A D&D Movie?

Old news now but not so old as to be irrelevant: the idea of a Dungeons & Dragons movie has re-entered the gamer consciousness. First there was the news Warner Brothers had acquired the rights and had a script ready. The catch being the WB acquired the rights from the production company that made the last three films, so the same producers were attached. Then there was the update that Hasbro / WotC was suing Warner as they had penned a deal with Universal claiming it had been to long between films and the rights had reverted. This is not impossible: the third D&D Movie, Book of Vile Darkness was released recently (August 2012), making its dramatic worldwide debut in the DVD bargain bins of UK supermarkets, but it was filmed some time ago (2010-11) as its production and release was repeatedly delayed.

I’m truly hoping WotC has finally been able to pry the rights away from the licenser that has held them for over a decade.

But I can’t decide if a new movie by either company is a good thing or not.

Couldn’t Get Worse

There is the initial worry about another bad movie. But as natural as this worry is, it would be hard to make a movie worse than the first theatrical release.  Dungeons & Dragons the Motion Picture has a RottenTomatoes rating of 10%, low enough that—had it been more noteworthy—it would rank it among the worst movies ever. As a comparison, Batman & Robin has 12%.

Ironically, the quality of the storytelling and special FX in the movies only increased over the course of the first and second sequels. Again, this isn’t saying much: when you start at rock bottom you can only go up. Unless they give the film to Uwe Boll or a a reanimated Ed Wood I think we’re safe.

But that doesn’t mean it will be good.

Complicational

The thing is, D&D is a hard property to turn into a movie. Really hard. Harder than board games. Seriously.

Simply put, what is D&D about? Well, it’s about adventurers exploring dungeons and fighting monsters. But it’s also about friends hanging around a table making jokes. It’s equally about problem solving, role-playing, and game mechanics. Even if you go with the first answer, “having adventures” this is a pretty broad description. There’s no singular goal, protagonists, consistent setting, or enemy. There’s no plot.

In contrast, let’s expand on my board game example. Clue comes complete with a murder mystery plot full of colourful characters who are all suspects. Even Battleship is easier having the built-in narrative of two opposing naval fleets firing blindly (although they totally dropped the ball with that movie by forcing aliens into what should have been a period movie).

While the open narrative of the game is a strong plus for the game it’s a big ol’ negative for the movie because it requires more scripting. You’re starting from scratch. It requires a better class of writer, one not just good at making a movie or adapting a story but a writer capable of telling their own story. Let’s be realistic here, a writer capable of creating characters, a story, and world of their own will be more interested in telling their own story and will already have their own scripts they’re trying to sell. This might easily result in something like the first live action G.I.Joe movie where the director wanted to do a movie on future soldiers and the studio pushed the franchise on him, so nobody got the movie they wanted.

The generic nature of the fantasy is also problematic. As a game having an assortment of by-the-numbers races such as elves, dwarves, and halflings (read: hobbits) is a feature; players want to play as their favourite race from books and film, to have an opportunity to make a character similar to Legolas or Thorin. As a film these are huge negatives as they emphasise the generic nature of the races and setting, making the movie seem like an unimaginative rip-off.

I relate this to the difficulty in making a good Punisher movie. The Punisher is a fun character in Marvel Universe (and comics in general) because he’s different: Frank Castle has no special powers, uses lethal force, relies on common guns, and often battles realistic foes such as the mob. He’s a non-super superhero. A grounded and realistic character in a world of fantasy. But in theaters the idea of a gun-wielding ex-military vigilante has been around for decades. I know Death Wish was released in 1974 and Dirty Harry in 1971 but there are likely earlier examples. There’s precious few new ideas the Punisher can bring to the screen. Simmilarly, with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones already out in the public consciousness, D&D seems lacking.

Film Faerûn

One solution to this is to dump the idea of making a “D&D” movie and instead making one based on a published campaign setting or even a novel. Admittedly, they’ve tried this already, with the eye-gougingly bad Dragonlance animated movie. But that doesn’t mean the concept is bad, just that particular execution.

Making a D&D movie is hard because you have to create everything, and there’s so much room for error. You could have a good plot and setting but terrible characters, or the world and characters could be great but the plot terrible. There’s too many variables. Starting with an established world or even series reduces the variables. If you’re making a Forgotten Realms movie you have the setting and a wealth of characters and you just need a good story.

There’s the minor problem of audience. Not everyone wants Drizzt or Elminster movies and those characters have their share of detractors. However, for a movie to succeed, it needs a far larger audience than just D&D players can provide. If every single D&D player went to the same movie during the same weekend the film would be lucky to crack the top 10. There’s simply not enough of us. You need a larger audience. Heck, you need an audience and order of magnitude larger. If you can make a better movie by picking a world or characters that aren’t the first choice of the majority of D&D players… that might just be an acceptable price to pay.

