Just last week, a source close to Netflix told The Wall Street Journal that it is developing a live action Legend of Zelda television series. While a spokesperson for the streaming service company didn’t comment on the news and Nintendo’s PR representative declined to “comment on rumors and speculation,” The Wall Street Journal is kind of reputable. The internet picked up the idea and ran with it, sparking excitement and criticism alike, and while no official confirmation has been made, at the very least, let’s presume that a live-action Zelda TV show is coming to Netflix.
As someone who considers The Legend of Zelda the best video game series of all time, this news is concerning. Mostly, it’s because of that “live-action” part. The vision of a well-animated Legend of Zelda show distributed on Netflix would be a glorious one, but it would still be one that illustrates a puzzling trend.
Firstly, picture this: a television series made up of beautifully animated segments that follow Link as his travels bring him closer to finishing his quest. That quest may be ripped from one (or more) of the games, created especially for the show yet borrowing crucial Zelda moments, or it could be entirely episodic and self-contained: less excusing of the princess, more Samurai Jack … and even less of the protagonist speaking.
Link is a cipher, as many of Nintendo’s characters are. Players project themselves into his role. He’s a tool made for players in order to interact with the world, just like any fully realized game character such as The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett and The Last of Us’ Joel. But perhaps Link’s an even more pure one due to his muteness. As soon as Link is portrayed by an actor with distinct mannerisms, ways of speaking, and voice, the character attachment fans are used to having is weakened.
It’s happened before and, admittedly, it was in animation. It doesn’t take live action to ruin the bond many have with the boy in the green tunic. The Legend of Zelda cartoon, which aired in 1989 alongside The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, was absolutely dreadful. It looked like a cheap ’80s cartoon because it was. It had terrible writing. It had terrible acting. It obviously didn’t understand what made The Legend of Zelda great. While many aspects of the Zelda series have changed in the years since then, the core qualities of Zelda remain powerful, and those would have to be retained in order to make a television adaptation impactful.
Unfortunately, the question of whether or not enjoyable video game qualities can survive the adaptation transition often arises. Link’s role as a cipher, and indeed many video game characters’ role as an instrument of player agency, is ultimately unsuited for viewing rather than playing. It could very easily be argued that there has not been a single successful film or TV adaptation of a video game property, at the very least critically. Regardless, it’s clear that re-purposing characters that were formed within an interactive world, and not a static one, is an incredibly difficult task.
Video game characters and stories should not just be contained to one medium, but it’s clear that certain properties are harder to adapt than others, and The Legend of Zelda is one of them. The ethereal and all-important exploratory and mysterious atmosphere of the games would be hard to capture with a linear narrative. The video game industry is desperately trying to gain legitimacy by moving into the film and television worlds, but its mainstream appeal is only growing everyday. Compelling stories can be told without the aid of Hollywood, big names, or traditional storytelling. If the video game industry remains so intensely insular, however, enjoyable and powerful experiences cannot be brought to entirely different audiences. It’s an argument that tends to favor those opposed to video game movies or TV shows because of the quality of nearly every video game movie or TV show ever made. Hopefully, the conversation can go the other way when Netflix brings The Legend of Zelda to its streaming service. With a writer yet to be hired, however, we likely won’t be seeing the fruits of that labor for some time.