7 ways Warner Bros can make a Dungeons & Dragons movie work

Odd List Liam Macleod 10 May 2013 - 06:24

As word spreads that Warner Bros has bought the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, Liam explains how a new movie adaptation could work...

News broke recently that Warner Bros has acquired the rights to make a film based on the world’s biggest table-top roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. In fact a script, written by David Leslie Johnson, had been in development for some time, based on the assumption that the D&D brand is no longer poison after the first adaptation back in 2000.

Scepticism aside, this is exciting news, with the mainstream popularity of Game Of Thrones and the continuing tales from Middle Earth, epic fantasy has never been more bankable. The only problem is that unlike other franchises, D&D is a game built around players constructing their own narrative. Sure, creator Gary Gygax provided plenty of descriptions for the various worlds (I stress multiple worlds) and there’s more than enough independent novels to make a dozen movies. But there’s nothing approaching the kind of overarching storyline that A Song of Ice And Fire gives to Westeros.

This has been the biggest problem in adapting D&D thus far, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no bad source of material for a move, just bad handling of said source, and there are ways for Warner Bros to approach this project without screwing it up. The first of which being:

Ignore the cartoon

For other reboots I might say ignore the previous movie, but Warner Bros isn’t stupid. It's targeted the Dungeons & Dragons licence because it still has brand recognition. It’s unlikely, but given Hollywood’s previous attempts to cash in on collective nostalgia (Transformers, TMNT, The Smurfs) they might try to do the same with the one good thing people remember D&D for, the brilliant Saturday morning cartoon.

Repeated in the UK throughout the 90s, the show featured a group of kids who, upon visiting a D&D-themed amusement park, were sucked into a medieval fantasy world. While the idea of arch fantasy roles playing against type and casting the Dungeon Master as both mentor figure and final goal have untapped potential (which we’ll get into later) this is not a good template for a feature film. Too much of the series was plagued with the cheesy moralising that dominated TV of that era. And while D&D should be targeted for all audiences a cast of kids would too much pandering.

Don’t abuse magic

It’d be remiss not to go mention Rob Rath’s article I Hate Magic, which highlighted the more effective use of magic in tabletop RPGs. Much of what Rath says about magic in games rings true in movies; Gandalf can split rocks and summon eagles just because, Harry Potter has only to yell Expecto Patronum to summon creatures to his aid. This is lazy writing and it diminishes tension, but the good news is that the mechanics of tabletop games offer a workaround.

There are rules which make the use of magic in combat a literal roll of the dice and even impose penalties. Certain spells require sacrificing points and can go horribly wrong if attempted by lower level characters. Hell, to go outside canon, the Warhammer universe threatens magic users with insanity or corruption points which could be worked really well into a compelling subplot. Imagine a character torn over using their power to save others, knowing that each time they do they risk madness or worse. That’s compelling, tragic stuff that audiences would pay to see.

Know your source material

As we’ve established, the biggest problem is going to be hammering out a two-hour story out of a franchise with tons of supporting material but no established canon. Now, Warner will want to give D&D fans a little fanservice and use elements from the source material, but which to choose from?

Having looked it over, the best candidate is probably Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman’s Dragonlance trilogy. Created more or less out of a desire to see more dragons in the D&D universe, not only does the plot of Dragonlance read like the outline of a table-top campaign, but also a beat-for-beat description of the typical hero’s journey. These are the first official Dungeons & Dragons novels, and widely seen as the foundation of their world. It's good a place as any to establish as the start of a continuing series.

Be clear about tone

This year's Jack The Giant Slayer wasn't a classic film. That’s not simply being mean for the sake of it; critical consensus is that its major problem was its indecisive tone. It was a fun, light Princess Bride-style adventure, until giants were biting people’s heads off and taking arrows to the face. It’s jarring to watch, and if not handled right, could easily happen to a Dungeons & Dragons film.

Thankfully, there are seasoned directors who make a living walking the tightrope between tense, exciting action and whiplash-inducing horror. Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and, of course, fantasy maestro Peter Jackson all have proven track records in this field.  Look to one of them or possibly one of their protégés to make this material work for all audiences.

Choose your influences carefully

Right now, the gaze of mainstream geekery is fixed like the Eye of Sauron on Game Of Thrones, spawning the likes of Da Vinci’s Demons and the late, lamented Camelot in an effort to draw in a blood and sex-starved audience. The last thing Dungeons & Dragons needs is the gritty reboot treatment, but that doesn’t mean it can’t learn anything from the people of Westeros.

Think about the story structure, about how much has developed from the relatively simple death of Jon Arryn. Kings have died, a realm is caught in civil war, secrets exposed, supernatural forces at work, at least a dozen weddings being planned. Frightening stuff, and all put into motion by one death. D&D should progress the same way: a relatively simple, personal quest that spirals into an epic world-shaping event.

Ditto Tolkein’s work; think about how effectively Middle Earth is built - it has its own history, language, customs and conflicts. If people are to buy into yet another world of elves and dwarves and dragons, then the writers are going to have to build it.

