The Surprising Drama of 'The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters'
Commentary by Michael Lee
[originally posted July 2007, updated January 2008]
At first glance, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a documentary on a subculture of video gamers who compete for the world's record high score of '80s arcade classic Donkey Kong, might seem like an unappealing topic for a film. Who wants to watch a bunch of geeks take an archaic video game way too seriously? But this is one docu-drama that packs a few elements that make it an unexpectedly enjoyable experience: first, it exposes a tiny segment of pop culture that most people never knew existed; second, it offers some great nostalgia for those who grew up in the decade of big hair and shoulder pads; and third, it actually focuses on a dramatic storyline that humanizes the key players and gives the audience a hero to cheer for.
Many children of the '80s spent their fair share of time at local arcades, feeding quarters to game machines like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Centipede. There's something about the classic blips and beeps and the simplistic, pixelated graphics that just take one back to that childhood, and King of Kong endears itself to those viewers by bringing such arcade classics to the forefront, explaining that they are not dead, and that a whole field of players are out there, still challenging one another at these games in high levels of competition.
But beyond the nostalgia factor, which can only go so far, King of Kong also has a surprising dose of human drama that can technically place it amongst sports dramas like Hoosiers and Rocky. To these ends, the story focuses on two champion-level players: Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. Mitchell first set the Donkey Kong scoring record at nearly 900,000 points, doing it live in front of 20 top gamers. Years later, Wiebe, a school teacher who had previously worked for Boeing, set a new record by hitting a landmark 1,000,000 points. This set off a rivalry between Mitchell and Wiebe, with the former submitting a suspect video tape of him surpassing the daunting million-point threshold, yet refusing to defend himself in a live forum.
The movie goes to great lengths to polarize the characters, establishing Mitchell as the clearly hissable villain and Wiebe as the earnest underdog that audiences root for. Mitchell is depicted as a cocky showoff who doesn't seem eager to put his money where his mouth is, while Wiebe is shown as a family man who chooses integrity over a winner-take-all attitude. In this sense, the film tells a classic story of good vs. evil, even if it is in the microcosm of a video game competition.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is that this indie movie is already slated to be adapted into a dramatic feature film. While remakes, rehashes, and re-imaginings are all too common in Hollywood, it's a bit unusual to see a documentary make an immediate transition to a glossy, fictionalized feature--it would be like The Karate Kid being a direct adaptation of a documentary on a martial arts tournament, or March of the Penguins spawning a 2-hour epic about a penguin who overcomes great adversity by facing his inner demons and battling his addiction to alcohol. There's a certain formula to dramatic fiction, and it will be interesting to see this project make that leap.
Over the last six months or so, we've had a couple of opportunities to speak to some of the creative minds behind The King of Kong, including director Seth Gordon and Steve Wiebe himself. Like us, Gordon was excited about the creative challenges involved in dramatizing his documentary. It promises to be an enjoyable process with the potential to bring the story to a bigger audience, while at the same time expanding its universal message of what it takes to be a winner at anything in life.
When asked if there was an actor he would like to see cast as him in the feature version, Wiebe only laughed and said that the running joke was that it should be Mark Hamill, due to his passing resemblance to the famed Star Wars actor. But while Hamill is a totally underrated performer who has made an outstanding career for himself in voice acting, they'll certainly have to go with someone closer to Wiebe's age. Serenity star (and one of our favorite interviewees) Nathan Fillion was another name that came up in random brainstorming, and a choice we would be happy to see in the lead credits.
One person who should definitely play themselves, though, is Wiebe's little girl, who has the very best line of the entire documentary when she tells her dad, who is caught up in the fever of competition, that some people ruin their lives trying to get into the Guinness World Records. It's a lighthearted moment of precocious truth from a grade-school kid, but one that demonstrates that children often have a better grasp of reality than the crazy adults around them.
According to New Line staff and director Seth Gordon, positive progress has been made on this next incarnation of The King of Kong, due in no small part to the virtually unanimous raves the documentary has garnered. Gordon's film is an underdog success story itself, and its feel-good vibe is devoid of the overbearing social messages, shock stunts, and media spin that frequently clutter the genre.
When confronted with our obsessive comparisons between a dramatized Kong and The Karate Kid, Gordon jokes about the possibilities of a "save the day" super-move that the character of Steve Wiebe could bust out a la Daniel Larusso and the Crane Kick. (By the way, did you know that after Daniel takes down Johnny Lawrence in the unrated version of The Karate Kid, he pulls out his spine and the tournament announcer booms, "Fatality"? Okay, that didn't really happen--but how cool would that outtake be?)
Regardless of the casting moves for the new version of The King of Kong, we'll be anxious to see how the story survives its translation in format. In the meanwhile, be sure to check out the documentary that is already here, so you can be in the know and act like an expert when the remake arrives--sort of like "reading the book before you see the movie," only without the...you know...words.