There is rejoicing in Azeroth this week at the news that Sam Raimi, the director of the Evil Dead and Spider-Man films, will be the man to bring the multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft to cinema screens. Although rights to the immensely popular title have been available for years, the artistic decision has rested with Blizzard, the gaming studio behind Warcraft - and Blizzard takes its fan base very seriously. It previously refused to grant the film rights to Uwe Boll, the infamously talentless director of House of the Dead, Postal, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne and several other video-game franchises, probably the man mostly responsible for the popular wisdom that any film based on a game will be a shocker. "Not to you. Especially not to you," Blizzard reportedly told Boll, to the cheers of Warcrafters everywhere.
Raimi's pedigree as a director, however, is far more interesting. As well as the Evil Dead films - the third of which, Army of Darkness, is a work of full-spectrum high camp whose skeletons-versus-chainsaw plot alone was probably enough to swing the geek vote in his favour - he has proved himself equally capable of tackling chamber thrillers (A Simple Plan), supernatural drama (The Gift), sports movies (the punishingly dull Kevin Costner vehicle For Love of the Game) and of course three volumes of variably good Spider-Man. Of course, it's far too early to make a judgement, and he's contracted to a fourth outing for the Daily Bugle's secretive webslinger before any movement takes place on Warcraft, but Raimi should make a decent film. Blizzard has been working on the baroque and involved Warcraft backstory since 1994: some fans even claim it's a more interesting setting than The Lord of the Rings. And the prospect of anyone who isn't Raimi making it is frightening in the extreme. Steven Spielberg, it's rumoured, was originally approached. But Quentin Tarantino? Michael Bay? The mind boggles.
The problem with a World of Warcraft film is that it has much more riding on the fanboys' opinion than most adaptations. Before Blizzard's Chinese partner closed its servers in June this year, the population of the world of Azeroth stood at more than 11 million. If that figure were the population of a country, it would be among the top 75 most populous in the world, with more inhabitants than Belgium, Hungary, Portugal, Austria or Switzerland. Even in its current diminished state, World of Warcraft counts more than six and a half million players, making the virtual country of Azeroth the 101st largest nation in the world: bigger than Libya, Norway, Ireland or New Zealand. The five million-odd missing Chinese are tentatively expected back online at the end of this month.
This means that if Raimi's film can appeal to even three-quarters of Warcraft's regular fan base, it will be facing an opening weekend in the region of $80 million-$90 million (Dh2.9 billion-Dh3.3bn), and that's before factoring in whatever expansion in the game's population may take place in the next few years. Eighty million would bring it within sight of the top 20 all-time box-office takes, and into the exalted company of, let's see, the latest Wolverine film, several Harry Potters and Raimi's own, appalling, Spider-Man 3 - astonishingly, the film with the second-ever largest take on its first weekend.
By the time it comes out, though, will Warcraft be facing a backlash? Recently the Tavistock Clinic, the world-famous mental health care centre in London, has said that it will launch a project to bring psychiatrists, counsellors and mental health professionals in avatar form into the world of Azeroth. And a recent article in The New York Times indicated that some employers were passing over employees who played World of Warcraft because their "focus is elsewhere and their sleeping patterns often not great".
However this plays out, Warcraft is a phenomenon that's unlikely to go away. The real spectacle, come 2011 or 2012 or whenever Raimi and the producers get their act together, may not be the glorious live-action battle sequences or the stirring Orcs and Humans mythology, so much as the sight of thousands upon thousands of young men and women emerging, blinking and etiolated from years of keyboard seclusion, into the cold light of day. To walk to a dark cinema and see a film, of course. But it's the thought that counts.
* Tim Martin