(Originally posted on 1UP.com, April 23, 2006.
I kind of want to watch this again. It isn’t a perfect adaptation, nor a truly great film, but I think it’s just fun to see something I like get interpreted relatively faithfully to film.
The sequel—the unfortunately-titled “Silent Hill: Revelation 3D”—was a much worse movie, but it’s actually even more dense with direct references to the games. I can’t recommend it as a film, but if you like the games, I think it’s worth watching just to see how many details you can spot.)
In the months leading up to the Silent Hill movie’s release, there was a lot of hopeful chatter about it being the first good video game movie. Now that I’ve seen it, I can say that this is somewhat true, but its merit is going to depend largely on who you are. A big part of the film’s success (or failure) is due to a fact that does not hold for most other game films: It’s designed specifically for fans of the games.
One thing that gave hope early on was that both director Christophe Gans and writer Roger Avary are confessed fans of Silent Hill. Not in the “Oh yeah I totally love video games” sense you see whenever a game company needs a random celebrity endorsement, but actual legitimate fans who played the games and can discuss them in the depth they deserve. This is a really big deal—in most adaptations, the game’s creators cede total creative control to some movie studio that has only the most basic understanding of the game, which then makes massive changes in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. The result, as we’ve all seen, is a movie that isn’t enough like the game to satisfy its original fans, but isn’t different enough to make sense to people who don’t know the game. This is not what happened with Silent Hill. Gans and Avary understand Silent Hill, and they clearly set out to bring Silent Hill to the theater, the general nongaming public be damned.
So this—the unwillingness to deviate wildly from the source material to make it more approachable—is a big part of why most critics and a number of regular folk don’t really get the movie. They’re not really supposed to get it. It’s not trying to be completely opaque, and it does go out of its way to explain some things that fans may prefer be left unsaid, but there’s no doubt that pleasing those familiar with Silent Hill is its first goal. And as one such devotee, there’s not much more I can say about what a Silent Hill newcomer will get out of it, because I just don’t have that perspective.
If you are a fan, though—damn. The movie is by no means perfect even from this perspective, and it does take some significant liberties with the story, but it is unquestionably Silent Hill on film. Both the decrepit, foggy world of light Silent Hill and the rusty, jagged hell of dark Silent Hill are recreated with absolute fidelity, down to the corpses strung up with barbed wire that appear in the latter. The monsters are largely ones we know and love, and the sound of Pyramid Head’s knife scraping the ground is simply perfect. The first half of the movie mirrors the first game’s plot pretty well, with some sequences—the scene in the alleys near the beginning comes to mind—utterly spot-on in terms of accuracy. Parts like that are almost more than a fan could hope for.
It’s not just the big things that are faithful to the games, either. There are so many little references, surely more than I noticed in my initial viewing. A certain song plays on the radio during a nighttime drive. The bus maps show street names like Neely, Bachman, and Bradbury. Sharon’s pad of paper is labeled “Drawing Block.” There’s even a part where characters jump a narrow gap from inside one building to another. These are things that only a real Silent Hill fan would have thought to include, and that only fellow fans will truly appreciate.
The music will also be immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent some time with the games. Hearing that Akira Yamaoka was providing music was an early sign that the movie was going well, but it turns out that he didn’t actually write anything new, as the soundtrack consists almost entirely of songs from Silent Hill 2 and 3. My one complaint about this (aside from the fact that it means no new Akira Yamaoka music) is that some songs are so strongly tied to certain scenes in the games that I couldn’t help thinking about those rather than the movie I was watching. Other than that, it’s great, because the songs are exactly what’s needed to set the mood for Silent Hill. I also view it as something of a vindication of Yamaoka’s work—not only is this some of the best music in gaming, but Hollywood recognizes that it’s good enough to be dropped straight into a feature film.
Back to the story, though, there are some liberties taken as I said above. The movie is most certainly not an exact recreation of the first game, nor does it fit into the existing canon. For some this is a problem on general principle, but I recognize that movies and games are different things, and that there’s nothing wrong with a new take on the story if it’s still of high quality. Some additions are pretty interesting, particularly the Centralia angle. The idea that Silent Hill was abandoned after the coal mines below the town caught fire adds some interesting and well-integrated twists to the established mythos, such as the “snow” that falls out of season actually being ash. My only issue with this aspect is that it gives too much away about what the “real world” version of Silent Hill is like, something that the games never quite explain.
The big jump from the game’s story occurs in the second half, when the cult shows up. This is probably one of the biggest problems from a fan’s point of view, because they aren’t really much like the cult in the games. For one thing, the cult is there—whereas the games typically involve a lot of secondhand information about the town’s native religion with maybe a couple members as supporting characters, the movie has an entire church full of people, which diminishes the feeling of isolation somewhat. Beyond that, the whole focus of the religion has changed as well, so that it mostly seems to be about burning witches rather than the more esoteric beliefs in the games. I found this to be less original and overall less compelling than the cult’s complex Samael-related machinations in the first Silent Hill. I imagine there are reasons Roger Avary took it in this direction (which I’ll try to address at some point if I have time), but it’s definitely not the movie’s strong point.
I saw the movie with a friend, and when it was over we agreed that it’s kind of like Silent Hill 4—still awesome, still Silent Hill, but not quite as good as what came before. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s well worth watching for all Silent Hill fans—it was quite simply made for people like us, and it shows. It’s hard to give a recommendation for those who aren’t fans, but I’ll just say that you may want to give it a chance. While some of it may be hard to believe or follow without prior experience and knowledge, Silent Hill is still full of incredible and terrible things, and it’s not fans alone that have sent it to the top of the sales chart this weekend. Perhaps the best option is to become a fan, by playing at least the first Silent Hill (and the second wouldn’t hurt) beforehand so you can fully appreciate the movie. We’ll be waiting for you on the other side.
And whatever you do, make sure to stick around through the credits. You wouldn’t want to miss a couple of the best songs in gaming, would you?