Welcome to the Suck: D&D Movies

It appears that once again, the topic of a D&D film lifts its ugly face from the murk. I blame Scott Rouse’s posting of a staggeringly bad music video on EN World (though I first saw it on the Roolipelaaja blog).

There have thus far been three movies and an animated series based directly on D&D licences. The animated series divides opinion, but all three films – Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeons & Dragons 2: Wrath of the Dragon God, and Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight – suck. Indeed, the first D&D and the Dragonlance flick are so hideous as to make it on my personal Top Ten Worst Movies of All Time list, nestled snugly between Uwe Boll titles and third installments of Marvel film franchises.

Now, JimLotFP and noisms argue on their blogs that there cannot ever be a good D&D film because of various reasons of narrative structure, and because they’re trying to film a concept instead of a story.

While noisms is on to something there, I’m going to suggest that a) there can, in fact, be a good D&D film, and b) the only reason there hasn’t been one is that the ones thus far have been made by raging incompetents and/or on budgets that make the first season of Xena look extravagant. I mean, the first D&D film was made by Courtney Solomon, who couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag. The second one was a Sci-Fi Channel production with a budget of $12,000,000, which, in  the moviemaking business, is practically nothing. Still not an entirely bad movie, though. The Dragonlance film, then, had its animation outsourced to India to a bunch of people who evidently had no idea what they were doing, and presumably for cost reasons. The only positive thing about the end result is that we’re unlikely to ever see Dragonlance: Dragons of Winter Night.

However, there have been good fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is awesome, and went on to win Peter Jackson’s weight in Oscars. Conan the Barbarian is an exquisite piece of filmmaking and features one of the finest soundtracks ever. Willow is great. Excalibur is great. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is great. Sure, for every Pan’s Labyrinth, there are three Deathstalkers, but then, isn’t that the standard ratio for film industry in general? Most films suck.

The topic of game movies is a bit stranger, but there we have Uwe Boll skewing the statistics. Also, I like Mortal Kombat. Once upon a time, though, people were convinced that good comic book movies were an impossibility in modern Hollywood.

The long and short of it, though, is… it’s not that you can’t make a good D&D movie. It’s that the guys who tried couldn’t.

The how of it is a more complicated issue. I don’t think a Drizzt movie is a good idea. For a start, someone completely missing the point would accuse it of racism. It’s fully possible no studio would touch it. Indeed, it’s fully possible that no studio has already touched it.

I can’t say I know the answer to how a good D&D movie should be done. However, I know that you don’t get good movies when the people making them are talentless hacks. Personally, I’d probably approach the issue by giving Luc Besson a sufficient budget and a lot of Planescape supplements. Terry Gilliam’s Spelljammer would also be awesome, as would Christopher Nolan’s adaptations of Paul S. Kemp novels.

The problem with the “bunch of guys go to a dungeon” core story is that it’s not much of a plotline. In a game, it’s exciting because you don’t know how the dice will land. You’re in the action, not just a spectator. In a movie, fight + trap + fight + fight + trap + bossfight = bad. Unless it’s 300, pretty much the only movie I know that would’ve been better with even less plot and character development.

However, we have no shortage of people willing to give it a shot, and indeed, the D&D 4E movie is slated for 2011. We shall see.

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11 thoughts on “Welcome to the Suck: D&D Movies

  1. Oddly, none of the D&D films appeared in my list Five Fantasy Films Every Gamer Should Watch but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “bunch of guys go to a dungeon” problem.

    Very few ideas successfully cross mediums. Books tend to make bad films so what chance have RPGs got? At least a book is written down, an RPG happens all in the player’s heads. Even computer games, which are visual in nature, make pretty appalling films.

    I don’t think a D&D movie can work. D&D is a set of rules and a brand. There are no universal recognised characters, locations or plots that the film can be built around.

    D&D films are destined to suck forever.

  2. I don’t know what is worse, being a D&D fan and watching those movies, or not being a D&D fan and watching those movies.

  3. You can’t have a good movie without a good story. A good story can’t be a simple dungeon run, and there has to be elements of the story that you can relate to.

    You have to have some form of romance for the story to be good, but it shouldn’t be completely cheesy and forced if you want it to work.

    You can’t really take it from a group gaming perspective either, because you really need to be able to focus on your main character rather than the group. LotR worked with a group, but the story was still centralized around single characters.

    You also have to take that rulebook and throw it straight out the window. The game is focused on balance, but a movie has to be focused on entertainment and telling the story. You can’t jump up in the middle of the movie and throw a fit because the wizard casts a 5th level spell when he already mentioned he wasn’t strong enough to cast a fireball. You have to be willing to give the director the ability to hold true to the world without holding true to the rulebook.

    A D&D movie is perfectly capable of working if you base it off of a D&D novel rather than a D&D game.

    I’m not sure where Chris’s point is coming from – Books make excellent movies. Movies turned into books tend to suck, but books turned into movies are usually quite successful.

  4. I think that a D&D film could be made.

    It is best to avoid going epic like in ‘Lord of the Ring’s instead going a little grittier like ‘Conan’ and down-to-earth like ‘Children of Men’.