TV Show versus Movie

I’d honestly prefer a new television show rather than a movie. Movies have a single narrative that runs from beginning to conclusion while a TV show can have a series of connected or unrelated narratives over a length of time. D&D, with its sessional campaigns lends itself much better to a TV show. Heck, when planning a campaign or even individual sessions, basing the structure off television is a good trick.

There’s also much more room for different stories highlighting the diversity of the game: there’s can be action-based episodes, dungeon crawls, investigations, murder mysteries, intrigue, horror, and so much more. It’s hard to cram all that is D&D into a single movie.

A D&D TV show would be easier to do than Game of Thrones requiring a smaller cast and fewer large battle sequences. There might be more SFX but much of it (signature spells) could be reused.

There’s also less need for a singular tone. A D&D movie can either play things straight and be serious drama or it can poke fun at itself and plant its tongue firmly in its cheek, but it’s exceedingly hard to do both. However, with a TV show there can be serious episodes where the world is played straight and there can be episodes that get a little goofier, poking out the absurdities of the game and setting.

Making a Good Movie

That all said, let’s end the negativity and do some fanwanking. How would one go about making a good D&D movie? Or, at the very least, a not-terrible D&D movie.

I see three ways of approaching a D&D movie: straight fantasy, playing the game, or world crossover. The last three movies were straight fantasy, where the world simply is and the movie is just a story being told in a fantastic world. There’s nothing differentiating the movies as being inspired by a  role-playing game, and the film could just as easily be an  adaptation of a novel (or video game). Playing the game is demonstrated by the two Gamers movies (Gamers and Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising) , where there the action of the film takes place in the minds of players. The actors play characters and in the “real” world and their characters’ characters in the fantasy world. Lastly, there’s world crossover. The best example of this is the old D&D cartoon where teens from the “real” world enter a fantasy world.

I just don’t see straight fantasy working. D&D is just too generic and this type of movie lacks all that makes D&D the game different from other games. Even if you pad it with D&D Intellectual Property such as beholders, mind flayers, and more it’s just another fantasy movie. Even if you write a great story, fill it with great characters, and play to D&D’s strength with unique races like goliaths or the dragonborn it’s still more of a generic fantasy movie and less a D&D movie.

I also don’t think seeing people play the game would work either. While I loved the two Gamers movies and eagerly away the third, the movies are just too esoteric to appeal to the mainstream. Too much knowledge of the game, its tropes, and conventions are required for full enjoyment. Even adding a “new player” to a group and introducing the concepts via them would be awkward. Plus, there’s far less drama and tension when the characters are not in any actual danger.

(This might work as a TV show though, where the game can also mix real world drama, tension, and problems while reducing costs by having a portion of each episode take place in simple real world sets, such as a basement.)

This leaves the same approach as the D&D cartoon: moving people from the real world into a fantasy world. It works now for the same reasons it worked then: it puts relatable characters in a fantasy setting and lets you see the magic through their eyes, explaining the world and plot to the characters and audience at the same time. It also acts as a lovely metaphor for playing the game. Dumping people into “the world of Dungeons and Dragons” also sidesteps the world being so generic fantasy, as real people being thrust into a generic world is different enough. The world being relatable and somewhat familiar is a plus. Additionally, it allows the movie to play-up the friends-working-together aspect of D&D with joking around, inserting pop culture references, and making genre savvy wisecracks while still having tension, danger, and a sense that what is happening actually matters. The characters can mock the plot and obvious cliches just like players would, but the world itself can be played straight. Most importantly, this prunes down the potential plot down from “anything-and-everything” to having the protagonists solving a problem and trying to get home in your standard Wizard of Oz fashion.

It might almost be worthwhile to just make the movie a reimagining of the old cartoon, or just acknowledge it in some ways such as having the new protagonists learn they are not the first people from their world to enter the fantasy realm. This might depend on who owns the rights though and if they’re willing to sell. But even if the rights can’t be acquired, it could still be hinted that it’s the same world: the references just need to be more subtle and winking, such as just finding a golden bow without a string or cloak of invisibility.

How Watchable?

In all honesty, regardless of the quality I’ll see it. How I’ll see it is the variable. If I’ll eagerly pay and attend a screening in the first week, if I’ll drop a few bucks to my cable company to stream it, or if I’ll just shrug and wait for it to stumble onto Netflix.

I’m hoping for the first but expecting the latter.