Don’t cut corners on the CGI

We all know that part of the reason Dungeons & Dragons has been leapt upon is because of the promise made in The Hobbit. The final shot of Smaug waking in his bed of gold, hinting at what was to come. The thing, is have you seen just how good that final shot of Smaug was? The detailing on the scales giving the impression of texture, the way it indicated mass in the way it moved in all its 3D, 48-frames-per-second glory? Yeah, dragons in a Dungeons & Dragons movie will have to look that good, even if only for the final act.

Don’t make it about Dungeons & Dragons, make it about tabletop

Warner Bros, you may remember there was a funny little horror film called Cabin In The Woods, which was, for a while, all geek culture could talk about. Overall, a pretty awesome horror film that was essentially about why we watch horror films. If you really want to make a D&D film that will satisfy D&D players, then make the Cabin In The Woods of tabletop gaming.

Ask yourselves why people sit around and roll dice to represent the powers of wizards and space marines. Is it a hero fantasy, a God complex, the desire to play against type? Have your film answer that question. Make the dungeon master a key character, an enigmatic force that guides the film's events. Have the characters question their compulsion towards heroism or villainy. Do it and make it big, make it epic and then you’ll have done justice to Gary Gygax’s creation.

Obviously, these are just opinions, so you’re welcome to agree or disagree in the comments below. Are you excited at the prospect of a D&D film? Do you have any better ideas on how to make it? Or do you think the first film was an unsung masterpiece?

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I'd love it to be based on the old cartoon!

I have to admit, I loved the cartoon as a kid but I agree that I don't think it would be the best approach. Certainly, they should look to Game of Thrones on how to develop complex characters. Fantasy has moved on from the one dimensional villains who want to throw the world into darkness. I think, if they can develop a flawed hero and a villain who has plausible motives then they'll be on their way in developing a film that is watchable.

Can I add a final point:
8) Make the world believable. Too many of the D+D worlds are excellent for players, but have got some many diverse influences that visually and storywise they just don't hold together very well at all. Be careful about all the elements you put in there, elves, dwarves, men, mer-man ... everything else. Too much will fill the screen with what seems quite random and be incoherent.

Agreed. Unlike "Game Of Thrones", "The Hobbit" and "Lord Of The Rings", "Dungeons & Dragons" is based on a game rather than a book. As such there is no set story or narrative to follow - the ideal set up for a film where a bunch of "average Joes" find themselves trapped in a fantasy realm where they have to play some kind of game to escape.

10x10 Stone Corridor, Check for Traps.

I was always more a Cyberpunk 2020 player but that aside, I would (well until the copyright ninja got me) actually loot the plot from Diablo.

Small town, plagued by horrors from the warren of crypts beneath their church. Adventurers gather, band together and fight their way through the dungeon levels. Instead of Diablo, insert Dragon.

Keep the plot simple but flesh out the character, save the Dragon for the big reveal and fight at the end. Don't limit the film to just one enemy, with the Dragon at the end as the big boss you could have Zombies, Ghouls, WereWolves, Justin Bieber Fans, as your main cannon fodder.

"..brilliant Saturday morning cartoon.." Really? Did anyone actually think it was brilliant?
I was at school and playing tabletop D&D when it was first shown in the mid-eighties and we all totally f**king hated it. Not only was it a particularly lame kids cartoon, but it put a massive dent in whatever credibility D&D had (admittedly, not much).
I'd stay as far away from it as possible.

I wonder if there any rights issues but the easiest way to do this I'd say would be to base it on R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt series. Probably the most popular of the spin-off novels, it has great characters, easy to adapt storyline and even has a comic book adaptation so all the visuals are available

If it were based on the cartoon, who could play Dungeon Master?

I love the idea of Justin Bieber fans ... I might have to integrate that into my next WOD campaign!

Dinklage, of course...

no, please don't make it about tabletop as D&D is a RPG and 4th edition has
killed it. Make it about D&D not the mass armies and ranks as otherwise it
will end up too close to the LOTR franchise. Make it about plot and intrigue
for heaven’s sake.

I definitely agree with that final point, make it about choices and the intricate web of action and reaction. The Community episode Advanced D&D did this really well, so if they can give the characters those kinds of painstakingly strategic moments, it will be great.

Other than it sucking, that was my problem with the first movie: not enough monsters. I zombies, ghouls, wights, golems, jb fans, those are all the same frikkin yet not same thing. How bout lizard men? They're my favorite enemies in Zelda, I say that because I never had a DM that used em. Man this would have been a better idea in Ray Harryhausen's time. He'd use everything in the book and it would still rule.

Why cant it be based on one of the classic modules? Build a back story around the Tomb of horrors, a little bit more monster encounters to supplement the traps, and wham bam, you have a movie. Dont give me world history of some random kingdom. don't give me some evil wizard who needs to sacrifice 3 virgins to the demon Aksukit or whatever. We've seen worse in Cleveland. Start it out the way most classic D&D games did back in the day. "You're in the tavern, and a wizard comes up to your table...."

I'd like to see a series of films based upon the original 'Dragonlance' trilogy. It would be interesting to see Caramon, Raistlin, Tass, Kitiara and the rest of the gang on the big screen!

