Mon
Jul 2 2012 10:00am

How to Make a Good Dungeons & Dragons Movie

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!

 

The Weird

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.

 

The Classic

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!

39 comments
Matt London
1. MattLondon
Built by: Mindflayers
Used Primarily by: Mindflayers
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
1. MattLondon

I had a gnome scout in 3e that was the captain of an octopus-class spelljammer; I consider that a major moral victory.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
3. KevinSmith @SharnDM
Why focus simply on movies. My pitch has always been for a television show. Fantasy elements have has good success with mainstream audiences in the past.

My idea would be somewhat akin to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You have a group of teenagers\young adults, and ensemble cast, who deal with real life issues in and outside the game (Buffy was similar in the vein that the slaying portion was kept hidden from "real life"). When playing D&D\RPG's you can switch over to the in game world for high fantasy adventure. Meanwhile these gamers have to deal with their real life issues as well outside of the game.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
3. KevinSmith @SharnDM

So something along the lines of the "Fourth Wall" busting pitch? I like the "Buffy & Scoobies" pitch, but I think why not make that a "Genre Bender" & have it be Buffy & the Scoobies...in like, a city of universities, of sword-fighting academies & wizard's colleges & thieves' guilds?
KevinSmith @SharnDM
5. Joe_67
First, gather all extant copies of any previous or current D&D films and inter them in a geologically-stable salt cave not less than 1000 feet below the Earth's surface, topped with a pyramid designed to warn people away from the site for at least the next 10,000 years. On a case-by-case basis, evaluate whether all those persons involved with the productions in any capacity should also be so interred.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Joe_67

What I like best about your pitch is that I'm pretty sure that is how Acererak started the Tomb of Horrors. You've built a dungeons to stand the ages, & littered it with horrifying traps. What is your plan next, Joe-- researching how to become a sentient undead being?
KevinSmith @SharnDM
7. catterpillarboy
Sorry all, but I just had to comment- while the first D&D film is not 'great', it is by no means a 'bad' film (it is certainly better than any of the live action Transformers movies that are so popular these days). What I appreciated about the first D&D film was that the characters played by Wayans and Jimmy Olsen (and to a lesser degree the characters played by Girl Who Was in JAG/Sliders and the dude from Pirates of the Caribbean) had an interesting sincerity with how they were portrayed (whenever the movie deviated from that group, the movie did dissolve into mockable tripe...)

The movie also had a sense of good old (albeit predictable) fun that you don't really see in a fantasy movie anymore (and not since the LOTR films made contemporary fantasy films so 'serious'). Plus, the sacrifice made by Snails (Wayans' character) is an awesome death scene even if it is followed by Jimmy Olsen looking into the sky and yelling "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

That said, I'd like to see someone (anyone!) make a D&D film that we all would be proud of.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
8. Joe_67
6. mordicai

My evil minions and I have no idea what you're talking about. (And if I did actually possess a Globe of Annihilation then we'd be much closer to a truly permanent solution to the existence of the prior D&D movies.)
Sol Foster
9. colomon
Isn't the issue here (barring interesting meta ideas like KevinSmith's) is that, as a movie, "Dungeons and Dragons" is a essentially a genre (or even several genres) and not a story -- and the parts that make it most Dungeons and Dragons-y are among the least interesting parts?

I mean, there are absolutely fantastic movies about a band of adventurers questing across an epic high fantasy landscape, most notably The Lord of the Rings. I certainly hope there are more examples in the future. But what's the added benefit of making one of them a "D&D" movie?
David Moran
10. DavidMoran
Yeah, I still stick to my guns and say that a work capturing what D&D actually IS, is the final option, the pomo narrative. Tying it in to Neverending Story is smart, because that movie doesn't "read" as being all reflexive and postmodern even though it super is. The D&D experience - and I say this as someone who has never absorbed an iota of metaplot in decades of interest in the game - for me rests on play and participation. The Community D&D episode is obvious, but when I imagine in my head an ideal movie on the subject, I think of both stories-within-stories (Midsummer Night's Dream) and stories ABOUT stories, like Inglorious Basterds, which uses WWII as window dressing for a parable about cinema. As a geek and D&D fan, I have to say it's really hard for me to imagine a D&D frame story that I'd care about. I mean, the settings are all distinct, but still, basically DESIGNED to be generic enough for anyone to pick them up and work with them.
David Moran
11. DavidMoran
9. colomon My thoughts exactly. There are things that are definitely part of D&D's "brand identity", but they are not characteristic of a work any more than having hobbits in your movie makes it characteristic of the narratives of Tolkien. Conceptually, it is intended to be a semigeneric pastiche.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
12. Bernie S
I would prescribe the Bryan Singer/David Fincher treatment to D&D:

Start small, with a naturalistic approach to set design and effects.

Create three dimensional characters and forego the stereotypical pretty-longhaired-elf-with-bow thing that will draw comparisons to LOTR.

Introduce the monstrous villains in a horror film way—only fleeting images at first. The beholder or mindflayer are at first voices speaking from shadows. They may never appear fully revealed at all. If they do, it should be with the same level of dread as Alien.

