thunderbird Releasing)
35. Dogtooth: Dogtooth is a grim tale of isolation, incest, cat murder and DIY dentistry. But Yorgos Lanthimos has a hidden superpower up his sleeve: the more off-putting his films, the more you get drawn in. His work breeds curiosity. We want to solve the mystery of these strange worlds and their cold, inscrutable characters. The fact that there are no answers keeps us coming back for more. <i>GM</i> (Feelgood Entertainment)
35. Dogtooth: Dogtooth is a grim tale of isolation, incest, cat murder and DIY dentistry. But Yorgos Lanthimos has a hidden superpower up his sleeve: the more off-putting his films, the more you get drawn in. His work breeds curiosity. We want to solve the mystery of these strange worlds and their cold, inscrutable characters. The fact that there are no answers keeps us coming back for more. GM (Feelgood Entertainment)
34. Edge of Seventeen: Kelly Fremon Craig’s gorgeous if cruelly unrecognised The Edge of Seventeen is deliberately small in plot, with Hailee Steinfeld playing a grumpy teen horrified to discover her best friend is dating her older brother. But it is told with heartwarming urgency, reflective of the heightened, dizzying drama of merely being a teenager. (Moviestore/Rex)
34. Edge of Seventeen: Kelly Fremon Craig’s gorgeous if cruelly unrecognised The Edge of Seventeen is deliberately small in plot, with Hailee Steinfeld playing a grumpy teen horrified to discover her best friend is dating her older brother. But it is told with heartwarming urgency, reflective of the heightened, dizzying drama of merely being a teenager. (Moviestore/Rex)
33. A Quiet Passion: Reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson, who published only a handful of poems during her lifetime, is brought to life in vivid fashion by actress Cynthia Nixon in Terence Davies’s biopic. She may look like a spinster aunt but Nixon shows us her passion, mischief and her eccentric brilliance. (Music Box Films)
33. A Quiet Passion: Reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson, who published only a handful of poems during her lifetime, is brought to life in vivid fashion by actress Cynthia Nixon in Terence Davies’s biopic. She may look like a spinster aunt but Nixon shows us her passion, mischief and her eccentric brilliance. (Music Box Films)
32. Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the definitive film about the quarter-life crisis, largely because it embraces the messiness of it all. We get the ups and the downs. We get the poorly-planned trip to Paris made by a young woman desperate to experience something profound. It’s a film without many dramatic conflicts, but marked by a gentle push towards accepting the inevitability of change. (IFC Films)
32. Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the definitive film about the quarter-life crisis, largely because it embraces the messiness of it all. We get the ups and the downs. We get the poorly-planned trip to Paris made by a young woman desperate to experience something profound. It’s a film without many dramatic conflicts, but marked by a gentle push towards accepting the inevitability of change. (IFC Films)
31. The Revenant: Famous for its scene of Leonardo Di Caprio being mauled by a bear, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s western is part survival drama, part revenge movie. It’s a wilderness tale on the very grandest scale. From the opening massacre to the snowbound denouement, it if full of moments that startle you with their violence and their beauty. <i>GM</i> (20th Century Fox)
31. The Revenant: Famous for its scene of Leonardo Di Caprio being mauled by a bear, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s western is part survival drama, part revenge movie. It’s a wilderness tale on the very grandest scale. From the opening massacre to the snowbound denouement, it if full of moments that startle you with their violence and their beauty. GM (20th Century Fox)
30. Boyhood: Shot over 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. It follows main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from when he is seven years old until he is a young adult. It’s a testament to the patience and ingenuity of Linklater and to the exceptional work of his cast (including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) that the film never feels phoney. <i>GM</i> (Sundance Institute)
30. Boyhood: Shot over 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. It follows main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from when he is seven years old until he is a young adult. It’s a testament to the patience and ingenuity of Linklater and to the exceptional work of his cast (including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) that the film never feels phoney. GM (Sundance Institute)

The plan initially was to cast Dustin Hoffman as Mario. He would be working from a script by Barry Morrow, who had won an Oscar for Rain Man. Morrow’s treatment presented the relationship between plumber siblings Mario and Luigi as a fraught psychological affair (it was dubbed “Drainman” by the crew). This was ultimately judged too bleak; meanwhile, the president of Nintendo North America expressed reservations about casting method-man Hoffman

Next Tom Hanks negotiated a $5m (£3.8m) deal to star, but then Joffe and his team blanched. The feeling was that Hanks was asking for too much given that he was coming off a string of flops (most recently Bonfire of the Vanities). Eventually, the script – a new, frothier one by Flintstones writers Jim Jennewein and Tom S Parker – found its way to Bob Hoskins.

He had some experience of children’s movies with 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And with recent turns opposite Cher in Mermaids and Robin Williams in Hook, the gruff north Londoner was warming to the idea of becoming a Hollywood star. He had no idea Super Mario Bros was adapted from a video game – his seven-year-old son later filled him in – but signed on enthusiastically.

“I’m the right shape,” he joked at the time. “I’ve got a moustache. I worked as a plumber’s apprentice for about three weeks and set the plumber’s boots on fire with a blowtorch.”