    The film should be a little like ‘Aliens’ with the group of characters going into the Dungeon on a mission, with the critters leaping out of the darkness at the characters. The Characters should have mis-matched armour like in ‘Mad Max’ but without the 80’s hairdos.
    The dungeon should have traps and puzzles to pass as well drawing from ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘National Treasure’.
    The place should be claustrophobic as in ‘Alien’ or ‘The Cube’ with the situation revealing the characters as they are under pressure.
    There should be some kick-ass action as in ‘Transporter’ and ‘Bourne Identity’. It should have some wonderful stunning visuals as in ‘Gladiator’ or ‘The Matrix’. Some of the visuals should be a little bit twisted and strange as in ‘Pans Labyrinth’ or ‘The City of Lost Children’.

    The characters should be a good rememberable bunch like in ‘The Usual Suspects’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs’. They shouldn’t be clean cut but capable individuals that do not quite work well together.

    The Dragon, and there has to be a dragon in the dungeon, with be like ‘Jaws’ or ‘Alien’ – always there and a constant factor throughout the film.

    And there has to be a big twist at the end like in ‘Memento’ or ‘Sixth Sense’.

  5. I think you’re right: “it’s un-filmable” lets the hacks responsible for the crappy D&D movies off too easily. You don’t have to capture the ineffable essence of D&D in order to make a watchable movie. People said that the Lord of the Rings was un-filmable (heck, I was one of them) and Peter Jackson proved us wrong. Even if you’re one of the Middle Earth nerds who think Jackson took too many liberties for it to be the “real” Lord of the Rings, there’s no denying he made watchable movies using LotR as the source material. There’s no a priori reason that you can never accomplish the same with D&D.

    As for dungeon-delving, I think it’s workable. All you need is motivation over and above kill the monsters and take their stuff. If the characters have to escape, rescue someone, or recover some artifact to a greater purpose and it becomes a classic quest plot. And I’m pretty sure that Indiana Jones has already demonstrated that you can make underground lairs full of traps and creatures interesting on film. The difference between those set pieces and a full length movie based on similar events is a matter of film-making skill, not having to breach philosophical categories in entertainment.

  6. Psynister –

    With regards books not making great movies.

    Some books do convert in great films. LotR is a great example, but it was a second attempt. The first LotR movie was pants (though not as bad as people make out).

    However, most great books do not make great films.

    Take a list of the 100 greatest films and compare it to a list 100 greatest books. Do you see much crossover?

    What makes a book great isn’t what makes a film great. Converting one to another is very hard.

  7. Great books don’t make great films. Great filmmakers make great films.

    Even crappy books have been turned into very good films, such as Anne Rice’s An Interview with a Vampire.

    H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu was regarded as unfilmable, until the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society proved everyone wrong.

    Since there’s no set story to D&D, it should not be even that difficult to write a decent script based on a selection of the material published during the last, what, 32 years?

    I do not see a particular need to make it “quintessentially D&D”. The game is bigger than just the dungeon, and frankly, most of the really cool stuff is elsewhere. Like giant space hamsters.

    My preferred format would be more like a HBO series, though, based on, say, the Blight on Bright Sands story arc of Living Greyhawk. With Brian Blessed as Robilar. A TV show has the advantage that you don’t need to cram everything into 120 minutes.

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  9. I could see a D&D movie being good, provided it was done in a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek manner. Make it a movie directed solely at the fans of the franchise instead of trying to cater to the masses who will most likely shun anything with the words “dungeons” and “dragons” in it if not separated by words like “ultimate,” “zombie,” “super,” or “pissing heroin.”

    Have it include lots of shout-outs at the inconsistencies and oddities of the assumed setting of D&D (the one where people can survive free falls at terminal velocity, wade in pools of lava and walk the ocean floor and survive) and make it a purely unashamed demonstration of geekery. Release it directly on video to make up for its already cult appeal.

    Unfortunately, the movie I just described sort of exists already, in the form of Gamers and its sequel.

  10. I wonder if many people who have no interest in the game would actually go to watch a D&D movie. The part of me that thinks “not many” suggests that they turn the fanservice knob to eleven and give us mindflayers, beholders, displacer beasts, gelatinous cubes and throw in as many spells from PHBs as possible

  11. Having read and taken in many opinions to which i agree & disagree i think a D&D movie could be done maybe becoming a quality trilogy.

    With examples given from other people, Gladiator, Indiana Jones, Troy, LOTR, Martrix, even Hellboy 2 (fantasy action aspect). There’s lots of different areas here, i.e, amazing combat scenes, monsters, CGI, old school dungeon/maze layouts, you get my picture.

    Obviously it would generally attract roleplayers but i think most people would watch it especially in an age where CGI/special effects are at a mindblowing standard. I mean how many people play online games like WoW, EvE, etc. that’s a massive database of people.

    I remember when Johnny Mnominc was released granted outdated now slightly i didn’t even know there was a roleplay version of that film. Great film also less not forget!

    It can be done just to many pussies out there to afraid to take such a project on, it could/would/will be something seriously groundbreaking. I think it would make a serious impact on your average Joe aswell, assuming they’re your everyday film fan!

    The film plot? If someone with the right mentality and approach realised at how much is at their disposal, the book content alone is staggering, noval content, characters. For me i’d love to see a crazy Barbarian going at it on a big screen, plus the magics of a mage, maybe the undead turning abilities of a Cleric/Paladin, etc.

    This is all possible it would just require someone with some balls of steel a confident financial backer and the most important someone with a quality imagination that can reach out to everyones mind but still keeping the core D&D beliefs at heart!

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