One might argue that the Narnia series covered this ground pretty well already...

as much as I loved the cartoon all those years ago, I'm not sure it could be pulled off right. As much as the big kid in me would love to see it happen it likely wouldn't work. Rebooting the cartoon with the same basis (kids whisked away etc), could still work without any issues. As for a film, why not go with Dragonlance? Its got a pretty expanded universe. Lots of various conflict in the stories. In the right hands I think that could be good.

Magic's corrupting and energy draining properties have been a part of D&D for decades...

I hope they leave cartoon alone. If they did it as a film, the kids would now have to have "attitude."

A few points:
1) I'd dispute the brand recognition claim, beyond knowing its a table-top rpg (I think). A well-recognised name is probably all they need in order to sell tickets, though.
2) The Potter series didnt abuse magic (e.g. the patronus charm was tricky for Harry), it was described as being almost scientific and was certainly studied in that manner.
3) See Game of Thrones to see how magic and the supernatural are properly handled.
4) Much like game of thrones, I will wait to see if the film (or TV series) will get me interested in the game (or books.)
5) Loved the Cabin in the Woods reference, (and the film for that matter.)

2 ideas follow either Baldur's Gate or Never Winter Nights = DONE

I loved the Dragonlance books as a kid, I had the first 60 or so of them before I lost interest. Out of nostalgia I went back to them recently.

Boy, were they badly written! I couldn't get through the first few chapters of the Autumn twilight. Robin Hobb & MRRG have set the bar so high now that I want good writing as well as a great adventure.

It's a shame because the plots of Dragons & Twins were pretty decent. I'd love to see Raistlin done well in a movie. He could be incredibly scary, done right.

Could you do the first 6 books as 2 films? I used to love the Twins trilogy where they went back to Istar.

That might be enough to make it work if the kids were cast well and we didn't have modern day issues crowbarred into it.

I liked it, at the time. I saw it, I guess it would have been in the mid 80s on its first run. I was pretty young but I liked the escapism of it.

It was aimed at 8 year olds (I assume), not at anyone old enough to play the game.

If they were aiming it at teenagers, then boy did they miss their mark, it was on a par with He-Man.

It's that the outline of Saw if you take out the fantasy realm part?

Absolutely agree on the last point. Making a movie about a fantasy world being created through a game has far more potential than making a generic fantasy movie.

If it does that, I'll probably see it. If not, I almost certainly won't bother.

The way to go is to do a D&D movie based on the animated series but without the boundaries of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Me too!

I agree with all of these, but the last one in particular. One thin I've found unique to tabletop games as opposed to normal stories is how the players have a lot of control, and that frequently leads to pretty bizarre circumstances. For example, one time my friend was playing as a Warforged (pretty much a robot for those who don't know), and he jumped into a pool of lava, forged his legs into a sword, and had another player use him as a sword to combine their attack rolls, or when we beat a swarm of spiders by pissing on them and stabbing them with an electrical sword. Even while players are roleplaying their characters, they still often make this strange decisions that a normal person wouldn't do, and sometimes even flying in the face of where the DM wants to take the group plotwise. While it could work as a straight up fantasy movie, I think it would be a lot more like D&D if they had the characters do things like that instead of following traditional fantasy roles, tropes, and plots. Plus, it would make it stand out from any other generic fantasy movie.

Yeah, I guess it was wasn't really aimed at me and my 12/13 year old friends. I imagine it actually worked really well and lots of young kids did go on to try out D&D a bit later, so that's no bad thing.

What you have to understand (and I'm sure many people do) is that playing RPGs in the mid-eighties in a small school in a small town in the UK wasn't exactly 'cool.'
This cartoon came along and it was all: "Who plays the little barbarian kid? you? Or are you like, the little wizard dude? Or the girl?" Ho Ho. etc... etc...

It didn't really help our cause.

Who gives a sh*t about the saturday morning cartoon? Most nerds with D&D exp. want to see something more along the lines of the novels the columnist referenced. Mixing in (real-life) nerds with a fantasy setting would be annoying.

exactly. there is a lot to play off. Caramon and Raistlins relationship, Tanis/Lauana/Kitiara triangle along with the half breed issues he had. Theres plenty to work from

Not exactly the happiest of endings though is it? I know I certainly felt a sense of sadness at the end of the Istar trilogy.

Walk past Cabin in the Woods and keep going. Don't even go near that shite, please ! I'd like to see something based on the Cartoon. I think it's a great story. Up the casts age, add some Dinklage and hey presto I'd be excited !

definitely dragonlance or The Drizzt underdark stories...

I would go and see an adapation of the cartoon. As for the rest, I have no knowledge of these games has I have never played, and have no desire to do so.

Heres my wish list if they ever did the film. Dungeon master = Peter Dinklage, Chris Mintz-Plasse = Eric the Cavelier, Mila Kunis = Diana the Acrobat, Chloe Moretz = Sheila the thief, Zac Efron = Hank the ranger, Michael Cera = Presto the magician, Anyone as Bobby the Barbarian (couldn't stand him in the cartoons).

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