Friday, 12 December 2008

Dungeons and Dragons On Screen

For whatever reason, there's been some talk of a D&D film on internet land. Why on earth people are even willing to discuss the prospect is beyond me; the abysmal offering last time around (Jeremy Irons, hang your head in SHAME) should be enough to forever render that topic verboten. Apart from that I rather agree with Jim that film means narrative, and since roleplaying games and storytelling are antithetical there's no hope of such ventures every working. Well, no, I don't quite agree with that; let's put it: Roleplaying games and pre-determined narrative are antithetical. I think there's a place for looking back at a gaming session or campaign and retroactively viewing it as a kind of combined storytelling effort. But it has to be retroactive - injecting story into the midst of play is a bad idea, and certainly trying to crowbar a gaming session into the form of a film would be a recipe for disaster.

Frankly I shall find it hardly surprising if there is never a good D&D movie, for three excellent reasons: 1. Fantasy films are pretty much always dreadful; 2. So are D&D spinoffs, like the Drizzt and Dragonlance series of books; 3. So are films about games of any description. (Well, the first is always true at least for traditional fantasy, that is, setting aside stuff like Pan's Labyrinth). About the only fantasy series I can think of that has been worth watching was The Lord of the Rings, but even that, in hindsight, was a lot of style over substance and a bit of a missed opportunity. I've never read a D&D novel that has been anything better than "passing the time" quality. And regarding films set in games: Jumanji, need I say more?

Another excellent reason: The very idea that a D&D film could possibly work as a concept is mistaken, because it is starting from the wrong set of assumptions. Namely, it is taking as its launch pad the concept of a "D&D movie", rather than a desire to tell a story. Telling good stories is what good films do. Trying to cinematise an idea or concept isn't. (This is why films that are concepts more than they are stories - Charlie's Angels, for example - are such dreadful bollocks.)

I am hoping that this fact will enable two highly anticipated projects that are in the pipeline to buck the trend. The first is the Guillermo Del Toro Hobbit films. The second is the pilot for George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire on HBO. The signs suggest that both of these could work, but I'm cynical enough to expect the worst. The advantage they both have going for them is that a) they're based on good stories, not concepts or brands; b) they are based on great novels, not games; and c) they have nothing whatsoever to do with D&D. Here's hoping.


  1. First off, I'd like to thank you for the Scribbler award. Seriously, it really made my day. But more to the point . . .

    Fantasy films are pretty much always dreadful.

    This is totally unfair! There are tons of great fantasy movies out there. Dragonslayer, Conan The Barbarian, Legend, The Princess Bride, Clash of the Titans, Beastmaster and this list only contains rather modern films, granted they are all of different qualities. Beastmaster was made for a buck fifty, while Legend just blew you away with SFX, but even then the special effects furthered a wonderfully gripping story.

    Fantasy films are hard to do, they are expensive and they don't always do well. Legend bombed at the box office, but became a cult hit when it came to video.

    Fantasy caters to a smaller audience then, say Horror or Romance. This makes it difficult to sale a fantasy film to the big wig studio heads, however the term Dungeons & Dragons can be used to sweeten the pie. Not everybody knows who Elric is, however they do know about Dungeons & Dragons! The name itself instantly brings to mind wonderful things, it is one of the greatest titles of our generation!

    The cool thing about bad films is that they still might inspire. Beastmaster is far from a master piece of film, however it's visuals and fast paced action, along with wonderful characters (and Tonja Roberts nice long legs) inspires the viewer to look deeper then just its appearance, and gaze into the heart of the film itself. Maybe they'll say, WOW! I want to make a film like this!

    The biggest market for fantasy films isn't crabby 30-Something table top gamers, but children. All of the films above I watched when I was growing up, and my friends and I would mimic while playing in the woods. Now I share them with my own children and it gets the exact same results.

  2. In deference to Ripper X, let me begin by acknowledging that aesthetic judgements are always going to be grounded in subjectivity. Thus there is, of course, no way for me to prove whether or not a given film is good or dreadful.

    That said, I agree that virtually every fantasy film wih the exception of Jackson's LotR series has in fact been pretty dreadful. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but I believe a major one is that our culture just does not take fantasy seriously a a genre. In most cases its seen by mainstream audiences (I'm mostly familiar with American audiences) as just too goofy to be really taken seriously. In other cases, the genre is seen as "just" kids' stuff.

    As a result, most fantasy films wind up coming across as semi, if not outright, comedy or self-conscious camp. It's as if, until Jackson, it was impossible to conceive of a pyschologically and dramatically compelling fantasy film. The two terms were mutually exclusive.

    All of the films that Ripper X mentions have a certain charm, but their charm resides in their appeal as camp. We are aware that these films are poorly made, but these flaws are what makes them kind of loveable. I have a real soft spot for Beastmaster, bu I am under illusions that it is in any sense a well made film.

  3. Conan the Barbarian is a well made film. Well edited with just enough action and dialog to tell a succinct yet exciting story. I challenge anyone to watch it and Gladiator and not find Conan a superior movie.

  4. I remember when a RuneQuest movie was in development ... and how relieved I was that it didn't reach the screen, after seeing what became of Steve Gerber's comicbook Howard the Duck.

  5. You talk about "Song of Delays and Copypasta" in the same breath as "The Hobbit"? For shame!

    IMO we need a proper swords-and-sorcery fantasy movie. Not another trashy kids movie with WETA graphics and cutsie-pie franchising-bait comic relief sidekicks, but a *proper* Conan/Kull/Elric movie.

