TAGGED AS: Sci-Fi, science fiction, Showtime, Video Games
Video game adaptations are tough. For years, feature film takes on beloved games like Super Mario Bros. and FarCry have been the butt of jokes thanks to producers who take the title and little else from the source material. Even more recent, high-gloss, and faithful efforts seem to lose something in the translation. (See our guide to “47 Video Game Movies Ranked Worst to Best.”)
But Paramount+ hopes to buck that tragic big-budget trend with a series based on Microsoft’s epic game franchise Halo. As Showtime Networks co-president Gary Levine put it at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour, “Our challenge on this series was to take a video game and make it into a character drama that belongs on Showtime.”
Two years later, Showtime’s corporate parent, ViacomCBS, announced the series would instead be one that belongs on its rebranded Paramount+ streaming service.
Navigating the landscape from game mechanics to filmed entertainment is often as difficult as any mission series main character Master Chief confronts, but here are the details we know so far about Halo.
(Photo by Microsoft Studios)
Beginning with 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, the Halo series charts the ongoing conflict between a spacefaring humanity in the 26th century and an alien theocracy known as the Covenant. In that first game, Master Chief John-117, a genetically enhanced Spartan super-soldier encased in advanced armor, faces off against the Covenant for control of a Halo — a ring-shaped space station/super weapon created by an ancient and extinct race the Covenant worship as gods. The game changed the perception of first-person shooters on home consoles and gave Microsoft its first huge win in that market when the game was released as a launch title for the original XBox.
Sequels followed — six so far with the latest, Halo Infinite, finally going live in December 2021 — and a surprising number of spin-offs. New characters appeared to play off against the stoic Master Chief and the spin-offs further developed the Halo universe by featuring more story-driven first-person shooters or switching to other game mechanics like Real Time Strategy. Books, comics, and animated series further deepened the breadth of the franchise’s universe and history.
(Photo by Elizabeth Goodenough/Everett Collection)
The television series will attempt to “weave deeply drawn personal stories” with action and adventure set within that “richly imagined vision of the future.” Anchoring those stories will be Master Chief, played by American Gods’ Pablo Schreiber (pictured). On November 15, 2021, fans finally got their first glimpse of Schreiber as Master Chief in a short teaser for the series. The preview was part of a celebration honoring 20 years of XBox, which Microsoft also used as an opportunity to recommit to Halo as a media brand. A full trailer released during the AFC Championship game in January of 2022 offered further glimpses into the TV Halo universe with Covenant soldiers wielding energy swords, a few interesting departures from the established lore, and Master Chief doing what he does best.
In a 2019 interview, Levine told Rotten Tomatoes and a small group of reporters that Schreiber has “the physicality to be a Spartan, to be Master Chief. But he is [also] a great dramatic actor.” A mention of Schreiber’s comedic chops and the “twinkle in his eye” suggests Master Chief may be seen without his helmet or armor — a first for Halo should it happen. Although Levine added, “we’re not violating anything big,” so Master Chief may remain within his armor throughout the series.
Schreiber himself evaded the question about the armor at the Winter 2022 TCA presentation, but admitted Halo was a “new journey” for him as he grew up without television or video games. “The opportunity of playing a character likes this – one of the most heroic characters of all time – the chance to explore these ideas is what’s really interesting for me,” he said. “The depth of mythology is amazing.” Beyond finally sitting down to play the games, he cited the spin-off novels as an incredible source to get immersed in the world and comfortable suiting up.
But whether he wears the armor throughout the show or not, the January trailer also set Master Chief up as a Spartan with an unusual amount of individuality. A problem both he and his superiors will no doubt deal with throughout the season.
A trailer for the series released during the 2021 Game Awards (above) indicates Levine was true to his word as it offers the first glimpses of various characters (more on them below), yet still kept Master Chief in his armor. It also featured the first looks at Halo locations like Halo 2’s High Charity – or a new structure very much like it – and The Rubble. The subsequent 2022 trailer also gave fans confirmation of what they long suspected: the series will occur in its own continuity in which other Spartans besides Master Chief serve in the war and the discovery of the Halo occurs because of his actions.
During that Winter TCA presentation for the series a few days later, executive producer Kiki Wolfkill said “adapting a beloved video game with 20 years of history and character development is daunting, but really gratifying.” It terms of premise, she also posed a question — “how much humanity are we willing to sacrifice in order to save it?”
(Photo by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection)
Since 2013, Spielberg’s Amblin Television has been involved in developing the current iteration of the Halo TV project. At that time, he was said to be on board as an executive producer, but ultimately did not take on any direct creative duties. Instead, according to executive producer Darryl Frank at the Winter 2022 TCA presentation, he “godfathered” Halo, preserving much of the development team across its long journey to screens.
Microsoft’s 343 Industries — an entity it established to manage the Halo brand following the departure of original developer Bungie — also produced the series, suggesting a level of direct developer control seen only with Ubisoft producing 2016’s Assassin’s Creed. That film, however, proved developer input may not lead to a great adaptation as that film only garnered a 19% on the Tomatometer and an audience score of 43%.
(Photo by Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)
Joining Master Chief on this television journey will be Yerin Ha as Quan Ah, a new character devised specifically for the series. First announced alongside Schreiber, the character is described as a “shrewd, audacious 16-year-old from the Outer Colonies who meets Master Chief at a fateful time for them both.” According to Ha herself, she is the daughter of a rebel leader who is “filling her father’s shoes and stepping up to the leader role” in the hopes of finally liberating her planet. The series will also feature Californication’s Natascha McElhone (pictured), Fargo’s Bokeem Woodbine, Shabana Azmi, Bentley Kalu, Natasha Culzac, and Kate Kennedy.
