Dungeons, Dragons, and Disappointment: A Fan Chat About the (Mostly) Awful Adaptations

The post Dungeons, Dragons, and Disappointment: A Fan Chat About the (Mostly) Awful Adaptations appeared first on Consequence.

This Consequence chat about adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons has been lightly edited.

Wren Graves (Features Editor): Welcome to a Consequence Geek Chat! Liz, roll for initiative.

Liz Shannon Miller (Senior Entertainment Editor): 12!

Wren: 13 was lucky this time! I’ll take the floor.

Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most influential pieces of media of all time, reinventing tabletop gaming and launching a new era of RPGs. That success has led to many attempts to translate the game for film — almost all of which failed their Intelligence check. So my first question, Liz, is why is such a rich world so hard to adapt?

Liz: It’s a big question with a relatively easy answer on the surface: Unlike other properties which might be adapted for the screen, D&D is by design an open world, which gamers populate with characters of their own invention. This makes it a lot of fun for people who want to create wild new personas for themselves, but this means that there aren’t any iconic characters to hook a story onto — and fundamentally, while the world in which a story takes place is important, it’s not as essential as clear characters with established dynamics.

The reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an iconic piece of drama is because of Hamlet and his mommy/daddy issues, not because of the glamorous location that is 1300s Denmark. And to continue that point, it’s the characters of Hamlet that then prove easy to translate to different worlds themselves, from modern-day New York to the Pride Lands.

D&D doesn’t have that advantage, but the thing is, it opens up a different advantage for a filmmaker: The opportunity to take the established universe and, just like a newbie gamer at their first Saturday afternoon session, create their own characters to populate it. And what’s fascinating about D&D’s legacy on screen is how badly all of those efforts have gone. Wren, what did you think of 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, the movie?

Wren: I thought it sucked from the very first voice-over, even before there were images.

“The Empire of [Unintelligible] has long been a divided land ruled by the mages,” is how it begins. “The lowly commoners — those without magic — are little more than slaves.” Thirty seconds of exposition before we get past a black screen! Any Dungeon Master worth their dice would be ashamed.

Also, I am pro-magic, and I resent a film trying to make me feel bad about that.

Did you like it any better?

Liz: I have seen some real crap in my lifetime. We’re talking Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever in the theater, the garbage fire that was Andrew Dominick’s Blonde, multiple viewings of Halle Berry’s Catwoman… But my confession here is that I attempted to watch Dungeons & Dragons for the first time last night, and 10 minutes in I decided life was too short, and bailed.

In those 10 minutes, though, I lived a lifetime. An excruciating one. Everything you say about those first 30 seconds is 100% accurate, but then we get to some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a studio blockbuster, not to mention the creature effects. Yes, it’s the year 2000, I can forgive a little primitiveness, but it’s mind-blowing that this movie comes out just one year before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (released by the same studio, even! New Line Cinema!). Wren, is Peter Jackson just that good, or is director Courtney Solomon just that incompetent?

Wren Graves: Maybe Solomon got hit by a curse. How else to explain every single actor attempting wildly different tones? The mages were in one movie, the commoners in another, Jeremy Irons probably had to be hospitalized after chewing that much scenery, and the most convincing performance came from that overly-pixelated dragon.

Granted, not even prime Peter Jackson could have done much with a script like this one. The heroes introduce themselves by saying, essentially, “My job is thieving and I would like to thieve something crazy.” There’s a bad Palpatine-in-the-Senate ripoff, and that movie wasn’t all that great to begin with. None of the character choices make sense.

But curse or no curse, Solomon deserves as much blame as anyone. It was his responsibility to help the actors look, if not brilliant, than at least like they had ever acted before. Even the action scenes are dull! Some of the fights last less than 15 seconds, probably to save time for more voiceover exposition.

Liz: A big factor in my deciding to cut bait last night was that I just felt so badly for Thora Birch and Marlon Wayans. Not that they weren’t paid for their time, but saying some of that dialogue must have been flat-out humiliating.

Here’s what fascinates me: Despite how bad this movie was, there were still two more made by Solomon’s company Sweetpea. These movies were made basically so that Sweetpea could hold onto the rights, but I have never before encountered a person who had actually seen both sequels… until now. Wren, my two questions for you are: Really? And also: Why?

Wren: Because — and I cannot stress this enough — I don’t value my time. I actually revisited the direct-to-DVD sequel, Wrath of the Dragon God, ahead of this chat: It stars Mark Dymond as a Fighter with a job he hates and a barber that hates him. It’s not the very worst haircut ever associated with the words Dungeon and Dragons, because that is an impossibly high bar, but even a humorless Fighter deserved better.

Overall the film is much more watchable. Putting the party together is genuinely fun and the magic is at least recognizable from the game, so going through it there’s a bit more LeoPointingAtTV.gif. Also, the set pieces feel like they were designed by a DM. Can you solve the puzzle before you’re overrun by bandits? Can the rogue pick the lock before the party gets eaten?

