How Do You Make a Good D&D Movie?
The granddaddy of RPGs is headed to the big screen again. Will it be any good?Movies Features dungeons & dragons
A lot has happened in the 21 years since Dungeons & Dragons last tried to make a movie adaptation of the great granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying games (that actually was intended to see wide release). The year 2000 marked the release of D&D’s 3rd Edition, a major overhaul of the game that really brought in the first new generation of players (and actually made the game playable). It also marked the debut of Dungeons & Dragons—the fantasy adventure film starring an overactive clone of famous actor Jeremy Irons—a movie that flopped so hard that no D&D adaptation has seen the inside of a theater since.
In a way, it’s inevitable that we’re seeing another attempt to bring the property to the big screen. Hasbro purchased D&D’s parent company Wizards of the Coast in 1999. They’re the same Hasbro that owns all the rights to Transformers, the toys that have served as the basis for loud, mindless CGI action movies since 2007, even though I can’t understand why anybody would ever want any more of them. If they can make movies out of a toy line, surely, Hasbro’s bean counters reason, they can make some hay out of a gaming phenomenon that has excited hobbyists for almost 50 years and is enjoying the highest degree of popularity it’s ever known.
Just as with videogame movies, though, there are all sorts of reasons this is harder than it may sound. Considering the two sequels to the first attempt have been a TV movie and a direct-to-DVD film, each released a number of years after the other, it’s worth it to ask how you’d even go about making a D&D movie, and whether this upcoming attempt has the right idea. In that spirit, I’ve gathered what I argue are some Dos and Don’ts.
Do: Reference Monsters and Lore
Things like gelatinous cubes, the unparalleled destructive power of the fireball spell, and bards being disasters are all beginning to creep into the pop culture lexicon, even among people who don’t really play Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a balance to be struck to ensure filmmakers aren’t leaving large swaths of audiences behind, but it can absolutely include a beholder.
The upcoming film is set in the Forgotten Realms, one of D&D’s most popular settings and one of the major storylines it references in a great deal of its newest adventures. It’s a good indicator longtime fans will see material they recognize, but it could come with other worries, especially because my next hope is that they…
Don’t: Put Game Statistics and Rules in Characters’ Mouths
D&D is a game about creating a colorful character and partnering up with friends and their colorful characters to go on a wild adventure. It is also, sometimes, a game about ticking off how many spells you have left, how many five-foot increments you can move without provoking an attack from adjacent enemies, and how much gold it costs to resurrect an ally who has ended up in the belly of the tarrasque. The former details are what filmmakers really need to accentuate, and the latter details are those they need to completely abandon.
Nothing will make an audience cringe harder than lines like Justin Whalin’s in Dungeons & Dragons, in which he sneers that Zoe McLellan’s character is a “low-level mage!” It’s not meant for the audience to believe the characters here literally know the contents of their own character sheets, but it certainly comes off that way.
Do: Dive into an Actual Dungeon
Despite how awkward talking in stat blocks would be, one thing that would lend itself incredibly well to a film would be the rhythm of a dungeon, the meat and potatoes of the D&D experience. We know this because it already has in other movies, from obvious ones like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (featuring the trek through Moria that is part of D&D’s DNA) to other action/adventure fare that takes a turn for the chthonic, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Thirteenth Warrior, or even horror like The Descent. As it turns out, putting heroes in situations where they need to traverse a dark, dangerous, monster-and-trap-infested obstacle course is an easy recipe for thrilling set pieces. At the same time, I hope they…
Don’t: Make the Movie a Turn-by-Turn Dungeon Crawl
The rules of D&D are there to enhance the fiction of what it would be like to be in a group of badass wandering adventurers who find themselves in the midst of a thrilling adventure in an old ruin or temple of evil. They cannot possibly enhance the fiction of a movie, which will feature characters who should not simply be a collection of features, spells and statistics. A good D&D movie should start with a dungeon, but probably should not end with one. It’s why I hope they…
Do: Sample the Wide, Weird World of Character Options from D&D
D&D is a game where you can be a half-orc barbarian or a halfling rogue, and always will be. But it is now also a game where you can play a crow-person who can only imitate the noises others make, a person with demonic heritage, or a descendant of dragons, any of whom could be an avid sailor who casts mushroom-themed spells.
The sheer chaotic variety on display in the latest edition of D&D can at times be awe-inspiring, and has strayed so far from the rough old rangers and bearded wizards of earlier permutations of the game that to play it too safe and archetypal with characters would be to willfully ignore the kind of creativity that has turned on so many people to the game. As far as the latest synopses of the upcoming movie have revealed, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, we’ll be in for. Hopefully some characters and concepts that surprise us. And hopefully they…
Don’t: Bring in the Racist Baggage That Still Dogs the Game
D&D has had controversies before, but the latest is one that actually needs airing: The game is based on some works that have pretty rancid subtext, and needs to evolve beyond some of its core assumptions. If all orcs are evil and it’s okay to just kill any of them you encounter, what does that say about the sanctity of all sentient life? If one religion is “good” and another “evil,” what does that say about the religions you personally don’t agree with? What makes a hero “lawful good?” What makes a villain “chaotic evil?”
There’s a growing realization among the game’s creators that this stuff raises truly uncomfortable questions. Any movie, even one set in an established D&D property, could simply do something different.
Do: Capture the Feel of an Unpredictable Adventure around the Table with Friends
I’ll be pilloried for this, but so be it.
D&D is not about the dungeons or the dragons, but the fellowship one finds around a table creating a shared story. Take that out of the equation, and you get a Lord of the Rings ripoff. The film has cast Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez, two actors who would be absolutely wild essentially improvising their way through high fantasy scenes that are the result of disastrous dice rolls or recalcitrant players who are fucking around with a beleaguered dungeon master played by Hugh Grant, for goodness sake.
It also would solve the problem of setting this in the Forgotten Realms, one of D&D’s most popular settings, where a ton of tie-in novels, comics, and videogames are all set. It’s given us the Baldur’s Gate series and the character of Drizzt Do’Urden, and who knows about any of that stuff, anyway? Not most of your friends or Tinder dates. Simply write the movie as if the book is telling the players one thing and the players are utterly ignoring and rewriting it as they go along, all while having a great time.
In case it isn’t clear, I’m not bullish on any of this advice being followed, but I have hope that the new D&D movie will be better than the first one, low a bar as that may be.
Kenneth Lowe casts magic missile at the darkness. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.