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Adapting a Video Game to Film: A Conversation with the Writers of ‘Uncharted’

The creative foundation for both games and films is the writing. The writers for the 'Uncharted' film are Rafe Judkins and writing team Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who each brought something different to the table, share with Script the projects journey from beloved video game to the star studded action-adventure film.

Video games provide a world of adventure and entertainment. Unlike with film, where you're a viewer, one can interact with the narrative of a game and be an active participant in the protagonist's or antagonist's outcome. One of the most beloved video games in the action/adventure genre is the Uncharted series. Developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment for PlayStation console, the rakish protagonist is Nathan Drake, who's voiced by Nolan North.

A mixture of real-life fortune hunter Giovanni Battista Belzoni (The Great Belzoni) and fictional icon Indiana Jones, he roams the world in search of treasure and solving archaeological mysteries. His perspicacious attitude and artful wit are the soul of the game.

[L-R] Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) look to make their move in Columbia Pictures' UNCHARTED. Photo by Clay Enos.

[L-R] Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) look to make their move in Columbia Pictures' UNCHARTED. Photo by Clay Enos.

On February 18, 2022, Uncharted hit the big screen. An origin story to some degree starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, it is a symphony of action and cinematically resplendent. In the game, the relationship between Nathan and his mentor Sully is central to the story. That holds true for the film as well. Holland and Wahlberg have great chemistry and their cheeky rapport is fitting. What also holds true is that films, like video games, have a team that comes together to create something that's both a work of art and a marketable product.

The creative foundation for both games and films is the writing. The writers for the Uncharted film are Rafe Judkins and writing team Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, who each brought something different to the table.

Rafe has a keen interest in games and was actively looking to adapt one to film when he got on board Uncharted.

"I had gone to my team, my agents and managers in the feature space, to discuss video games that I loved, and thought could make great movies. I loved playing the game, so I actually chased Uncharted and ended up meeting with the executives at Sony. It actually came into effect quite naturally, they happened to be looking for someone at the same time that I was looking for something to write."

Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, long-time writing partners, joined the project later on in the process. According to Art, "Rafe was the one who got the project greenlit, so it was a greenlit project when we came onto it. There were other scripts that had been written. It was a long-gestating project. We worked with the character setups and acts that Rafe laid down that set the vectors for the movie. Then we hunted for what the best plot would be."

John Hanley Rosenberg and Mark D. Walker also have a story credit on the film. Matt explains how he and Art utilized their story idea to create the finished product.

"They had this cool idea about hunting Magellan's treasure, which was an original idea in a draft that they'd written. We thought that was interesting. It made us go back to the history of Magellan's circumnavigation and what the real circumstances of that were. A lot of the figures that are named, such as Juan Sebastian Elcano, were all real. The fact that only eighteen people survived the trip and only one ship made it back, that's all true. We took that idea and turned it into what becomes the plot of the movie.”

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“Voyages back then were really expensive. There was a German banking house that partially funded the expedition because the King of Spain couldn't afford to fund the whole thing. We took that truth and fictionalized it with a Spanish family because we thought it fit better from where the journey originated. It allowed us to set the second act in Barcelona. The Uncharted games are so beloved. They are inspired by the greatest treasuring hunting movies of all time, the Indiana Jones series. You're writing a movie that's adapting a game that's inspired by the movies. There's also the challenge of 'How do I make that original?' [laughs] But also infuse it with the spirit of the games and the characters.”

One of the biggest challenges that can face screenwriters when they're adapting a game is that they’re dealing with a project that already has a built-in audience. All three of these writers have had to face this challenge before and have similar philosophies about how to deal with it. Rafe recently adapted The Wheel of Time, based on the popular book series by Robert Jordan.

“I think the tough thing about adapting something that already has a built-in audience is that you need to create something that the fans will be excited to see but also something that brand new people would be excited to see as well. I always try to look at the iconic elements that we really love about it and then try to figure out a way to present those to a new audience, so they fall in love with it as well.”

Rafe Judkins

Rafe Judkins

Rafe’s background steeped in television writing. His first script job was a staffing job on Law and Order: SVU. “I was the person who did the “Dum-Dum’s” that described the location, date and time of the murder of the week.” Since then, some of the show’s he’s worked on are Chuck, Hemlock Grove, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. His television background gave him the tools to successfully tackle a project of Uncharted’s enormity and prepared him for collaboration.

“Coming from television, you're always thinking about story moving forward. How to tell a contained story in the moment but also create a world in which the story can continue. It translates fairly well to writing for films, especially ones where you’re creating a world that people can continue to enjoy. That's how I approach it from the beginning. When I came onto Uncharted, I thought about how much I love these video games and considered what version of this movie would I be excited about going to see.”