But still, you feel the budget. The fight scenes are super choppy, main characters die off-screen because they couldn’t afford to render the dragon eating them, and it still feels like you’re being hit over the head with lore and exposition. Better doesn’t mean good.

As for the third film, The Book of Vile Darkness, I remember that tale of Paladins and evil being the best of the three, but I couldn’t confirm it, because the distributor, IM Global, went bankrupt in 2018. You can’t even stream it, and I was willing to spend real money on this film because I don’t value my time or finances. Unless anyone’s got one of the German DVDs, I’m half convinced that we’ve all been hit by a Modify Memory.

At least the animated TV series from the mid-’80s was pretty good, right? Or have my standards been so eroded that I can’t tell my axe from my ass?

Liz: To be fair, I just mentioned having seen .Catwoman more than once, so I feel you when it comes to poor choices in time management. And also, yeah, there are a lot of fond memories for the 1980s animated series amongst my gamer friends.

That might be a symptom of me knowing a lot of nerds who were watching that show at a young and impressionable age, but I do think that the animated series did a nice job of making one aspect of the concept relatable to kids, specifically the idea of defining yourself as a speciality/class. No matter how old you are, you’re always looking to identify with the characters you watch on screen, and the shorthand of “s/he’s a sorcerer/fighter/thief” proves engaging for the same reason everyone has their favorite Ninja Turtle. (Donatello for this geeky girl, of course.) Plus, it captured the fundamental idea of different people with different skills uniting in a common quest — again, a very D&D notion. Does that align at all with your experiences watching the cartoon?

Wren: Absolutely, and I think you’ve hit on something very profound. The D&D class system has its problems, and the whole concept of different races with different ability bonuses is deeply problematic, but at its core, the game emphasizes that no matter what you’re good at, you have value. Intelligence, Wisdom, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma — chances are, you can feel personal pride in at least one of those traits. It’s part of the enduring appeal: You have value.

The movies tend to emphasize the most unlikable qualities in spell-casters with protagonists plucked from just one class or another. But the animated series presented a full party with a wide variety of archetypes to glom onto. (It also skipped exposition almost entirely — the whole concept of kids getting pulled into an alternate dimension is explained in about five seconds, the better to get to the action.)

I wonder if a party of diverse equals is central to the attraction — and why other properties have done Dungeons & Dragons better than Dungeons & Dragons?

Liz: That would make sense, and I think you see this reflected in how one of Netflix’s Stranger Things’ most charming attributes as a series is how it captures this quality — the foundation of the original group of kids (who literally call themselves “The Party”) was based in this tradition, and led to a lot of the show’s charm.

As the seasons have passed, the narrative has gotten more split up and new characters have emerged to take the spotlight, which means the ensemble concept has fallen by the wayside a bit. But every time the show invokes the spirit of D&D — not just naming the season’s new Big Bad after some arcane monster, but the teamwork that’s fundamental to the gameplay — it feels like old times. (Weird to feel nostalgic for a show that premiered in 2016, but that’s probably the overall ’80s nostalgia vibe making an impact.)

Are there other ways in which Stranger Things succeeds here?

Wren: In spirit, yes, but also in the inspiration for the mechanics. Both Eleven and the Upside Down specialize in what D&D players might recognize as control magic — not just in the sense that it can literally control a person, but also the broader idea of controlling the field of play. Illusions have power, Divination (the ability to see far-away things) is one of Eleven’s greatest gifts, and while dealing damage matters, it matters far less than the capacity to keep baddies at a distance and allies safe.

Ultimately, the success of Stranger Things is what gives this jaded player hope that D&D will eventually figure it out — perhaps sooner than I dreamed. Liz, you’ve seen the new film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Long-time players have been burned before. Is it worth a roll of the dice? Or will we want to throw the book at it?

Liz: As I write in my review, I do think that fans of the game will very much enjoy Honor Among Thieves! First and foremost it’s freaking fun, which goes a long way towards getting the taste of the 2000 movie out of your mouth, and it also very much embraces the concept of found family that feels like a natural extension of D&D’s gameplay. Also, the deep-cut nerd references are pretty choice (no spoilers, but a Gelatinous Cube makes an appearance), and look, Chris Pine is the party’s bard. It’s a true ensemble piece, and one that really captures the spirit of the tabletop experience. Which you’d maybe think wouldn’t be so hard, except… see above.

Wren: My Party — my weekly tabletop group — has already set a date to see it in theaters. As soon as we saw the Owlbear in the trailer we were sold, and your review convinced us further. And if we don’t like it? Well, there’s another session next week.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves rolls into theaters on Friday, March 31st.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Disappointment: A Fan Chat About the (Mostly) Awful Adaptations
Wren Graves and Liz Shannon Miller

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