Thursday, 28 July 2022

Further Questions Regarding D&D Movies

Two interesting questions popped up in the comments on yesterday's post, and I felt they merited further discussion at length. 

The first is: why would the creators of this new D&D film create a new storyline, world, and cast of characters, when they could have made (say) a Dragonlance or Baldur's Gate movie and garnered a bit more name recognition?

I think the answer to this question has to be that while there is a certain amount of recognition of those names among old farts like us, we're not really the people this film is being marketed to. Middle-aged male neckbeards are nailed on to watch a D&D movie, irrespective of how it is titled. Non-middle-aged male neckbeards will need to be coaxed into it, and I can easily see how associations with fairly obscure artefacts of 1980s or 1990s nerd-dom would be off-putting or alienating to those potential audiences. D&D: Honour Among Thieves just sounds friendlier and more down-to-earth than Baldur's Gate (or whatever). 

The second is: why is it that D&D films always seem to be so bad? 

This is a good question, but one which could be broadened out to: why is that fantasy films in general always seem to be so bad?

It's difficult now to remember, but prior to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the landscape of fantasy film-making was an absolute ocean of cringeworthiness. No self-respecting actor or director would want to be seen dead in a fantasy movie, unless it was being played for laughs; the idea of pretending to be an elf or wizard and spouting hey-nonny-no lines would have struck anybody with an ounce of awareness as being deeply silly at best. The suspicion I always had as a fantasy reader back in those days was that almost any fantasy film you could name had been made to try to cash in on the genre's popularity rather than out of any authentic love for the field on the part of writers or directors. They almost universally displayed an absolute tin ear for what fantasy fiction is really all about, and were imbued with an atmosphere of faint embarrassment among all concerned. 

The surprise me for is not that D&D films are always bad, but that The Fellowship of the Ring was able to capture the imagination of mainstream audiences so successfully. Peter Jackson's LOTR project turned into a monster, but he caught lightning in a bottle with Fellowship, and it changed the way the fantasy genre was conceived of forever. This has caused us to forget what things used to be like. If the new D&D film is crap, it will really just be (yet another) reversion to the mean.

37 comments:

  1. I've noted on my blog and elsewhere that this is one of the reasons I'm not much of a Fantasy fan. Compared to Science Fiction, which has Star Trek, Star Wars, ALIEN and ALIENS, The Orville, and a ton of other quality shows and movies to inspire youngsters to get into the genre, Fantasy has Lord of The Rings and...well...it has Lord of The Rings.

    Sure, other things have popped up such as [most of] Game of Thrones and various Anime titles but it constantly amazes me that D&D is so popular and SF TRPGs are the also rans of the hobby.

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  2. My boys have very little interest in watching old fantasy movies with me. They did enjoy Willow, but the 80s cheesy fantasy films like Beastmaster or Krull they say look dumb. But they're both excited about the new D&D movie. It's got that modern Marvel-esque CGI quality that they've lived their whole lives with. My older boy was born in 2008, just before the release of Iron Man.

    Honestly, the story looks dumb and cliche. It's just a big commercial for the games, marketed towards teens/young people. That said, I'm sure I'll go see it, and not just because my boys want to see it. I really enjoy escapist movies, since my normal days are full of heavier stuff like academics and politics.

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  3. I don't really agree with the logic that it makes financial sense to take the fans of existing media for granted when making an adaptation, even if you're a purely amoral bean counter. Take Avatar: the Last Airbender for example. Yeah, all the hardcore fans went on saw the movie and then what did they do? They complained that it was terrible and the movie tanked. Even if a fanbase isn't big enough to make a movie a success by itself having the fans on the inside pissing out is better than having them on the outside pissing in in terms of marketing buzz.

    This doesn't matter if the thing you're adapting is obscure enough that it doesn't have an established noisy fanbase or if you've already built up a following for the film brand, but if you're trying to launch a new brand having existing fans at least broadly pleased helps a lot to coax in mainstream viewers. It isn't enough by itself, you do need those mainstream viewers but having a bunch of people talking excitedly about your movie helps more than having a bunch of people complaining about it constantly.

    For example S1 of Game of Thrones was viewed broadly positively by the book fanbase and a bunch of happy nerds certainly helped get the ball rolling. Having the book nerds start raging during S5-6 didn't hurt the show since it had built up enough momentum of its own at that point, but having (broadly) happy nerds during S1 certainly made a big difference, especially when compared to other fantasy TV shows where the book cans were a lot crankier during S1. The HBO beancounters seem to recognize this with how close they seem to be hewing to the book plot for House of the Dragon.

