Need for Speed and the Problem with Video Game Adaptations

Need for Speed opened this past weekend, in case you already forgot.

What was once projected to take first place at the box office lost to two holdovers from the previous weekend, receiving a pummeling from critics and inspiring dozens of bad car crash puns in reviews and headlines in the process. But I’m not here to talk about or argue Need for Speed’s merits as film (the action was great, but the script leaves much to be desired), but rather its place among a growing trend of bad video game adaptations.


For those unfamiliar, Need for Speed is based on the video game franchises of the same name, which also happens to be the most successful racing game of all time. The concept and game play are pretty simple and straightforward: customize your car, race across exotic locals and city streets, and don’t get caught by the cops. So why then is the movie not up to par? And why hasn’t there been a good video game adaptation?

Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper in Need for Speed

Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper in Need for Speed

When you think of video game adaptations, what do you think of? DoomResident EvilSuper Mario Bros? It’s hard to find one that everyone can agree on as great or even halfway decent. Even the highest rated video game adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes still comes in at a low score of 44% (the honor of which goes to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). Contrast this with movies about and that take place in the video game world, like Tron or Wreck-It-Ralph, which have a much better track record with fans and critics alike.

I’m going to ignore the often cited criticism that video game adaptations fall short because they cannot capture the feeling of game play and the unlimited number of possibilities a gamer can go through, as by its nature a film can really only end one way (that is, unless your film is Clue). I argue that as long as an adaptation manages to keep to the spirit of the game, then it can still be a great movie. That’s true of any adaptation, whether it be a novel, comic book, or even theme park ride.

But video games are still a relatively new art form. Just as the film industry saw 90% of its language and rules defined within the first thirty years of its establishment, the video game industry is only now just getting to that point. So not only is the film industry trying to figure out the video game industry, the video game industry is still trying to figure itself out. But Hollywood came knocking the instance 8-bit video games became popular and, most importantly, profitable. The result has been a misguided attempt at bringing our favorite characters and worlds to the big screen. Sound familiar? It should, because this is the same problem that plagued comic book adaptations for decades.

Do you remember the 1990 Captain America movie? Or Supergirl in 1984? Maybe Steel in 1997? Of course not, because they were terrible movies. Sure we had the first two Superman movies and Tim Burton’s Batman, but they were anomalies of the time, as both those franchises eventually fell into the same traps as other comic book movies. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s with the release of BladeX-Men, and Spider-Man that comic book movies came into their own, and even then we still had the occasional dud. It only seems that recently, with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Avenger films that comic book moves have gotten the acclaim and box office that eluded them for decades.

So what went right for comic books and what’s still going wrong for video games? First off, the people making them: the producers, writers, directors, etc. It’s important to hire people who actually care about the source material. If you hire passionate people, you’re more likely to get a movie that captures the essence of what makes the game work in the first place. Just compare the movies made under Marvel’s own production company (The AvengersIron Man, etc.) with those made under studio control (Ghost RiderDaredevil, etc.). Watching most video game movies, you rarely get the impression that the people involved understood the game, let alone played it. A notable exception to this would be Silent Hill director Christophe Gans, who went after the rights himself and actually had the game on set to ensure that the film felt like a logical extension of that universe.

Silent Hill (2006)

Silent Hill (2006)

But perhaps most importantly of all, filmmakers need to figure out the right stories to adapt, or, more importantly, how to adapt them. The first major video game adaptation was 1993’s Super Mario Bros. While the franchise was universally adored and at the height of its popularity, it wasn’t exactly the most story friendly of concepts. We don’t play Mario for the compelling characters or complex plot, but rather for the colorful environments and challenging game play. Choose a game with a story that lends itself naturally to film, something like Metal Gear Solid or The Last of Us. As a game, Need for Speed has no plot or central characters, and as a result the final film is little more than a second rate Fast & Furious.  Need for Speed wouldn’t be such a mediocre movie if the filmmakers had invested more time in the plot and characters instead of making it just about the action sequences. They should be concerned with making a good movie first and a good adaptation second. Fan service has its value, and there’s no point in making a video game movie if you’re going to throw out everything that was interesting about the game in the first place, but at some point, the creative team needs to figure out how to distill the interactive experience into a narrative film.

If the video game adaptation is about ten to fifteen years behind comic book movies, then maybe, just maybe, we can expect the first renaissance of video game adaptations in the next few years. Just as Marvel began developing its own movies in house, video game companies are being more careful with who they sell their rights to, with a few developing their own film projects led by people who love and understand the material.

Steven Spielberg (an avid gamer himself) has teamed up with Microsoft to produce and possibly direct an online Halo TV series for the Xbox. Ubisoft is currently prepping a big screen adaption ofAssassin’s Creed produced by and starring Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender, whileMoon director Duncan Jones is in the midst of production on the fantasy epic Warcraft.

The Assassins Creed movie is slated for August 2015

The Assassins Creed movie is slated for August 2015

The talent and material is there. These projects have potential be good, even great. There will still be bad video game adaptations, just as there are still bad adaptations of novels and comic books, but maybe the stigma of “video game movies suck” can finally be washed away. Maybe someday we will actually look forward to video game adaptations, instead of dreading their release.

Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter.  You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.

Need for Speed is now playing in wide release.