Daniel Radcliffe is in talks to star in BBC Films’ upcoming Grand Theft Auto feature, set to begin shooting this month. Before you start envisioning Harry Potter rampaging around a city, this is a film about Grand Theft Auto, instead of a film of Grand Theft Auto - just as The Social Network was a film about Facebook, not based on Facebook. All going well, Radcliffe will play Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser, chronicling Houser’s battle with (former) Miami lawyer Jack Thompson over in-game violence, decency and censorship.
The Thompson saga is a fascinating chapter in game history, and one that still gets echoed today, as Grand Theft Autos (hell, most games) continue to take flak for supposedly glamourising violence. GTA’s got a lot of issues, and frequently becomes the very thing it’s trying to satirise, but Thompson’s public crusades for “decency” did much to damage public perception of video games on the whole.* He bears a great deal of responsibility for the notion that video games cause violence, but he eventually got disbarred for inappropriate conduct, so maybe he’s not the best witness there. Ultimately he’s an old white dude railing against things he doesn’t understand, like rap music and Howard Stern and Islam. Should be a plum role.
What about an actual Grand Theft Auto movie (that isn’t the 1977 Ron Howard one)? Frankly, I can’t see it working. GTA is so beholden to crime-movie cliche that any attempt to put it on a cinema screen, shorn of its interactivity, would play as hokey pastiche. You could approach it as full-blown satire of American culture, but again, GTA has problems when it comes to satire. Knowing Rockstar, they’d probably craft a really interesting story about one quintessentially American experience or another, then go off the rails into distasteful dead-hookers-and-rape-jokes territory. At least when I’m playing the game, I can choose to do stupid flips off buildings on a motorcycle instead. The only person who gets hurt then is me.
The film will be directed by Owen Harris, who previously directed the bath-robot episode of Black Mirror and a film I somehow wasn’t aware of about the religious backlash against Life of Brian. So he’s got experience telling stories about controversy, I guess. Based on the book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, it’s unlikely the eventual film’s title will actually be Grand Theft Auto, but that’s what everyone will refer to it as anyway, so why fight it?
* Hilariously, this legendary enemy of video games is a key interview in a certain upcoming “serious documentary” about how feminism is destroying video games and manhood or whatever. It remains to be seen whether he will appear in the puppet version.