McElhone plays Dr. Catherine Halsey, inventor of the Spartan super-soldiers and Cortana, the advance AI who is the key to humanity’s survival and a constant element in Master Chief’s adventures. Cortana is also the name of Microsoft’s AI assistant on its platforms; the name was, in fact, derived from Halo. At one point, McElhone was set to voice Cortana, but delays due to COVID-19 allowed the character’s original voice, Jen Taylor, to step in and create a bit of continuity with the games which can be seen with the character’s TV debut in the 2022 trailer. At the Winter 2022 TCA presentation, McElhone said Dr. Halsey is misunderstood in the context of the show and the characters will come to understand her actions. “We’re trying to deepen some of the character and build a few more branches on the tree,” she added.
Woodbine takes on the role of Soren-066, another established Halo character. He is an old friend of Master Chief’s and a privateer in conflict with the military — which means he may come into direct conflict with Azmi’s character, Admiral Margaret Parangosky, the head of Naval Intelligence. Woodbine described Soren as “enterprising,” but “not without some charm.”
Kalu, Culzac, and Kennedy all play new characters to the Halo universe with familiar affiliations. Kalu is Spartan Vannak-134, Master Chief’s de facto deputy. Culzac is Spartan Riz-028, a “cybernetically enhanced killing machine,” and Kennedy is Spartan Kai-125, another Spartan super-soldier tasked to the mission. Charlie Murphy also appears as Makee, a new character she described as “similar to the Spartans in that her childhood was taken from her and she feels that humanity has betrayed her.” Her surprise at a Spartan helping her is one of the key moments in the new trailer. Actors Olive Gray and Danny Sapani also appear as Dr. Miranda Keyes and Captain Jacob Keyes, respectively.
A handful of the characters — notably Soren and Dr. Halsey — appear in tight close-ups as the December 2021 trailer unfolds. It is unclear if we’re meant to be in Master Chief’s POV in these moments, but it would be interesting if the series figures out some way to honor the Halo video game series’ first-person perspective. The subsequent trailer makes it clear, though, that the POV will switch with some regularity.
Kyle Killen was tapped to explore the “richly imagined universe” as executive producer and showrunner. Killen is the creator of critically acclaimed Lone Star (83% on the Tomatometer) and the fan-favorite NBC series Awake (89% Audience Score). Both series featured protagonist who faced dual realities — literally in the case of Awake’s Micheal Britten (Jason Isaacs). Both shows also faced tough competition on broadcast television and did not last beyond their initial episode orders; nonetheless, a 10-episode streaming series may turn out to be the best format, and should Halo‘s protagonists find themselves caught between two worlds — say humanity versus the culture of The Covenant — Killen should prove to be a great writer for the material.
Unfortunately, he left the project just before production began with The Last Ship’s Steven Kane taking his place — although it was reported at the time that the two were splitting writing and production duties. Kane’s TNT series proved to be success on that network over the course of five seasons. Unfortunately, he will take on a consulting role should it get renewed. As he explained during the Winter 2022 TCA presentation, being away from his family led to his decision to step back. “It’s very challenging to write and produce [Halo],” he said. “It can’t be done remotely [and] I was in Budapest two of three years.” With his children reaching the end of their time in high school, he felt it was best to stay near home for the near future. A potential replacement is in mind should Halo come back for Season 2.
The initial episodes will be directed by Robin Hood’s Otto Bathurst, who replaced Rupert Wyatt due to scheduling conflicts. “[He] is a marvelous director,” Levine said of Bathurst. “Unbelievably passionate about the project, and he has been leading our team beautifully.” Other directors include Jonathan Liebesman, Roel Reiné, and Jessica Lowrey.
(Photo by Vanguard Cinema)
Halo nearly became a feature film in the early part of the 21st century. In 2005, 20th Century Fox and Universal picked up the project thanks in part to a script written by Annhilation’s Alex Garland. According to Garland, the story was a fairly faithful adaptation of the two Halo games available at the time. Peter Jackson was poised to produce with both Guillermo del Toro and Neill Blomkamp eyeing the director’s chair. Sadly, tough negotiations between the studios, Jackson, and producer Peter Schlessel led to the project’s collapse.
After to the project’s implosion, Blomkamp said he would have used Master Chief as “the most important supporting cast member” with other characters doing “most of the emotional heavy lifting.”
Since the time of the failed feature attempt, Microsoft produced two live-action webseries which were later released as films: Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and Halo: Nightfall. The latter was produced by Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free and featured Luke Cage’s Mike Colter as Agent Jameson Locke, a playable character in Halo 5: Guardians.
Although intended to be a Showtime original series, David Nevins, CBS Chief Creative Officer and Showtime Networks Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, surprised reporters during a February 2021 Investor Day presentation by adding the program to the Paramount+ roster. The move was part of an effort to rebrand the service, then known as CBS All Access, as an all-encompassing destination for ViacomCBS programs. According to Nevins, Halo fits right in with the sort of content the streaming service intends to highlight. “From all the early glimpses we’ve seen, it’s crystal clear that Halo is a visually stunning thrill-ride, anchored in riveting, character-driven storytelling,” he said. “With such tremendous appeal to every audience, we realized Halo had the potential to become a defining show for what will become the broadest streaming platform at ViacomCBS – the new Paramount+.” Showtime is still be involved as a producer alongside 343 Industries and Amblin.
A year later, Wolfkill said Showtime was and is an “amazing partner” in bringing Halo to fruition.
(Photo by Paramount+)
Production began in Budapest during the fall of 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a long delay. It resumed production in late 2020 and, as reconfirmed by the November 2021 teaser, it is now set for a March 24, 2022 debut.