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    1. I saw this with the horrible Dark Tower movie that came out a few years ago. It was a terrible adaptation, and the fans hated it. And while the books have a dedicated fan base, the general public doesn't know that much about the books. And what they do know about the books probably intimidates them. If they'd made the fans happier by being closer to the source material (and I don't have a problem with Idris Elba as Roland, to be clear), the buzz might have convinced more casual Stephen King fans to see it.

      Also, just wanted to note that the anonymous post above was me. Not sure why it didn't include my name.

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    2. Yeah, fully agreed. WRT your anonymous post, with my boys there's a certain level of old school special effects cheese and older animation that they just won't watch. However, along with Willow they do LOVE Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Princess Bride, and Army of Darkness along with enjoying Willow a lot.

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    3. To my shame I loved Willow as kid.

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  4. I dispute the idea fantasy prior to TFOTR was that bad. Especially in the 80s there were a lot of fantasy films with high and expensive-looking production values, including sets and locations, such as Krull, Ladyhawke, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, the first Conan movie, Dragonslayer and others, as well as animated works (Last Unicorn, Black Cauldron), that were trying to ride the fantasy part of the wave created by Star Wars. Ridley Scott directed Legend, for example. But definitely, in the 90s, things may have got worse.

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    1. Dragonslayer is an excellent fantasy film, of course then Beastmaster... ugh.

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    2. This. There were a lot of good fantasy films. Generally though, the CGI/effects weren't up to the demands. You can build a spaceship set pretty easily, and set a whole movie there. Harder to build a convincing floating castle or owlbear.

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    3. Agreed...there were also the fantastic Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, Hawk the Slayer, Highlander, Boorman's Excalibur, etc. I even think some of the cheesy movies were made with love of the genre (Krull is a fantastic D&D movie with an awesome premise). The 70s and 80s were awash with terrific fantasy movies that totally colored the way I imagine the game (serpent-bodied archer medusas are the only version for me!)

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    4. I'm not sure if I see the connection between having high production values and being good...!

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  5. I can understand why fans of D&D novels and lore are disappointed, but I don't mind that they're making a new story for the movie. They'll probably have some cameo by Drizzt or Jarlaxle or someone and that'll be enough fanservice for Forgotten Realms superfans, while they get to establish the movie as its own new thing. Myself, I love D&D as a game and I nostalgically love all the super ancient AD&D/BX 1980s modules, but I've never gotten into any of the novels or metaplot so I don't miss its absence.

    On that note... I haven't seen it, but apparently one of the 2000s D&D direct-to-video movies (not the completely irredeemable theatrical film) has a scene where one of the 'main' characters is eaten by a dragon early in the film and then is immediately replaced by a new character who joins the party under some flimsy pretext! XD I can only hope the new movie has at least some meta RPG jokes like that, since to me that's much more of a tip-of-the-hat to D&D than any Faerun characters.

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    1. Yeah, don't get me wrong - I don't mind the new movie having a new story. I just wanted to dig into the reasons as to why.

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  6. I think there were at least some good *children's* fantasy films in the '80s and 90s. Labyrinth, Neverending Story, Time Bandits which someone mentioned in a previous post.

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    1. Neverending story is pretty much impossible to get kids into these days, the pacing and the effects don't line up with what they're used to. Princess Bride on the other hand...my son for quoting Inigo Montoya for a month straight.

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    2. Yeah, I dunno about Neverending Story. Labyrinth, I grant you.

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    3. Fair enough about Neverending Story -- the book is so great it brightens my memories of the movie. Though as a kid I certainly loved the hell out of it -- the only discordant note to me was the passing swipe at video games when the old bookseller tells Bastian "go away, the arcade is down the street". XD No one could tell this '70s kid that I can't love video games and books at the same time!

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    4. Yes, what a book! Another of Michael Ende's books, Momo, is one of my absolute favourite books ever. Although a children's book a former Swedish (I think) prime-minister once said it's a book that every adult should be required to read - it's subject matter is essentially adults' obsession with time-and-motion, and it takes the child Momo to rescue them from this. Ironically perhaps, I read it in the original German, which took me ten years (of admittedly very intermittent reading) to do.