When I think about the different published campaigns I've encountered, I think Rise of the Runelords might be the most cinema friendly storyline that's been published. It's not D&D, but Burnt Offerings would translate as easily into a screenplay as it did in a certain drama teacher's middle school play. That's partly because it starts small and gets just right the balance between horror and fantasy. So a story of that scale to start things out, sans heavy exposition.
Sky Thibedeau
13. SkylarkThibedeau
Just do the film Version of "Ready Player One" and there you are. Not only a D&D movie (Original Skylark is 7th level Druid) but a 'Joust' Movie at the same time.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
7. catterpillarboy

I certainly don't want to turn this into an opportunity to slog off on anyone's creative efforts, or the ability of anyone to enjoy them. That being said, wait, what, the girl from JAG & Sliders? The only person that makes me think of "the girl from Sliders & Sports Night," Sabrina Lloyd, who I like a lot! Anyhow, while you may find the DnD movie to be enjoyable-- I didn't-- I don't think anyone would argue that it is a good movie, right?
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
9. colomon
11. fordmadoxfraud

Well, that is why I say the fourth wall bustin' is the most rewarding. That said, I think there is "stuff" that DnD invented & codified that you could use; maybe "Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Sun: The Movie" or "Dungeons & Dragons: Spelljammer: The Movie" like I allude to? Or well, give me some harder ideas; how does that fourth wall breaking actually work?
KevinSmith @SharnDM
16. catterpillarboy
14. Mordicai- I was referencing Zoe McLellan who was in exactly one episode of Sliders but for some reason, I remember her very vividly in that even though I have no recollection of who she played (like an evil slider or something?)...and hey- enjoyable does not equal good?!

Oh, well...:)
David Moran
17. DavidMoran
15. mordicai

The problem is that the INTERESTING D&D stuff you posit, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, are interesting precisly because they are cast in relief against the core product. They are commentaries on D&D as much as they are D&D. Without the background of reference of having "regular D&D" in your life, it's really hard to see how these could resonate with a general audience.
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
12. Bernie S

Has Fincher done any fantasy? That could work; I feel like the use of cliches, but the twist of cliches-- that is the zone to work in. That is, you can have the band of heroes meet in an inn, but you have to find a reason for it to be cool-- I guess that is a way to make things Dungeons & Dragons-y? Use the game cliches, but wisely?

16. catterpillarboy

I mean...yeah, I'd say that enjoyable doesn't equal good. There is a ton of pop music I could sing along with that I wouldn't consider good, if push came to shove...but there is also pop music that I would consider good. It is a whole contextual argument, I guess.

17. fordmadoxfraud

Sure, but there is also the context of modern fantasy, which is very much influenced by a post-DnD outlook...I think you could probably tweak expectations against a "generic epic" & it would hold together.
Charles Moore
19. Shadeofpoe
My biggest dissappointment, and one of storylines originially responsible for bringing me to D&D, was the incredibly mishandled Dragons of Autumn Twilight that was animated. I could watch Wrath of the Dragon God and tune it out for a made for tv movie, but they messed up Raistlin, and that is by far one of my favorite characters ever.

That being said, I think the problem lies, as some one else brought up, is that D&D is essentially genre. High Fantasy to be precise. That just isn't done well, not talking about Tolkien. No one takes it seriously enough. The only out I see, besides Spell Jammer, is, I may be hated for this, Eberron. It's one of my favorite settings, but it allows for a bit more Urban Fantasy feel to it, like the Dresden TV show that was gone too soon. But before it can be made, someone else has to tackle High Fantasy and make it "cool", just like they did Comics and SciFi.

Fingers crossed for the Dr. Strange movie...
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
19. Shadeofpoe

Oh that cartoon was so bad I had to shut it off, yeah; I prefer not to think about it. That said, as fond as I am of Dragonlance, I think it would be hard to pull off...as Chronicles isn't...so great. Legends on the other hand rules, maybe that could be a movie, take it as a given that the audience can get "evil wizard" & "former hero" as a starting point?

I mention Eberron for the same reason, it is a neat way of putting your own stamp on High Fantasy...& hey, then you can do Spelljammer as a sequel, when things get even crazier? I've said before that Spelljammer seems like a good "100 years from now" follow-up to Eberron.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
21. mwschmeer

Yo, that is a serious piece of film right there, why have I never seen it! That is intense goodness. If you like that sort of thing dressed up in psychedlia, let me recommend this brilliant remix.
David Moran
23. DavidMoran
Honestly, I think the major question here isn't "What material can be turned into a good movie", since all the material is designed as story-fodder, but "How can we convince someone outside the hobby to take it seriously enough to do so?" Reading those interviews with Community's Dan Harmon where he talks about the Dungeons & Dragons episode, and how the studio execs just, lost their minds at the suggestion that they might put "Dungeons & Dragons" in front of an audience, and could only approach the material and the genre with the most profound contempt ... I almost feel like a D&D movie doesn't HAVE to be great, or even good, because basically the same people would see it either way.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
24. Cain S. Latrani
Personally, I'd go with the Eberron film. There's plenty to do in the setting and DDO has brought a certain amount of recognition to the setting already, making it an easy sell.

