Halo producer unpacks why the TV show succeeds where the movie failed
Those watching Halo were in for a surprise come episode 3, particularly anyone who calls the original video games sacred. The Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber), a genetically enhanced super-soldier called a Spartan who is never, ever seen without his armor, dropped trou and took a bow in the bare buff. Those surprised by the character taking off his helmet in the premiere were straight up gagging by this point.
Master Chief, born John, stood before a bathroom mirror completely in the nude on a mission to remove something from his spine — a chip implanted in every Spartan that inhibits emotional responses. More significant, it was a symbolic stripping down of the character. Kiki Wolfkill from Halo gaming developer 343 Industries, who's been working for a long time to get this TV adaptation off the ground, points out, "You get this sense of the scarring and what he's been through." Still, the executive producer admits, "We got a lot of Master Cheek memes after that."
Halo, the show, felt like a risk to Wolfkill in many ways. This wouldn't be the first Hollywood adaptation of a wildly popular video game with an opinionated fanbase, but Halo kicks off a new trend that sees gaming's vast library booting up to the live-action TV space. Netflix's Resident Evil, Amazon's Fallout and (reportedly) God of War, HBO's The Last of Us, and Peacock's Twisted Metal are not far behind — and will no doubt draw similar criticism to any and all deviations from the source material. "There are hairdressers across the world who have made a ton of money off my increasing number of gray hairs," Wolfkill says.
But so far, the risk is paying off, despite whatever discourse amongst gamers plays out online. Halo broke a Paramount+ record for the biggest global premiere within the first 24 hours on the platform. (Paramount+ did not release specific stats.) Schreiber recalls watching that first episode with an audience of Halo fans and non-fans alike at SXSW in March ahead of its release on Paramount+. "The reception was just amazing and I was really thrilled to see it up there," he says. Plus, the show has already been renewed for season 2, which is currently in development alongside the remainder of the first season. It's a solid case study for all these other shows looking to make their marks down the line.
For Wolfkill, TV made the most sense for Halo, which was first going to become a movie years ago. Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) had plans to produce a feature-length film that was to be directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and written by Alex Garland (Ex Machina). That project fell apart by 2006, as chronicled in the Jamie Russell book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood. It was only when Microsoft launched its in-house studio 343 to act as Halo's new gatekeepers that folks like Wolfkill could start thinking about a TV series, which she calls a separate effort from the movie.
"We wanted our focus to be very much on telling more of John's story and more of these character stories," Wolfkill says. "We were really driven by the desire to have a long-form medium to really express these stories in a way that would provide a different kind of experience for the gamers."
Schreiber is fully aware of all the "swings and misses" Hollywood has taken trying to adapt games as movies. "A lot of that is because there's such a deep, rich storytelling culture in video games," he remarks. "When you try to do the short, quick, sweet version of it, oftentimes you can miss the mark pretty easily." For something like Halo, he feels "there was really no other option" but TV.
Wolfkill believes games present inherent challenges when it comes to adaptations. The relationship between player and character runs deep, both because of the immersive digital world that engrosses gamers on screen, and what Wolfkill calls "emotional muscle memory." Players are physically involved with a game, noting the feel of the controller as they make choices for the characters.
Something like Arcane, the Netflix animated series based on League of Legends, came with less of those burdens because so much of the story and character history from League of Legends "lives in both incredible cinematics and in the background," Wolfkill argues. Meaning, players have to more actively seek that information out on their own to experience it. But for Halo, all of that is part of the main gaming experience. "They've seen the world a certain way, or they've seen a character a certain way, or they have very deep feelings about who they may be as the character."
Episode 5 is a good example of Halo's approach as a show. The United Nations Space Command is attempting to retrieve a second artifact similar to one John discovered earlier in the series. Like the first, this relic gives him visions of his childhood when he touches it. (Most of his memories, particularly his emotional memories, were erased as part of the Spartan program.) When the UNSC's enemies, the Covenant, learn of the artifact's location, they send their forces to retrieve it first, prompting a massive battle between both sides.
The production incorporated live-action elements with various nods to the action of the video games. In a cheeky nod to the audience, Cortana, John's A.I. helper implanted in his brain, is shouting directions at him. "I know how to play this game!" he shouts back.
"There was just this sheer execution challenge," Wolfkill says of this sequence. "It's easy to want to throw everything in because it's cool, but at the end of the day, even with a battle, you're still telling this story and that story still has to be the priority. So, figuring out interesting opportunities to bring in game mechanics that feel familiar and are always exciting to see outside of the game, but doing it in a way where it's adding to the story of the battle is really important."
Wolfkill has grown to live with the fact that there will be people who appreciate these kinds of choices made for the show, as well as those who don't. Schreiber hopes two things can be true: they can present something that feels familiar to gamers, while creating an entirely new experience.
Going back to the stripping down of Master Chief, the actor felt a tremendous responsibility when he first removed his helmet as John.
"The stories that we want to tell all have to do with encountering John's humanity, and you can't engage that process without starting to get to know the character," the actor says. "One of the big themes of the first season is, how much of our humanity do we have to give up to fulfill our duty to our country or organization? How much of our sense of patriotism or duty do we have to leave behind in order to feel fully human?" Taking off the helmet — or showing butt for that matter — is a small price to pay for those answers.
Halo currently streams new episodes weekly every Thursday on Paramount+.
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