      In Ende's hometown of Garmish-Paterkirchen there is a Michael Ende park, and it's rather magical: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/michael-ende-kurkpark-michael-ende-park

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    5. This quote by Momo's friend Beppo Straßenkehrer, one of the few adults who gets it, is something I remind myself of often. It's also where I learnt that in German, you don't need an adjective to "be silent", the is a verb for it "schweigen". I often wonder what effect it has on the psyche that, for Germans, silence is an activity rather than a state of being.

      Here's the quote:

      "You see, Momo,' he [Beppo Roadsweeper] told her one day, 'it's like this. Sometimes, when you've a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you'll never get it swept.'
      He gazed silently into space before continuing. 'And then you start to hurry,' he went on. 'You work faster and faster, and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you're out of breath and have to stop - and still the street stretches away in front of you. That's not the way to do it.'
      He pondered a while. Then he said, 'You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.'
      Again he paused for thought before adding, 'That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that's how it ought to be.'
      There was another long silence. At last he went on, 'And all at once, before you know it, you find you've swept the whole street clean, bit by bit. What's more, you aren't out of breath.' He nodded to himself. 'That's important, too,' he concluded."

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  7. I want to clarify that my comment yesterday was really limited to movies that have actually been branded D&D - I too think there were some wonderful fantasy films prior to LoTR, most of which have been mentioned already (at least most of the ones I am familiar with). Although that moment Jason and Jay describes in a direct-to-video D&D film actually sounds hilarious! That said, I also remember a lot of films where the box art on the VHS case was incredibly promising (and almost always in the style of Frazetta) and the movie itself was pretty bad. And I was naturally inclined to like this stuff as a kid, so if I thought it was bad, it was probably horrible!

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  8. For a generation Harry Potter defined fantasy so mixing in modernisms that make us all cringe probably isn't much of an issue for these kids.

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    1. I totally forgot about the existence of Harry Potter.

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  9. If we are talking about D&D movies (and not just fantasy movies in general), then my vote for best D&D movie (so far) is "Dorkness Rising". Lo-budget, sure. The special effects are cheesy, yes. But the acting is pretty decent, script is very good, and you can watch pretty much the whole thing on youtube, so free.

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    1. Yeah, a version of that with an actual budget would work so well as a movie, really make it a DnD movie.

      Dorkness Rising is their beat work but the people behind that put out some other good stuff including more DnD stuff, some Shadowrun, some MtG, all worth taking a look at if you like Dorkness Rising.

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  10. I think my thinking in re a Baldur's Gate adaptation for example isn't so much about name recognition, as it is about story quality. I'm not claiming they are on the level of LotR, but part of the reason the (first two) BG games are classics is because of the narrative. Yes, the "there can be only one" is very Highlander, but "the protagonist(s) are unaware that they are the offspring of the dead god of murder" is a strong, very D&D hook. Start-from-scratch adaptations should aim to be at least as good as the available source material, and they so, so often aren't.

    Moreso than uncanny valley CGI, it's the writing that lets down so many fantasy films and TV shows, specifically the lack of ambition. LotR shines, IMO, because it really feels like the writers were trying to capture the essence of the books' language.

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    1. I agree that in its best moments the LotR films did achieve that.

      One thing that irked me about the D&D trailer was the vernacular language of the script - it just sets my teeth on edge.

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  11. "The second is: why is it that D&D films always seem to be so bad?

    "This is a good question, but one which could be broadened out to: why is that fantasy films in general always seem to be so bad?"

    Like many of the posters here, I disagree with the premise that fantasy films (pre-LOTR) "seem to be so bad." There are many classics of the genre that, for their time and technology level are quite good...some hold up well even today. As with most 'good films,' they tend to have a proper mix of fun, seriousness, romance, and action all well-paced and suitably acted. I mean, that's just a commonality with quality cinema.

    And, sure, there were plenty of duds, too...the ones that are made by less proficient filmmakers, or less-than-serious ones (who only cared about "cashing in" on then-trend...see all the Star Wars knock-offs that came in years following its success), or ones ham-stringed by budget.

    Jackson's great strength was to parley a medium budget into a massive blockbuster trilogy by using enough CGI along with some very sincere, non-superstar actors, in an excellent location/set-dressed "Middle Earth" using a pretty good story (LotR) that had both cache with fans (who'd long wanted to see a live-action version) and established strength/power that just needed to be harnessed.

