If there is one "name-brand" anime right now that I think would be a resounding success with mainstream Western audiences as a live-action film, it is Fullmetal Alchemist. Its sheer scope and ambition make it, if anything, all the better a candidate for such an adaptation. And the hardest things about bringing it to the big screen are logistical ones of budgeting and project management, not aesthetic ones of how to adapt such a story without mutilating it. It's all there, waiting to be filmed.
Most every anime project that has been adapted into a Western project has thus far been a wet firecracker: Astro-Boy, Dragonball: Evolution, Speed Racer. The few that have worked on some level -- Blood: The Last Vampire, Crying Freeman -- are all but unknown outside of anime fandom circles. Perhaps what's needed, then, is not a tentative little production designed to play it safe, but a moon shot.
Fullmetal Alchemist — or, strictly speaking, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, since that show adapts more completely and faithfully the original story — would make for one hell of a moon shot. Not only would it make fans ecstatic, it stands a good chance of making a splash with mainstream Western audiences for a variety of reasons — many of which, I think, would be integral to any good live-action anime adaptation.
Harry Potter meets Gandalf in a quasi-fascist fantasyland
An easy pitchline for FMA might run something like "It's Harry Potter by way of Lord of the Rings", but the less we depend on such a grotesque formulation — or any formulation at all — the better. After all, it's not the exotic setting or the dazzling visuals that make FMA such a draw; it's the characters and their struggles that make up the strongest reason to film it.
Like Harry Potter before them, the two young brothers at the center of the story, Edward and Alphonse Elric, learned at a very young age the arts of alchemy that power and shape their world. When Ed and Al tried to use alchemy for a forbidden purpose — the resurrection of their deceased mother — they paid for it quite literally with an arm and a leg. Edward, the elder brother, lost two of his limbs; Alphonse lost his entire body and only survived thanks to his brother fusing his soul with a suit of armor.
The two have since become alchemists in the service of the state, where their duties include hunting down and bringing to justice rogue alchemists. Moral dilemmas abound, right from the beginning: some of these renegades have done things ostensibly no worse than what the brothers themselves have done. Worse, the nation they serve used alchemy in an ignoble way, to win a war at a ghastly human cost. The brothers discover in time they have devoted their lives to the service of an ideal, only to find out it was the wrong ideal — and now they must conspire with their cohorts, some newfound allies, and even some they could call enemies, so that the world can be set a-right.
From 'Brotherhood' to Hollywood
Sprawling as FMA's storyline is — it would easily fill three three-hour movies — it has a few things that make it a surprisingly good fit for a live-action remake. For one, FMA has a quality common to anime that lend themselves to being filmed outside of Japan: it's "pre-localized". Meaning because the underlying story itself is not set in Japan, and owes nothing in particular to Japanese culture, popular or otherwise, it requires that much less work to make comprehensible to a Western audience.
If anything, FMA is even more of a shoo-in than most, because its tropes and invocations are mainly Western. Its main setting is most indebted to WWI and WWII-era Europe, with some nods towards the Middle East and China. And because its setting is a synthetic creation, it requires no less explanation for a live-action audience than it did for its original audience. Both audiences would be in the same boat — and neither would be at any particular disadvantage as far as accessibility goes.
Another key strategic advantage FMA would have as a live-action project: for better or worse, it might be able to easily ride the currently cresting wave of young-adult fantasy projects, which are not only aimed at but feature people in their teens. Plus, the tribulations of Edward and Alphonse Elric are far more satisfyingly constructed and delivered than most of the current crop of shallow teen-narcissism productions (The Host, Divergent, etc.). Those stories profess to be about struggles against oppression and tyranny, but end up being more about a girl forced to choose between two guys. FMA really is about two young men trying to restore the balance done to their damaged world (and their damaged selves).
The biggest difficult FMA poses is that to do justice to the story requires nothing less than a Lord of the Rings-sized budget, and again in no less than three generously long movies. It took decades on end for Rings to reach the screen in the form we currently know it, although a fair slice of that was intransigence on the part of Tolkien's estate; I don't imagine Hiromu Arakawa being anywhere nearly that difficult. But making the pitch, and getting the needed investors on board, may be the trickiest part. Elaborate visual fantasies either hit really, really big (Avatar, LotR) or fizzle horribly, and so the producers will want some guarantee that the money spent will come back to them.
Once that budget is secured, though, the rest of the production should fall naturally in line. Effects technology is no longer a question of "if" but "how much", and there's nothing that would appear onscreen in FMA that couldn't be realized with the digital and analog arsenals ILM and WETA have at their disposal. But the one place where FMA would run the greatest risk of faling is in the script. I worry that the story beats of FMA -- which work fine as-is, and just need to be followed with care — would be smoothed down and turned into the sorts of plot hooks that screenwriters too often hedge their bets with. We don't need to have the existing story tinkered with to make anyone more sympathetic, or to make the story more reminiscent of the last hundred blockbusters out there. Some condensation might be needed, but only for the sake of getting the story underway a little faster.
Casting, too, needs to be approached properly. Starpower is no longer what sells films anyway, so there would be no point in shoehorning some teen idol into the central role. Unfortunately, I suspect that would be one of the default fallback methods for guaranteeing at least some bankability for the project. Another, obvious one would be the usual round of merchandising tie-ins with toy-making, fast-food, and soft-drink companies, but again, there's a big question mark hovering over how much they'd be willing to help defray a project of potentially enormous size based on an IP that's well-known to only a niche of its target audience.
But if these hurdles could be overcome, I do feel FMA would work beautifully as a big live-action movie cycle. And not just because of the spectacle that would be on display, but because of the power of the underlying story. There's a reason it has become such a widely cited and oft-returned-to piece of work, and it seems only fair to share some of that magic with the widest possible audience.
Assuming, of course, we can get the $300 million we'd need to film it.