As his younger brother, John Leguizamo was perceived as a safe pick. He was an up-and-coming heartthrob, who had grown up in a tough neighbourhood in Queens. This made him perfect given that the (new) script pitched Mario and Luigi as rough at-the-edges New Yorkers.

The biggest headache was casting “big bad” King Koopa. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned Joffe down, as did Michael Keaton. In the end, Dennis Hopper signed on, intrigued by Jennewein and Parker’s kid-friendly screenplay. Fiona Shaw was to play his sidekick Lena.

Overseeing it all would be fledgling husband and wife directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. They’d been hired on the strength of their work on Channel 4 future satire Max Headroom. When they arrived at the sprawling five-story set at Castle Hayne, North Carolina, their first act was to throw out most of the script and steer the project in a bleaker direction.

They were, above all, keen to dispense with most of the Super Mario elements of Super Mario Bros. The look they envisaged was supremely gritty: closer to Blade Runner than the bright, bouncy Nintendo aesthetic.

“I wanted the film to be more sophisticated,” Morton would later say. “I wanted parents to really get into it. At that time, there was a very hardcore movement against video games, and a lot of anti-video games sentiment. I wanted to make a film that would open it up and get parents interested in video games. It’s completely different now, but back then it was taboo to make a movie based on a video game.”

What could go wrong? Everything, it quickly became clear. When the Los Angeles Times accompanied Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to the North Carolina facility in 1992 – he was there to agree a distribution deal – it found a set teetering on open revolt against the directors.

Hoskins and Hopper brooded in their trailers. They were aghast at the constant script revisions with which they were presented as Joffe tried to rein in Morton and Jankel.

“All these rewrites get frustrating so I don’t do too much research,” said Hoskins, his tone described as “grim”. “The trick is: don’t take the job too seriously, turn up and do your day’s work. That’s all.”

“I suspect it will probably be rewritten,” said Hopper as he looked askance at his latest page of dialogue. “The script had probably been rewritten five or six times by the time I arrived here. I don’t really bother with it anymore. I just go in and do it scene by scene. I figure it’s not going to hurt my character.”

John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis in ‘Super Mario Bros’ (Rex Features)
John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis in ‘Super Mario Bros’ (Rex Features)

But he did grow bothered – very, very bothered. Further into the shoot Hopper had a notorious 45-minute meltdown during which he turned the air several shades of blue ranting at Morton and Jankel. “He just starts screaming at Annabel and Rocky,” actor Richard Edson would remember. “He’s telling them they’re completely unprofessional, that he’s never seen anything like this. Rocky says ‘Dennis, what is it?’ And he yells: ‘You rewrote my lines! You call this writing? This is s**t! It’s s**t! And the fact you’d do it without asking me?’ He went on and on. He couldn’t control himself.”

Morton and Jankel didn’t make things any easier with reports of high-handed behaviour. At one point, Morton is said to have poured hot coffee over an extra in order to give them a grungier look. The extra had cried out in pain. And they alienated Shaw by forcing her to drink from a shot glass containing a worm. “Assuming the worm was fake, she’d done as directed – only to find it wiggling from her lips,” observed LA Times reporter Richard Stayton during his visit to the set. “Shaw had maintained her professional composure until after the take. The directors loved it so much they’d asked her to do it again. She had reluctantly done so... and did it again... and again...”

“The first script I got was witty,” complained Shaw. “That was maybe 10 scripts ago. Now they’re talking about taking a bath with worms.”

Rumblings of disquiet reached Joffe. He had hired Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure writer Ed Solomon to knock out a new screenplay. The caveat was that he wasn’t allowed speak to Morton and Jankel. “It just got rushed into production with a script that had been written two weeks before principle photography, and which had no input from either Annabel or myself,” Morton would complain. “Most of the actors had signed up on the old script, not the new script, so it was very hard to coax them into this new one. I don’t think anyone was really happy with the end result.”

Everyone involved by now understood they had been roped into disaster. Hoskins and Hopper, the occasional tantrum notwithstanding, put their heads down and tried to get through it. Leguizamo turned to scotch. This yielded interesting results when, during a driving scene with Hoskins, he slammed a door on his co-star’s hand.

“Every day’s a new page,” said Leguizamo, complaining about the constant revisions. “It’s like waiting for the news. What the hell happened yesterday? And there it is: al new, all live. 24 hours: Ding, ding, ding.”

Super Mario Bros was predictably savaged when it finally bounded into cinemas in May 1993. “Wildly overproduced,” lamented Variety. “It will baffle kids, bore adolescents, and depress adults,” said Time Out.

It certainly depressed Joffe, as the project recouped less than half its $48m (£36m) budget. Fearing its brand could be tarnished, Nintendo immediately severed its connections with Hollywood, which explains the absence of a Legend of Zelda film and why it took Pokemon so long to come to the screen.

“It was a very fun project that they put a lot of effort into,” the creator of the original Super Mario games, Shigeru Miyamoto, would diplomatically tell Edge magazine in 2007. “The movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”