    [the books were HUGE back in the day, the animated films were huge (for what they were) also, but prior to the Jackson films no one had the BALLS to try live-action, and just how much talk was there about "Tolkien" at the time the films came out? Not much outside the RPG community, surely! My non-gamer wife had ZERO IDEA who Gandalf was or even what a Hobbit was, prior to the films...and she's my age. She thought the Jackson films were great...as did MOST folks who saw them]

    Jackson treated the (first) films with care and love and put a lot of good filmmaking into them, after decades of working experience in the industry. Since the, others have aped his style (taking fantasy 'o so seriously' and using CGI) in order to repeat success. As with the Star Wars knock-offs, the results have been mixed-to-bad at best.

    RE D&D (as film) in particular

    There is no established, high-class fiction to draw upon (as there was with LotR)...that's not the strength or beauty of the D&D game. And just coming up with a vehicle for throwing in bits of fanservice and D&Disms (backstabbing thieves, owlbears and beholders, whatever) isn't enough to make a "quality film," even when entrusted to a filmmaker who appreciates and cares for the product (and I have no idea who's making the new film).

    No D&D film will succeed at being "good" until someone competent sits down and writes/creates a GOOD film, instead of a "D&D film," while using D&Disms in its making.

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  12. Oh, yeah...forgot to add:

    DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, Baldur's Gate, etc. are *not* good stories. They were good vehicles for playing D&D in a manner that had a bit more depth than 'kick-in-the-door, kill-the-slime-monster." They add context. But adapting them to film (DL was already adapted as a cartoon...with voice actor Keifer Sutherland!), would just show how unsuitable they are.

    D&D is a game meant to be played and experienced. Film is a different medium of entertainment.

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    1. I dunno - I think a TV series of the first Dragonlance books could work (especially if billed as being for "young adults", i.e. kids).

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    2. I'm not sure I agree that there's a clear-cut distinction between D&D settings and movie-adaptable plots. Sure, you can't just sit down with Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms and adapt it into a film script verbatim, but how many film scripts start out as a vibe or mise en scene, and go from there? I'm struggling to imagine in what ways a setting could be compelling for a RPG campaign, but not for a movie/tv show/book.

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  13. I think the reason D&D films are bad is that D&D itself is deliberately syncretic, even catachretic, in service of making it work well as a *game*. I does work wonderfully, but makes it a terribly shaky, incoherent foundation for a conventional narrative medium.

    The closest thing (especially since there are well-liked LoTR movies already) to a D&D film or TV series I could see being wildly successful would be a Lankhmar movie/show. Early D&D is 70-80% Lankhmar by weight already, with some Vance, Howard and Tolkien smashed into it.

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    1. Yes, I think that's probably right - what ends up happening is they always make it about "saving the world". (Although I'm sure a lot of D&D games also aspire to have these kinds of "plot" in practice.)

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  14. "prior to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the landscape of fantasy film-making was an absolute ocean of cringeworthiness"

    And since Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, it's been an absolute galaxy of cringeworthiness. Still, we at least got two decent fantasy films.

    (For me Conan the Barbarian is the pinnacle of the genre, but that's far more down to my age when it was released than anything actually in the film)

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    1. It started going downhill for me (rapidly) with The Two Towers. I find the new Gollum too hammy, and there is just way too much cheese in the Helm's Deep bits.

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    2. Agreed, it definitely started there, although on the whole I enjoyed that film more than I disliked it. But every RotK and all 3 (3! FFS!) Hobbit films were just 3-hour fight sequences with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that I could discern.

      As for Gollum, I see that, now that you mention it. I wasn't at all happy with Gollum in the movies, but at the time that was purely because my introduction to LotR was via the Bakshi film, and my getting to know the story inside out was via the Radio 4 adaptation, which I must have listened to hundreds of times, so I was outraged that Jackson didn't cast Peter Woodthorpe.

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    3. I've watched Fellowship in the cinema more than I have any other movie. Although I think it's the strongest of the three, I like a lot of the other two, particularly the Rohan bits. I barely remember anything about the first Hobbit film, I *think* I've seen the 2nd, and definitely haven't seen the 3rd one.

      But I also love Willow, so...

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  15. "It's difficult now to remember, but prior to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the landscape of fantasy film-making was an absolute ocean of cringeworthiness"
    Of course it's difficult to remember something that is manifestly wrong :P
    Cringeworthiness of the Jackson's "work" aside, there were good fantasy movies before it flopped on the genre - Labyrinth comes to mind.. ;))
    As for the question - why would you expect for an industry which becomes worse by the year to produce some good movies specifically for D&D? Nobody promised you miracles...
    Mike

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