So long as it didn't, you know, suck or anything.

Otherwise, I'm still waiting for R.A. Salvatore's Ice Wind Dale trilogy to get adapted with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Drizzt.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
25. Bernie S
Maybe the old Western genre approach *would* be preferable—a band of strangers meeting in a tavern, one or two of them mysterious strangers and the others relatively mundane. Then you could explain how that crazy wizard just arrived in town.

In any case, I want a naturalistic vibe and minimal exposition. Let the non-fans discover what Beholders are on their lonesome.
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
23. fordmadoxfraud

But Dan Harmon won that fight! Don't take the wrong moral away from that; the execs might have balked but it still happened!


25. Bernie S

Too much exposition-- like being so concerned that your audience knows what a beholder is-- is definitely a problem with these films.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
27. KevinSmith @SharnDM
9. colomon - That was something of what I was trying to touch on. The only reason to tye the actual game into the narrative is if we actually have a group playing D&D or some other RPG. Other than that we could certainly use characters from the various settings that have had stories written about them. The most mainstream example I could think of is possible Drizzt, Elminster, or even a few of the Dragonlance novels.

13. SkylarkThibedeau
HA! Love Ready Player One so much. I even wrote a review for it as a contributer on a Podcast site that I frequent.
http://www.monkeyinthecage.com/2012/06/29/ready-player-one-a-futuristic-trip-down-memory-lane/
I like the Podcast here too obviously.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
28. Kingtycoon
I don't think you can seriously discuss D&D as a movie or tv show without thinking about Pendelton Ward. Adventure Time is the best and truest depiction of the Hobby in the vidoe medium.
Mordicai Knode
29. mordicai
28. Kingtycoon

I know I am in the minority, but as much as I liked the original Adventure Time short film, the show itself is too full of Ren & Stimpy gross-outs & trollfaces for me to genuinely enjoy. I mean to give it another try when it hits Netflix Instant though; is it there yet?
Mike Timonin
30. MTimonin
In terms of breaking the fourth wall - wouldn't a film adaptation of Joel Rosenberg's books fit nicely? Although I like Kevin Smith's idea re: a tv show as well.
Mordicai Knode
31. mordicai
30. MTimonin

You know, I never read those Guardians of the Flame books; are they good? I guess yess, since you mention them.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
32. chrisblue77
The first movie was bad becouse the director was afaird of jeremy irons, he didnt need to be that big. The second movie was on par with a good TV show, will the thid time be the charm?
Go to Youtube and warch "Roll a d6"
Mike Timonin
33. MTimonin
@31 - mordicai

The first three were amazing, and the second three were better in a lot of ways. The first three are the ones which really deal with the whole D&D element, people from here finding themselves in the game they are playing. The second three are deeper, but if you don't like the character which Rosenburg puts in the forefront (Walter Slovotsky) then it's possible you won't like them as much. The next four focus on the son of Karl Cullinane, and I think they become closer to generic high fantasy - still good, but less mind blowing. And I haven't read the last three.

In refreshing my memory, I discovered that Rosenburg died last year, which makes me a little sad - I'll never get to put him on an author panel with Steven Brust to talk about food in fantasy novels.
KevinSmith @SharnDM
34. Mallaeus
How to make a good DnD movie? Simple: make a good movie. Good script, good director, good actors. Everything else will take care of itself.
Grant Seamer
35. Lighttriumphs
What about a movie that uses elements of Neverending story and Stranger than Fiction... switching between a fantasy world, and a group of D&D players who think they're in control.

Then things can start to happen that the DM & players don't anticipate - as the "fantasy" world seems to exist in its own right.
Mordicai Knode
36. mordicai
35. Lighttriumphs

& then, as things in the "real world" influence the fantasy game...things in the fantasy game start influencing the real world?
KevinSmith @SharnDM
37. Ancarmore
Here's a good first step, read some D&D Books, make a playable scenario, have a few D&D players play it and provide feedback as to what needs to be changes or adjusted.

here is a series of books that could be used for ideas, the first is great, the next 2 ok, the rest slowly goes downhill, but needs to be read for the series.
Author: Joel Rosenberg
Series: Guardians of the Flame
Book 1: The Sleeping Dragon (1983)

or just hire a few DM's to write something and see what come of it, and don't use those hollywood writer's they haven't had a good idea in 20 years, I can count on 1 hand the orginials movies that have been made, all others are just remakes
Nathan Martin
38. lerris
I have to recommend "The Gamers" and "The Gamers: Dorkness Rising", both of which are about Gamers sitting around the table, and switching between the players' POVs and the characters' POVs. They're looking fund a third movie on Kickstarter.

The first movie used a homegrown rules set, but with the OGL, the second movie was able to use D&D 3rd edition rules.

A little surprised these gems haven't been mentioned in these comments..

Very niche, college-style production, but it's a fantastic introduction to what D&D is all about.

http://deadgentlemen.com/
Mordicai Knode
39. mordicai
38. lerris

I've come across that recommendation before, but never suited thought to action, if you know what I mean; it is worth looking into further? Then I will!

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