What is the curse of the Dungeons and Dragons movie? Why is it that when the words “Dungeons and Dragons movie” are spoken aloud, cringing and boredom follow? Is it like the cinematic equivalent of Macbeth? Should we be saying “the elvish film” instead of “the Scottish play?” Either way, it is a bit too late—did you watch that trailer for Dungeons and Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness? I’m as much of a fan of Vecna’s favorite book as anybody, but that doesn’t appear to be… very good. “I’ve traveled to the floor of the pit of my own free will!” and all that jazz. Even power word kill can’t save it. Not even Thora Birch and Jeremy Irons—or cameos from Richard O’Brien and Tom Baker—could save the first Dungeons and Dragons movie. At least Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God had the good graces to be a low budget made for television movie….
But what if there was a good Dungeons and Dragons movie?
I think it is totally possible to make a Dungeons and Dragons movie that stood the test of time. In fact, I think there are lots of possible ways to make lots of different high quality Dungeons and Dragons movies. There are real world factors that you have to deal with, obviously. You need a real budget; not necessarily blockbuster sized, but you need the money to be able to hire real talent and get good costume design, set building, locations, and special effects. You’d have to negotiate the license, getting Hasbro to give you free reign to tell the story without corporate meddling. You would need good actors and a good director; actually, I guess a good producer and a decent budget would take care of all of that. So let’s assume all that as a given; how could you make a good Dungeons and Dragons movie if you’ve got tools to do so?
Did you know Krull was supposed to be a Dungeons and Dragons movie? Well, there are conflicting rumors—Gary Gygax stated that he didn’t know anything about that—but I like to imagine the possible alternative Earth where that happened. If you haven’t seen 1983’s fantasy epic, I recommend it; I may be a little bit biased because it was the first movie I saw in theaters, but I think it holds up as a spectacular success within the genre of 80’s fur and steel schlock. It opens with a colossal black mountain flying through space—the lair of The Beast and the Slayers, which doubles as a spaceship and a fortress—and is full of aliens that shoot lasers and whose skulls hatch squids when they die, a shapeshifting wizard, a cyclops and “the glaive,” which is basically a cross between a boomerang and a frisbee with knives all over it. If that had somehow become the template for what Dungeons and Dragons meant, on a pop cultural level, then this would be a stranger world. Here are a few other pitches!
Our heroes have overthrown the dictator, conquered the unholy tomb, defeated the invasion from the underworld… and now they’ve come to Sigil, the city between Heaven and Hell, Limbo and Nirvana, where angels and robots rub shoulders with the countless champions of infinite worlds. That’s right, make a Planescape movie, with the characters starting out as archetypal heroes thrust into a story of planar scope, where going to try to kill the Devil is an actual option.
Too weird? What about embracing the recent dungeonpunk developments in the game and making an Eberron story? A world that resembles our own, but with spells fueling the wars and new innovations. Viewers know how to react to “post-war” stories and the basic shtick of dwarves and elves, and you could use a lot of noir and science fiction tropes by turning them on their head. Let the audiences expectations tell part of the story, so your script is free to deal with overlooked stuff like “plots” and “characters.”
Hey, liked Eberron? Maybe it is time for a sequel: Spelljammer! Now that you’ve gotten your viewers complacent—they think they get it, dragonmarked gnomes running magical telgrams, lightning-elemental powered railroads, golem soldiers with PTSD—hit them with the big guns. They sit down with their popcorn and you just lay on the the writhing tentacles of a Cuttle Command spaceship with mindflayer Admiral Ackbar, horrible neogi merchants and the weird wonder of the phlogistan. You take the knob, turn it up to eleven, break it off, throw it out the porthole.
Build your story around the most memorable of icons: Castle Greyhawk. The characters take care of themselves—why fool around? Go directly to Mordenkainen as your creepy wizard sending Melf, Tenser and Robilar to go fight Bigby and Iggwlv in the dungeons of the castle. Make it a tour of Dungeons and Dragon’s roots. If it has a certain comedic tone, so what—too many movies take themselves seriously. Look at Iron Man and The Avengers; people are ready for adventure with a grin.
Or maybe Greyhawk might be too goofy; it certainly has a dearth of diversity. Why not borrow the Third Edition iconics and send them up against some real evil: send Lidda, Ember and Regdar into the Tomb of Horrors. Actually, better take more characters than that—take a lesson from Game of Thrones and make the Tomb of Horrors just as awful and death-inducing as its reputation hints at. Maybe add Warduke in, he’s a scary looking dude.
Got a multi-movie deal? Then consider Against the Giants as a jumping off point. Giants haven’t been overdone by Hollywood, and you’ve got plenty of interesting visual hooks in the landscape and personage of the hill, frost and fire giants. Just when they think they’ve finished up, bam, you drop the twist on them: the drow were behind it all along! And your second film is Queen of the Spiders; a descent into the Underdark, confrontations with spiders and evil elves and eventual Lolth herself. Heck, throw Drizzt in there while you’re at it.
The Genre Slider
I think the success of X-Men: First Class is strong evidence that people are willing to work with known properties in new settings. The Weird ideas above sort of touch on this, but why not embrace it entirely? Audiences know what to expect from a fantasy film, but if you take those clichés and place them in a new context, everything old is new again. The half-elf ranger, elven archer, dwarf fighter, human wizard and halfling rogue… in Ravenloft. Just make a real horror film, but insert classic exemplars. Or send them on an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and have your usual fantasy crew… confront strange science-fiction creatures. If you like, you can spin either of those films into a Planescape or a Spelljammer sequel, if it takes off!
The Fourth Wall
This is perhaps the hardest, but most rewarding idea: bust the fourth wall. What is it that makes Dungeons and Dragons unique? It is the fact that it is less a game and more a system of post-modern narrative rules allowing improvised storytelling, right? That is far more important to the hobby than owlbears or beholders. So, include some element of that in your movie! Now, this can be screwed up very easily, but if you can pull it off it can be incredibly effecting—look at the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story calling out for Bastian to say her name? That is etched into my memory. Maybe you could use the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon for inspiration; that has a pedigree and a “real world and fictional world” dichotomy.
Mordicai Knode just wants there to be a movie where someone rides on a giant nautilus in outer space and then goes to the center of the afterlife to meet The Lady of Pain. Is that so much to ask? He asks for so very little. Do you like Twitter or Tumblr? He is on them!