About 10 years ago, Roger Ebert enraged the gaming industry by declaring that video games aren’t art. “Video games by their nature require player choices,” he wrote in 2005, “which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” Despite the vitriol gamers aimed at him, he was steadfast; five years later, he reiterated his central thesis, “[N]o one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”
Ebert eventually conceded that it wasn’t his place to comment since he doesn’t game, but it began a serious conversation about the value of video games beyond the obscene amounts of money they make. (Last year’s Grand Theft Auto V grossed a billion dollars in only three days, which is more than two weeks faster than any movie has reached that figure.) Whether or not video games should be considered art—like Ebert, I don’t play them, so I’m not qualified to say—there’s no disputing their cultural impact.
Still, video games have a big problem: They make for terrible film adaptations.
The most recent example, Need for Speed, stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, and despite some occasional adrenalized fun, it’s a loud, stupid action-thriller with a side of car porn. Inspired by the popular Electronic Arts race car game that has sold more than 150 million copies in less than a decade, Need for Speed isn’t a bad movie because it’s based on a video game—it’s bad because, like a lot of video-game films, it doesn’t translate what’s cool about its source material into cinematic terms. I should know; I’ve suffered through a ton of them: Hitman, Max Payne, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Doom. They don’t always make the same mistakes, but there are four common obstacles that keep them from being any good.
1. They don’t have characters. There’s a reason why studios continually churn out Spider-Man, Batman and Superman reboots. They’re characters we’ve grown up with and know well. On the flip side, people love the Need for Speed game for the racing element, not because they identify with a central character. This is because there is no central character: There’s just a car that you drive.
Unfortunately for DreamWorks, which made the Need for Speed movie, drama works better when it’s not tied to inanimate objects. (No disrespect, Sylvester Stallone.) But rather than producing a live-action Cars—which, come to think of it, is basically just Transformers—DreamWorks had to invent a hero (or, rather, an antihero) named Tobey (played by Paul) who enters a high-octane race to avenge the death of a close friend. Tobey’s a generic bad-boy rebel looking for redemption, and because he’s so paper-thin, Paul has to portray him as if he’s a cockier cousin of his *Breaking Bad *character Jesse Pinkman.
Unlike the game—where, really, we’re the main character—the *Need for Speed *movie hopes we’ll happily watch mumble-mouthed Tobey fill in for us, which isn’t nearly as fun as calling the shots ourselves.
2. They don’t have plots. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a second: Video games have tons of iconic characters. What about Mario and Luigi? Or Max Payne? Or Lara Croft?” True, but when they get turned into movies, they crash headfirst into an uncomfortable reality: There’s no story behind any of them.
When TV shows, plays, books or graphic novels get adapted into movies, it makes sense: They all have narratives we can follow. But with video-game movies, the filmmakers are often stuck having to invent a three-act structure around a caricature. This almost never worked with Saturday Night Live personalities; why do we think Street Fighter would have any better luck?
Sure, some games have narratives and backstories. But in the transition to the big screen, those get watered down or reduced to genre clichés. Max Payne (the game) was a neo-noir about a NYPD detective seeking justice for his murdered family: As a movie, it was about Mark Wahlberg moping around a sub-Sin City fighting lame demon creatures. Hitman’s emotionless assassin Agent 47 was transplanted into a dull James Bond-esque action-thriller where the normally reliable Timothy Olyphant sits around pretending that he’s not turned on by Olga Kurylenko. And these are the games with some semblance of a plot. In Super Mario Bros., all you do is keep going until you advance to the next level. (To be fair, that’s still massively more complex than Street Fighter, where you just keep kicking your opponent’s ass until you win.)
3. They exist in a fantasy world that doesn’t translate to the real world. Part of the appeal of video games is that they can defy the laws of reality. Specifically, you can do all types of extreme craziness—jump off buildings, fight fearsome creatures—that would most certainly kill you in the real world. But a film like Need for Speed tries to have it both ways, exaggerating the concept’s unreality while at the same time, insisting that there are life-or-death consequences for these daredevil racers. (It’s the sort of movie where drivers hurtle high through the air over a major freeway and land on the other side without getting a scratch, but then later are sideswiped and wind up in the hospital.)
Presumably, the filmmakers want to retain the crucial make-believe element of these games. But even though movies are their own kind of pretend, we watch them with an understanding that there are legitimate stakes. When characters die in a movie, there’s a weight to it, a finality. (There’s a reason why E.T.’s presumed death at the end of the film is so traumatic: We identify with movie characters, even if they’re made of latex, as if they’re actual people.) Video games are enjoyable for the exact opposite reason: If you get killed in Doom or Tomb Raider, you just start over like nothing happened. (Lara Croft is just a pixelated avatar—she’s not real.) So when video games get adapted for the big screen, their virtual-world unreality clashes awkwardly with movies’ flesh-and-blood concreteness. Consequently, films like Need for Speed have an inherent falseness to them: They walk around in our world trying to apply the logic from theirs.
4. They only cater to boys. The stereotype of the typical gamer is of a fat single dork who lives in his parents’ basement. But according to recent studies, there’s actually a pretty even split between men and women who play video games. (Also, the average gamer is 30, and about 58 percent of all Americans game.) In other words, the crude stereotype of the pimply fan-boy no longer applies.
But when you watch a video-game movie, it sure as hell seems like it’s targeted only to young boys. Doom, Max Payne and Hitman are all testosterone-fueled, reducing the female characters to sexy, slinky supporting roles. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is more family-friendly, but it still focuses on a guy’s adventures, supplemented by the sassy, pretty female love interest/sidekick.
Of course, you could blame this tendency on the fact that most video games get turned into action movies, and action movies are largely geared to men. (At least Resident Evil and Lara Croft did their part to provide a gender counterbalance.) Yet despite the large, diverse audience for video games, movie adaptations stubbornly insist on narrowly targeting just one demographic and aiming for the lowest-common denominator. (Here are adjectives you never see in a review of a video-game movie: thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent, muted.) It’s as if Hollywood has as low an opinion of gamers as their critics do.
Not that the studios care all that much about gamers’ feelings: Hollywood simply looks at the huge amounts of money brought in by video games and wants a piece of the action. (Three major adaptations are arriving in the next couple years: Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft and Angry Birds.) But the video-game film has yet to have its The Dark Knight or The Avengers: a resounding financial success that transcends its source material to become a great movie in its own right. Sit through a Max Payne or Super Mario Bros. and you’ll be convinced it’ll never happen.
Maybe you think I don’t know what I’m talking about because, like Ebert, I’m a critic who doesn’t game. But while watching Need for Speed, I started to wonder if the people who make video-game movies know even less about gaming than I do.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of “FilmCraft: Screenwriting.” Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson