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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