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Nintendo has a silent problem with ‘Zelda’ film

When Nintendo Co. announced on Tuesday that it was developing a live-action Legend of Zelda movie, fans rejoiced. They had been asking for this for years: In 2022, Zelda was voted the most desired game-to-movie adaption in a survey by pop culture site FandomSpot, but even as far back as 2008, gaming news giant IGN created an elaborate hoax trailer that thrilled, and ultimately disappointed many fans.

Nintendo’s news wasn’t unexpected. Recent game adaptations have been commercial successes, garnering box office profits and awards. Since the pandemic, this has included series such as HBO’s The Last of Us (with an astounding 25 award wins and 86 more nominations) and Netflix’s Arcane (22 awards). Movie adaptations have included Sonic the Hedgehog one and two (five awards and 15 nominations between them), and, of course, Nintendo’s own The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which made $1.36 billion at the box office this year.

On the heels of this success, it’s no surprise that the video gaming company would want to take another flagship series to the silver screen. However, a Zelda adaptation comes with one major challenge that these other movies did not: Its protagonist, the hero Link, doesn’t speak — and its developers have been adamant, over the years, that this should remain so.

Silent protagonists were common in the early days of video games when voiced characters were computationally expensive or otherwise impossible to include. Though technology has advanced drastically since Zelda’s debut in the 1980s, Nintendo has stayed this course with longstanding protagonists like Link and Mario. In 2009, a company representative explained to Kotaku, a gaming site, that it’s Nintendo’s tradition for their protagonists not to speak.

In 2010, Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma affirmed that he didn’t want Link to speak; just a year later, he repeated, “The most important thing about the Zelda series is that the player becomes Link.” Giving Link a voice, he argued, would create “a disconnect” and prevent a seamless self-insertion. In some ways, this allows the player to privately co-create Link’s character.

Though Aonuma seemed to walk this back in 2016, noting that he would need to “think long and hard” before giving Link voiced lines, every subsequent Zelda release has featured a silent protagonist. Instead of speaking, Link gesticulates and mimes the act. His voicelessness stands out against the otherwise fully voiced cutscenes of Breath of the Wild (2017) and Tears of the Kingdom (2023).

This has fans wondering how Nintendo will approach Link’s character in the upcoming movie. How can they remain faithful to the series in a medium where Link will not be a direct proxy for the player but an autonomous character for the viewer? If the audience can’t co-create Link as the games intend, the film risks appealing to Zelda’s full fanbase.

Looking to other game-to-movie adaptations, the closest is Nintendo’s own The Super Mario Bros. Movie, as Mario is also a silent protagonist. Though he has a few Italian-accented catchphrases (“It’s a-me, Mario!”, “Mamma mia!” and “Let’s-a go!”), he otherwise doesn’t speak. Despite this, Nintendo was able to transition to a fully voiced Mario, even if there was initial controversy over the casting of Chris Pratt — over, unsurprisingly, his non-Italian background.

But what worked in the Mario movie may not work for Zelda, given how adamant the developers have been about Link’s silence and the player’s role in co-creating the character. They want him to appeal to all players, a desire that’s been worked into multiple parts of Link’s design. In addition to his voicelessness, Link is, as a 2016 Time article states, “androgynous by design;” though Link is canonically male, producer Aonuma hoped androgyny would help “either female or male players […] be able to relate to Link.” Some have argued that this androgyny imbues an element of queerness in the Zelda series.

But capturing all these elements will be difficult. Casting poses one set of issues — the very act of casting one specific actor as Link will end some of the series’ co-creation. Writing the script poses others. Do the writers preserve Link’s silence despite potential storytelling obstacles? If they don’t, will the movie stray too far from its source, like the voiced Links of the late ’80s and early ’90s? There were three noncanonical Zelda CD-i games and a Zelda cartoon, and all four have been turned into memes, the most ubiquitous being Link’s infamous “Well, excuuuuse me, Princess!”

Despite these challenges, Nintendo could produce a success if the video game maker is thoughtful about it and open to fans’ reactions. Sonic the Hedgehog is a blueprint for this. When fans pushed back on Sonic’s design, they delayed the movie to address these concerns; it ended up being the highest-grossing superhero film of the year, ending Marvel’s 10-year blockade.

Would that have happened without the delay? It’s hard to say, but either way, it set the studio up nicely for Sonic 2 — and surely Nintendo wouldn’t mind a second Zelda movie if fans flock to the first.

(Published 13 November 2023, 04:43 IST)

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