    Picture "Conan the Barb" remade with the technical production standards of "Gladiator" or "Troy". Tell me that wouldn't sell tickets.

    Who am I kidding though, it'll never happen.

  6. Ripper X: I agree with you on the point that fantasy films can work for children. Actually there have been quite a few good children's fantasy films recently, like Stardust, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and even some of the Harry Potter ones.

    Ironbeard: I absolutely agree.

    Eli: I'm going to have to rise to the challenge and say I prefer Gladiator! It was better scripted, acted and directed, in my opinion. But hey, these things are completely subjective.

    Dwayanu: Heh. That would have done the name of RPGs no end of harm had it come off.

    Chris: I'm sure it would sell tickets, but they don't want to take the risk for whatever reason.

    I like "Song of Delays and Copypasta" idea. I love the series, but if I read yet another excuse from GRRM about how the dog ate his latest set of chapters and so he's concentrating on Wild Cards instead, I think I'll give up. His perogative and everything, but Christ man, either finish the thing or don't even bother continuing!

  7. Excalibur, the be all, end all of movies about knights bickering. It didn't need flashy CGI bull crap. Love, hatred, betrayal, magic, the kitchen sink, it was in there!

    It didn't bomb like Conan did, and it isn't fit for children either. It was a calculated risk, but I think that the Arthur Legend is still a part of our western mythology. This subject probably could some delving into.

  8. I think part of the problem is in the audience.

    For instance, you list Stardust as a fantasy movie for kids.

    Stardust is easily one of my favorite movies, regardless of genre. I love the story, I love the acting, I loved the humor.

    Same for Labyrinth. Labyrinth is treated as a kid's movie, but I love it too, and not just because it's campy. It's funny, it's clever, it has some really neat scenes.

    Course, I'll also contend that Charlie's Angels was an excellent movie. It was exactly what it wanted to be - a fun, fast action flick about attractive women beating people up.

  9. Just 'cause something is a kid's movie doesn't mean it isn't good. Three of my four favorite movies are kid's movies.

  10. 2 words: TIME BANDITS!!!

    Plus the other darned fine films already mentioned. I think the Disney brand actually kept some folks away from Dragonslayer, which was a far cry from "kid stuff."

    The Fisher King is IMO excellent, and (IIRC the title) Wes Craven's New [Final??] Nightmare by far exceeds expectations lowered by other entries in the franchise (and the genre).

    I think we can expect (at least on average) better when there's an "auteur" at the helm driven by a personal compulsion than when it's just a job in service of a "property."

    That said, I found the first two Narnia flicks quite decent. It was A Good Sign to see the Blitz background intact rather than "updated."

  11. 2 more words: Jan Svankmajer
    -- a name to conjure with!

    If you missed Gaiman and McKean's Mirror Mask a couple of years ago, I'll bet you can remedy the omission thanks to DVD.

    Heck, I'll bet there's a lot of good (but not so widely screened) stuff of which I have not heard ...

  12. In The Farmer's Almanac, it says:

    "In rivers and Hollywood, the lightest things float to the top."

  13. Ripper X: Okay, I'll give that one a watch, on your recommendation.

    Lorechaser: Charlie's Angels was an excellent movie? Well, there's no accounting for taste, but... Never darken the doorstep of my blog again! (I'm joking obviously.)

    Rach: That's true, but I think it's easier to create a good children's film or book than it is to create a good one for adults. Adults are much more discerning than kids.

    Dwayanu: I'll see if I can pick up some of those. I agree somewhat on the Narnia films. The first was okay in my opinion but not great; the second was a lot better.

  14. Caveats: I'm thinking of "fantasy" in much broader terms than the incestuous ones of latter-day D&D and its heirs. Also (especially regarding the "Nightmare" entry), my appreciation is sometimes at least as much intellectual as visceral. It's notably refreshing to have something for that part of the mind to chew on, as a change of pace from the trend of dumbing down.

    Ladyhawke is not all that, but it's a solid romantic swashbuckler. In my book, better a well-crafted story without a lot of flash than the reverse.

    There's a silent-film version of The Thief of Baghdad that's enthralled me a couple of times. Other oldies but goodies include The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The Golem and Island of Lost Souls.

    Excalibur is one of two films (the other being The Abyss) I leaped to own on videotape. There's a weirdness to the treatment that seems to me to compliment that of the material, in contrast to so many bland popularizations. Disney's adaptation of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone is among the latter worthwhile.

    I am at least curious about the upcoming Solomon Kane movie, as well as the notion of A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars eventually hitting the screen. Barsoom ought to have seemed obvious, I think, at least by the time Star Wars was all the rage -- but that was more than 30 years ago.

    I'm no big fan of Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, but it beats me why those franchises were not tapped for the D&D movie.

    IIRC, Gary said that his own treatment had caught the attention of John Boorman and Orson Wells. The Dungeon Master's time in Hollywood was when the iron was hot, I think -- but TSR did not strike.

  15. Tron is one of my favorite fantasy films, and the video-game theme reminds me that Super Mario Brothers was not exactly total crap. Neither, I think, was the Final Fantasy flick I saw.

    The bar has been so much lowered based on our experience, I don't think it would take a genius to deliver something that would knock our socks off.