Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Halo and several of the Halo video games.
Despite Paramount’s best efforts to keep the first live-action Halo series away from viewers in 95% of the world, I was recently able to binge-watch it. I really wasn’t sure what to expect going in; I knew of only a couple of the performers from their past work, and although there was supposedly a significant budget attached to the series, I can’t recall a single time that a video game has been successfully adapted in this way. And no, the “so-bad-it’s-good” Super Mario Bros. doesn’t count!
Video game adaptations have been notoriously difficult to get right, but I think Halo offers a glimpse at what’s possible. By telling a story spread across nine episodes instead of condensing it to a two-hour film, there was more depth and more time able to be spent bringing the world and the lore of the long-running series into a new format. In that sense, I think we could hold up Halo as an example of why video game adaptations may work better on the small screen – and especially in the current media environment as streaming projects – than as feature films.
I’m not particularly well-versed in the depths of Halo lore. I played the first game on the original Xbox when it was new, and I’ve played most of the mainline games now thanks to Halo: The Master Chief Collection. But I haven’t played spin-offs like the Halo Wars strategy games, nor read any of the books or comics that have been produced. So as I sat down to watch Halo, I wasn’t particularly worried about things like “canon” or consistency with what’s come before – and that was probably for the best!
Halo seems to exist in its own space; a standalone project, a reinterpretation of the stories shown in the games but without the pretence of being a prequel or direct adaptation. Many of the same elements exist in the world of Halo as did in the show’s source material – the Master Chief, Dr Halsey, the UNSC, the Covenant, and so on – but they’re being reinterpreted and used in different ways.
In order to turn the Master Chief from a faceless everyman into a relatable protagonist, that had to happen. The Master Chief in the Halo video games basically exists as an excuse to blast aliens; a television series like this needs to have a fully-rounded character with his own thoughts, motivations, and feelings to guide the plot and to get us as the audience invested in his story. This was accomplished thanks to the help of the “Keystone” – a magical macguffin that began to give the Master Chief access to memories and feelings that he hadn’t had before.
The nature of the Keystone wasn’t readily apparent, and I liked the sense of mystery that brought to the table. Only the Master Chief and his Covenant-raised counterpart Makee were able to interact with the object, and that limitation gave legs to the story. While the Master Chief wanted to learn more about his family and the life he never knew, those around him all wanted – in slightly different ways and with varying degrees of maliciousness – to use him and his connection to it for their own purposes.
This was one aspect of Halo that I felt worked well – at least, most of the time. Aside from the Master Chief and, to an extent, his fellow Spartan Kai, everyone else that we met had their own agenda, their own biases, their own prejudices, and their own moral ambiguity. On the “good” side of the conflict we have the UNSC and its leadership – but in order to get ahead, practically all of them became morally compromised along the way. There’s a message there about how the military, politics, and power work that wasn’t lost… but wasn’t exactly subtle, either.
Through the eyes of Miranda Keyes we also got to see the way the UNSC’s power structure and chain-of-command operate. Despite being intelligent and well-qualified, she found herself cut off from information that she could have used to better perform her duties; cut out of the loop not only of the conspiracy involving her parents and the Spartan programme, but also without the necessary clearances and access to information that would have made part of her job – translating the Covenant’s language – much easier.
I expect that some of the show’s mysterious elements – particularly the somewhat-disconnected events of the rebellion and mysterious portal on the planet of Madrigal – may have been quite different from what some fans of the Halo games were expecting from the series. Although Halo started with a bang thanks to a truly excellent battle sequence between the Spartans and a group of Covenant elites, there were definitely moments across the show’s nine-episode run where fast-paced action and combat took a back seat to these unfolding storylines.
As I found myself getting invested in the Master Chief’s story and wanting to learn more about where he came from and what happened, I actually enjoyed this aspect of Halo… but I can understand that it may not have been what everyone expected or wanted from an adaptation like this. What I’d say in defence of Halo is that it’s worth keeping in mind that the games were designed to be interactive and to be played through; the series is designed to be watched. A game needs more combat and action to keep players invested – if the series had been nine episodes of gunfighting and running around it might’ve been truer to its source material but it would almost certainly have been far harder to watch!
Halo did some interesting things with its battle sequences in terms of cinematography. The first-person perspective that was surprisingly close to how things look in the Halo games is something rarely seen on screen in this way, and it was done much better than it had been in projects such as 2005’s Doom adaptation. Halo integrated things like the Spartans’ heads-up display into its storytelling at key moments, with things like the low shield alarm signalling that a character was in danger. It generally worked well, and as a callback to the games it was something that I appreciated.
Dipping in and out of this first-person perspective was smooth enough for the most part, but there were definitely a handful of moments across the season where combat sequences felt a little jumpy and too quick; I ended up missing things and debating whether or not I should rewind parts of several episodes as a result. I fully agree that it wouldn’t have been desirable to show every battle and combat sequence entirely in first-person, though, and the series balanced this pretty well. The first-person camera could’ve ended up feeling like a complete gimmick; it’s to Halo’s credit that that isn’t the case.
I suppose one of the big questions fans will be left wrangling with is whether this approach – the slowly-building character-oriented mystery with action elements – was the right one for Halo. For me, as someone who’s enjoyed this kind of story across multiple genres and in different ways, I found it enjoyable enough. But as I said at the beginning, I’m not any kind of Halo super-fan, and I could certainly entertain the argument that there wasn’t a need to completely rework the story and parts of the lore of the franchise.
