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 high-end 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 the Paramount+ Halo series.
[Updated on 2/24/21]
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 supersoldier 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 — five so far in the main series with a sixth, Halo Infinite, due out in 2021 (we hope) — 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.
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).
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.
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 it seems he will not take on any direct creative duties. Nonetheless, there is always the potential he will take an interest in the series, particularly as it focuses on two of his favorite topics: war and aliens.
Microsoft’s 343 Industries — an entity it established to manage the Halo brand following the departure of original developer Bungie — will also produce 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%.
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.” The series will also feature Californication’s Natascha McElhone (pictured), Fargo’s Bokeem Woodbine, Shabana Azmi, Bentley Kalu, Natasha Culzac, and Kate Kennedy.
McElhone will play 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 scheduling issues led to the character’s original voice, Jen Taylor, stepping in and creating one bit of continuity with the games.
Woodbine will take 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 and another character from the games who seemingly places the Halo TV series in a specific part of the franchise’s history. But, as Levine said, “you’re going to get new information in our series, but we are not going to violate any of the things in the canon.”
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. Actors Yerin Ha, Charlie Murphy, Olive Gray, and Danny Sapani are also part of the series in unspecified roles.”
Exploring the “richly imagined universe” is executive producer and showrunner Kyle Killen, 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 cable series may turn out to be the best format for Killen as a writer and producer. And should Halo‘s protagonist find themselves caught between two worlds — say humanity versus the culture of The Covenant — Killen will be a great fit for the material.
The Last Ship’s Steven Kane also serves as showrunner alongside Killen. His TNT series has an 83% on the Tomatometer and proved to be success on that network over the course of five seasons. Kane reportedly oversees production in Budapest while Killen supervises writing and other stateside production efforts.
Also, 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.”
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 streaming service, a rebrand of the existing CBS All Access, intends to encompass more of ViacomCBS’s programming. 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 will still be involved as a producer alongside 343 Industries and Amblin.
Production began in Budapest during the fall of 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a long delay. It is currently in production again with Paramount+ setting it for an early 2022 debut.