Whenever you transpose a piece of media or entertainment between different formats you will always have to make certain adjustments / changes for it to work.
An example is the whole “the book was better” mindset. Often books are not better, but different. It is easy to create complex worlds and inner dialogue without much material effort. In contrast trying to show this in a movie or TV show is either not easily doable or incredibly expensive.
So for me, in general, when it comes to book adaptation the question always is if the adaptation stays true to the spirit of the source material.
The Halo story
To understand why Halo is a prime example on how not to do an adaptation let’s take a look at the story and compare what happens in the game vs. What is happening in the tv show.
The Game Story
In the game we are directly thrusted into a battle. Our ship, the Pillar of Autumn, had engaged with the enemy force and was badly damaged, to the point where it was about to crash on a massive space structure that looks like a halo and which both fleets happened across by accident. Our character, “Masterchief” is introduced to the vessel’s AI, Cortana, and after fighting our way to an escape pod, we crash land on the structure everybody refers to as Halo.
From there on in we get to shoot our way across Halo trying to figure out what it is and discovering an enemy even worse than the Covenant that is already driving humanity to desperate acts. This pretty much were the first game ends.
The TV Story
We are introduced to the planet Martigral where settlers are trying to fight against the UNC. Masterchief runs across a bunch of Covenant who seem to be digging in a cave for an artifact. When Masterchief touches it he has weird visions and flashbacks. As he follows the Covenant he finds the Rebel base and after the fire fight is over only the daughter of the rebel leader survives. He takes her with her on the ship, together with the artifact and gets ordered to kill her as she has seen the Spartans in action. Masterchief refuses, for $reasons, then makes a daring escape from base trying to find the truth of the artifact.
From there on, we get betrayal, intrigue, visions and Cortana gets implanted into the Masterchief to “keep him sane” as it is put. Towards the end of the first season Halo is a “mythical place” and both Masterchief as well as a human in the service of the Covenant are both “seeing it” and can “astral project” themselves onto it.
We then end on a cliff hanger.
This is not Halo
There are many ways that the story could have gone in order to be adapted from the game. Unfortunately, whoever wrote it just never really seemed to care about the source material. It feels a bit like improv, where certain things are being shouted to the actors on the stage and then they try to come up with something that seems to make sense.
The end result is a show that shares the name and some characters with the source material, but nothing else.
As I said above, I am okay with adaptations making changes, sometimes they are necessary, but in this case the source material is basically not even considered. It’s using the name, some characters (in name only) and then it runs with it.
We see Masterchief without his helmet in the first episode, he gets laid, it is about his “humanity” and “he is a real boy after all”. It is... tone deaf.
The tone of the show also is “all wrong”. From the way the Spartan program is being presented, to the fascist tones of the UNC the whole thing is just.... a mess?
What Halo could have been
The sad thing is, this isn’t really what it could or should have been. Yes, Halo is an action game and having constant fights with aliens is expensive to make, not to mention not all that interesting.
Having said that, the original story of the first game could have been adapted. It would have made for a good action series with the ability to develop the characters along the way. But instead.... we got whatever that show is.
A tale of bad production values
Another problem exists with the production value. In the pilot episode the SFX by and large are good, if not outright excellent. The aliens look good, the weapons look good and it is all very exciting and action oriented. Unfortunately that’s pretty much the only time we really see fighting, until the last episode. For a show that is based on an action game that’s a pretty brave approach to take.
It almost appears as if they blew all their budget on the first episode, because most of the sets just look like they are from a 1980s SciFi TV show. Costumes, sets, props they all looks “off” and cheap.
An example: There is a small asteroid colony. In order to travel between the different asteroids they set up cables on which little gondolas run. These gondolas look like they were build in a high school theatre shop. Airlocks? Thick glass etc.? Nope, it looks like a 1930s bus.
The uniforms also look off, to only in the context of Halo, but in the context on how you would expect military uniforms to look. The best way to describe them is as a low-res version of a uniform. It is almost as if the custom designers looked at the low resolution images of the first game and decided that everything needed to be blocky and overly large. An example are the rank insignia. In the original game, because of the low resolution, they were relatively large. In the TV show they are comically oversized and just look childish.
The material of the uniforms, as well as the armour, guns etc. also looks plastic and cheap, almost unfinished in design and “aging”.
Let’s also have a talk about the writing and story. There could have been a good, action oriented story being created. Instead we got a “origin story” of sorts. Which, I guess, could have worked. The games and novels in the Halo universe do provide enough material to draw from. But instead of keeping it in the SciFi realm they decided to discard all of this and instead create a mythical story line that would fit more into a fantasy setting than a SciFi one.
There is also this bizarre obsession from making the UNC out to be the bad guys. It is puzzling as to why. The games do give us a glimpse into the civilian life and the UNC isn’t anything like the fascist way that is portrait in the show. From the design of the UNC bases, to the dialogue and set-up. The UNC is not portrait as a military organization that fights for humanities survival, but instead as a military dictatorship of sort.
Likewise, the “mother” of the Spartan program, Halsey, who wasn’t without her darker side in the games and books, was turned in an outright villain in the TV show. The captain of the Pillar of Autumn from the game also makes an apperance in the show, but now he’s the ex-husband of Halsey and in charge of some project on the planet Reach, where UNC Fleet Command is also located.
It is a Halo feverdream. There are some links from the game to the show, through the names of characters and locations. But they mostly share nothing else in common.
Why games make for bad source material
There was a time where games were rightfully looked down upon when it came to writing. Often it was simplistic and predictable. But over the last twenty years the writing in a lot of games have improved. The same people who write and wrote TV shows and movies are now often involved in the writing of game lore.
But unlike books, computer games are already very cinematic. Yes, you get to “walk around and shoot stuff”, but most games make extensive use of cutscenes and dialogue to drive the story forward and this makes it very hard for a TV show or a movie to transpose the narrative and getting away with a lot of changes that most people would at least tolerate.
What Halo shows is how not to do it. Ironically enough, there is a really good counter example that just started: The Last of Us adaptation for TV. It’s not perfect, but it is much much closer to the source material than Halo can ever hope to be.
Why did the adaptation miss so hard?
It is pretty clear that the writers did not understand what the game was about, or if they did, they didn’t like the messaging. It clearly is an attempt to tell a “human story”, a “coming of age story” and in a way a social commentary considering how the UNC is portrait.
Now, this might find its audience, some people may like this version of Halo and enjoy the show, and if so, enjoy.
But for people who do like / love Halo, this adaptation is just a giant slap in the face.
What’s worse, The Last of Us, shows us that you can adapt a computer game in a true and honest way.
As a final note: With all the problems with Halo games since 343 took over, and considering that they were also involved in the show, maybe it should not surprise what was put on screen here.
I have a very minor hope that Microsoft cancels the second season, let the material sit for a few years and then tries again. But I don’t think I, and other Halo fans, will be that lucky.