It would have been possible, even with the caveat that video games are designed to be played and a television show is designed to be watched, to adapt the story of one or more of the games. A blend of the stories of Halo: Reach leading into the events of Halo: Combat Evolved has potential as an exciting story, but one with scope for at least some of the elements of mystery and characterisation that the series ultimately included. I’m not exactly upset about “what might have been,” but at the same time, I can’t help wondering. The first game in particular, the one that established the Halo universe, the Master Chief, and many other elements that Halo used in its first season, could have been brought to screen with a few tweaks rather than telling a completely new story.
I was only familiar with a couple of the actors before I sat down to watch Halo – I’d seen Natascha McElhone in Designated Survivor and Burn Gorman in Turn: Washington’s Spies and The Man In The High Castle. Both were fine performers who excelled in their roles in Halo, and it was neat to see them again. Burn Gorman in particular has a menacing style that made him perfect for the role of the villainous Vincher, and his scenes were delicious to watch.
Other standout performances from the cast that I’d highlight include Yerin Ha, who took on the role of young Kwan, and Kate Kennedy, who excelled as Master Chief’s Spartan ally Kai. There was a vulnerability in the way Kennedy portrayed the otherwise-invincible Spartan warrior, and the way Kai began to follow in the footsteps of the Master Chief was an interesting – and occasionally cute – sub-plot that I hope is expanded upon in Season 2.
Both Captain Keyes, played by Danny Sapani, and his daughter Miranda, played by Olive Gray, were fun characters. Sapani brought the right weight or gravitas to the role of the Master Chief’s commanding officer, but as the story unfolded I didn’t really get the sense that Keyes and Master Chief knew each other all that well. There were moments of exposition… but I think seeing some of their past, even if only via a flashback, would’ve done better at building up this relationship.
Of course, all attention was on Pablo Schreiber, who took on the challenging role of this adaptation of the Master Chief. There will always be some long-time fans who have a hard time adapting to a recasting or reinterpretation of a classic character, so right off the bat I have to commend Schreiber for being willing to take on the role! Master Chief has existed for more than twenty years at this point, and this was our first real exploration of his characterisation – and our first time seeing him with his helmet off!
The mysterious elements of Master Chief’s past worked well, and seeing him gradually explore his memories and come to terms with some new feelings and emotions was interesting – but more could have been made of some of those things. Because the Master Chief quite quickly left Kwan with his ex-Spartan friend for protection, one avenue to exploring those new feelings was pretty abruptly brought to an end, and while there were interesting aspects to his relationship with Makee, there were definitely aspects of this storyline left on the table as the curtain fell on the season.
As an acting performance, though, Pablo Schreiber did the best he could with the material that he had, and I found him to be a fun and convincing protagonist for the most part. The Master Chief’s arc across Season 1 has set the stage for a story that could branch off in several different directions as both humanity and the Covenant chase these artefacts and the titular Halo ring-world… so there’s scope, when the series returns, to see more.
Halo felt like a thoroughly modern serialised made-for-streaming television show. In the wake of projects like Lost and Game of Thrones, studios and entertainment corporations have been looking at their properties for anything that could be adapted into a similar, multi-season epic, and Halo feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as the returning Star Trek franchise, some of the Marvel and Star Wars projects, and shows like The Witcher over on Netflix. In that sense, there’s not a whole lot of originality in the core concept; it’s a familiar framework that has been moulded to fit this particular franchise.
By choosing to riff on the Halo concept rather than remake or directly adapt any of the stories from the games, the sense of anticipation and mystery that was clearly intended to be a big part of the series absolutely stuck the landing, and I’m still curious to learn more about the magical macguffin that was at the heart of the story. However, some storytelling decisions split up key characters perhaps too early in the story, leaving the Master Chief and UNSC characters entirely disconnected from events on Madrigal after Kwan returned there. Of course it’s possible for future seasons to reunite these story threads and connect them – it feels like it’s possible that the same mysterious faction responsible for the Keystones may have created Madrigal’s portal, for example – but as things sit right now, we definitely have a series in two halves.
All that being said, Halo got off to a good start and I’m curious to see what will come next. Rumours of a shake-up over at 343 Industries/Paramount may mean that a new showrunner and producers are being brought in for Season 2, which will begin filming imminently at time of writing, so we may see a shift in the way the series is written and structured to take on board feedback from fans and critics from this first outing.
I give credit to Halo for ambitiously trying to bring a long-running franchise into a completely different environment. Adapting video games has never been easy and has rarely been successful, so make no mistake: this was a risk. For my money, it’s a risk that largely paid off, and what resulted was a decent season of television that has set the stage for more adventures in this surprisingly deep fictional universe. Were there elements both narrative and technical that were imperfect? Sure, but that doesn’t ruin what was a decently engaging drama. The mysteries kept me engaged, the performances from both leading and secondary actors were great, and moments of action, while perhaps spread a little thin, made sure that Halo didn’t forget its roots.
Halo Season 1 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in regions where the service is available. The Halo franchise – including the Halo television series – is the copyright of 343 Industries and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.