January 22, 2013

The D&D Movie and Setting

Recently Tabletop Shop Talk asked what would happen if Disney bought D&D much the same way they bought Marvel Comics. He brought up the points that Disney pushed forward the superb Marvel movies, along with new video games and TV series. Could they do this for D&D? More to the point of this article, could such a company create a D&D movie on par with the recent Avengers movie?

One of the things I think the current line of D&D movies are lacking is an iconic character. The D&D movies are about D&D, not really about the characters and that is a huge stumbling block of the current set of D&D movies. The Marvel series of movies have established characters people already know. The audience buys into the characters. Not so with the D&D movies. A D&D movie needs an iconic character.

And for this we need to look at the past of D&D.
The settings and novels of D&D have created iconic characters. But now the question is...which well-known character or setting should showcase a D&D movie?

Dragonlance was huge back in the day and already has a movie...an animated one...that went direct to video and garnered rather harsh reviews...

"there's little to recommend within Dragons of Autumn Twilight and it fails on nearly every level. It's saddening to witness such a lame adaptation of fantasy material with so much movie potential." Source.
"D&D fans might get a kick out of seeing their favorite characters brought to the screen, but it's hard to ignore so much genre cheese and sloppy filmmaking. Skip It." Source.
" It's been a long time since I've come across a film this bad—animated or live-action." Source.

Can there still be a Dragonlance movie? I believe there can be. The setting and story is unique and the characters are dynamic and interesting. But it would have to be live-action and done with skilled hands.

Drizzt and the Forgotten Realms would also make an excellent movie choice. Even for those people sick and tired of Drizzt and Drow, I believe they would still stream to go see a well done Drizzt movie, especially if it focused on the Icewind Dale Trilogy. In fact, the Forgotten Realms is a ripe field to pick from for movies with Elminster and Artemis Entreri having achieved iconic status in the D&D world. 
I feel the Forgotten Realms has the best chance of sustaining a movie franchise.

There are of course other possibilities...
Dark Sun: Despite having some strong characters that could sustain a movie it is too divergent from mainstream D&D (medieval fantasy) to build a franchise on. A set of movies could still be made, however.
Greyhawk: Solid setting but lacking in iconic characters unless we include the former player characters such as Tenser, Robilar, Bigby etc. While many D&D players know of these names, there are virtually no stories or characterizations of them making identifying with them difficult beyond their names.
Eberron: A unique world but without iconic characters. 
Planescape: Too trippy for a mainstream/non-D&D audience.  
Ravenloft: With the concept of individual domains this prohibits a centralized focus and thus there is no true iconic character other than Strahd and maybe Van Richten. However, it could make for a good D&D movie, but not a franchise. 

What do you think? What characters or setting should a big name movie production company hang their D&D hat on?


Philo Pharynx said...

"could such a company create a D&D movie on par with the recent Avengers movie?"

I don't think that Disney/Marvel will be able to reliably make movies as good as the Avengers all the time. But I'd settle for a D&D movie that doesn't suck like a chest wound.

You're right that a D&D movie needs good characters to survive on. The could be existing characters, or new ones. After all, there's lots of D&D novels out there to mine for characters and stories. In order to be successful*, a movie needs to have a wide audience. A wide enough audience that actual roleplayers are miniscule part of this audience. You need a story and characters that resonate with people who aren't neccesarily geeks. There's a two-edged sword to established characters - you need to present enough information to get non-geeks to love them, while not watering them down so that the geeks raise an outcry against it. Yes, the geek audience isn't big enough to make a D&D movie successful, but a big enough geek outcry can sink the movie.

I disagree that Drizzt would be the best character to go with. A big part of Drizzt's story is that he's a drow that become good. An average moviegoer isn't going to understand this easily. They don't know anything about the drow. You need a lot of exposition to make the character heroic. If they are doing Icewind Dale, then that's a lot of exposition not related to the story. If you tell Drizzt's story, then you have to market a movie about the drow, which leads to my next point.

The drow are cultural poison. You tell people that you have an evil race that is black-skinned, except for one heroic example and there will be backlash. If you water down "Drow are Evil Demon-Worshippers", then you seriously change Drizzt's story. And who do you cast? If you cast a white actor, people cry blackface. If you cast a black actor, you need to find somebody who can pull off elven features (either makeup or CGI), while still doing a great performance.

In addition to a good story, they need to figure out what to do with the world. The last few movies have had a few Greyhawk references in them, but they've really been set in "Generic Fantasy World". It ends up looking like a cheap Lord of the Rings knockoff. Actually, any fantasy movie that doesn't establish itself with something specific ends up looking like a cheap Lord of the Rings knockoff. That's the problem with FR and Greyhawk. There's lots of backstory to the worlds, but it's hard to show, especially in low-budget movies. Ravenloft has the same problem except that it looks like a generic old-school horror.

You need at least a medium budget movie to do them well, but Eberron, Dark Sun and Planescape have a distinct look that's definitely not generic fantasy. I think this will help set the movie apart. Exposition will be a challenge, but that's why they need a really good writer. (and they need to ban expository voice-overs!) Eberron also has the advantage of being able to use the world name and not "Dungeons and Dragons". After the crap that Courtney Solomon put out, the name is poison. Dark Sun would need work to show that it's not Sci-fi, and if I were to do a planescape movie, I'd use Sigil as the name and the branding.

Personally, I'd go with Eberron. I'd start out the movie the the Race of the Eight Winds in Sharn. It would be an expensive CGI set-piece, but as the camera swoops between the audience and the racers you do a lot of exposition of the city and the races of the world. Afterwards, you could have the hero and a couple of characters mention something about their experience in the war to set that up.

*I say successful, rather than good. If the movie is good but doesn't reach a wide audience, then they won't put a lot of money into future D&D movies, and they'll likely be crap.

JeffStormer said...

First off, thanks for reading the article!

I think that, while I agree completely that previous adaptations have failed because they've spent too much adapting the world, there might be a bigger issue at play than the lead character.

In my opinion, where every D&D movie has failed worst is focusing too much on the setting, and not enough on the real star of the show--Dungeons and Dragons, the classic game of swashbuckling, ass-kicking, tomb-raiding adventure.

They more or less all buy into the whole LotR, "epic quest across the world to stop an ancient evil, etc etc ipso facto and so on and so forth" storyline, which, while it can make for a great story... kind of doesn't feel like the D&D I've played in my lifetime. Which is, I think, really the key to making a hit D&D movie--capturing the sense of fun that would come with five friends getting together, fighting monsters, swapping jokes, diving in a dungeon, and saving the world along the way.

Which is why, thematically if not literally, I would probably adapt the criminally under-read D&D comic IDW put out a few years back. It was less Lord of the Rings and more Raiders of the Lost Ark--fun and funny and action-packed and intense, but less "we must travel to the castle of the evil wizard" and more "yo, we gotta retrieve this artifact (and get paid in the process)."

Also, surprisingly importantly, it featured a dungeon and a dragon in the first 10 pages.