“In television writing you're always collaborating. It’s usually a room of writers working together to create a large number of hours of television in a short period of time. Therefore, I think television writers are particularly used to and comfortable with collaboration with other writers. As I've moved into the feature space, I’ve found it to be a different process because you're collaborating less in-person. You take in the script that you've come onto and figure out what the writer’s intentions were and what they were working towards. You try to build on what’s already there and work in the wants from the director, studio and producers. The collaboration is mostly on the page in features.”

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“Uncharted is a great example of that sort of collaboration. I came onto the project during the early stages, when Tom Holland first signed onto the movie, to create the foundation and structure of the film and the characters that we'd feature in it. Matt and Art did such an amazing job working on the script, building it into something that matched Ruben’s vision for the film. They were able to take those foundational pieces that I put in place and make them into a movie.”

Art and Matt are no strangers to writing blockbusters, so they weren’t daunted by having to adapt an extremely popular video game into a film. They’ve penned Iron Man, Punisher: War Zone, Transformers: The Last Knight, and Men in Black: International, all adaptations or interpretations of another source. (Transformers is based on a toy line.) Like Rafe, Art recognizes the need for balance.

“You have to give fans what they expect, but not to the exclusion of the general audience. We've played the games, watched clips on YouTube, gone to the Reddit threads. You understand what you like about the game and what they like about the game. You try to make the movie you'd want to see based on your own experiences.”

Art Marcum

Art Marcum

Matt seconds that and believes this balance can also be attained naturally by honoring the “tone” of the game.

All three of these writers discovered their love for writing when they were college age. Rafe attended Brown University and Matt and Art attended Stanford. Their love for writing grew from their exposure to it. Rafe wrote a paper that he visualized as a movie.

Though they both attended college, their opinion differs about whether aspiring writers need to take writing classes. Art doesn’t think taking writing courses is tantamount to becoming a working screenwriter.

“I actually got into film school and decided not to go. For me, I thought, okay, I'm going to essentially be paying money to read scripts and watch movies, which I can absolutely do for free. And use the time I'm not in class for actually writing. Everybody can make their own decision on this front. The tools for becoming a screenwriter are there for you if you seek them out and have the motivation to actually do it. I tell everyone, find the scripts for your favorite movies, and read them. Learn the structure. Also, watch a lot of movies. Then you're at least 75% of the way there. And there's a lot of good books on instruction too, like Syd Field.”

Matt believes the critical feedback that can be provided in a class is invaluable.

“Being able to take a class, whether it's in-person or online, writing material, whether it's screenplays or short stories, and submitting it to peers for critiquing is important. Learning how to share what you write and putting it out there and being able to take falling flat on your face and learning from that. It's a quicker way of finding out that if you go down this path, you're going to face serious rejection. and even though it might hurt, you have to learn to brush it off, learn from it and make yourself a better writer. I’m in accordance with Art about the importance of reading scripts you love. You should also read scripts from films and television shows that you haven't seen.”

Art agrees with the necessity of feedback but believes that can be found online.

“I agree with Matt. That peer stuff is important, but those resources can be found online. You can pay people who are highly qualified to read your stuff and give you feedback. It's also cheaper than going to school. Racking up student debt can be paralyzing. That's a challenge you don't have to take on. There are other ways.”

Matt Holloway

Matt Holloway

Art and Matt’s writing routine has evolved over time. Even the way they answer questions is like a well calibrated machine. Matt speaks on the nuts and bolts of their writing process.

“There are the stages that every writer goes through writing a script. You have to break the stories and break the characters. Once we've done that, we outline to try to tell us where we're going. Then you have to go where the writing leads you and it may not be where the outline leads you. Then we start drafting, we work on a first draft of the script. Now we're writing scenes. That's something we do independently of each other. This is something that's evolved over time. We used to work in the same room together, we did that for a number of years. Then when we feel like there's only a little bit of tinkering that needs to be done, we have a conversation and make those adjustments. These scenes go into the first draft of the script. Then we move on from there.”

Their first script sale happened serendipitously with another life-changing event for Art.

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“We’d read a series of articles in the New York Times about bounties being placed on people in the late 90s, early 2000s. For example, Manuel Noriega had a $1 million on his head. We came up with a pitch where we imagined a world where there was a clearinghouse called The Authority that would take out bounties on all these different people. They’d pay you out for them and take a percentage. We pitched this everywhere. We partnered with Mutual Film, Don Granger was a principle there at the time. One of our last pitches was at Touchstone. My wife at the time was going to have a baby the next day. When she was in labor, I was at the hospital and my phone started ringing. It was my agent. I meant to hang up and accidentally answered so my agent heard everything that was going. Hours later, after my son Jasper was born, I called back. Mark Vahradian, who was at Touchstone at the time, bought the pitch. So, at the same time that my son was being born, Matt and I's career was also being born.”

Art and Matt are currently in London working on Kraven the Hunter for Sony. Rafe is in Prague working on the second season of The Wheel of Time

Uncharted is currently playing in Theaters.


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