Because film studios are terrible at pattern recognition, a fourth Dungeons & Dragons movie is reportedly in the works. Here’s why it’s a really bad idea.
There have been three films to date based on Dungeons & Dragons, the archetypal fantasy role-playing game. Three. And none of them have been good. The first, starring Jeremy Irons, is one of the most famous so-bad-it’s-good classics, while the other two are mostly just forgettable Syfy Channel originals. And it’s from this pedigree that Warner Bros want to try and capitalise on fantasy’s unprecedented mainstream popularity as a result of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, presumably looking for the next big franchise. As ideas go, it is not a good one.
The problem with adapting Dungeons & Dragons into a film is that it simply doesn’t make sense in terms of rational world-building
The problem with adapting Dungeons & Dragons into a film is that it simply doesn’t make sense in terms of typical, rational world-building. The Forgotten Realms, for instance, just doesn’t work as the kind of coherent, internally consistent world that most people expect. Middle-earth and Westeros were carefully constructed from the ground up, their history and geography painstakingly crafted to create a world that readers and viewers could believe was real. The Forgotten Realms was created by, essentially, putting Tolkien, Conan the Barbarian, the Cthulhu Mythos and the Dying Earth into a blender, and then throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure. It is inherently pretty ridiculous – but that isn’t meant as a criticism.
As settings for games, Dungeons & Dragons campaign worlds work beautifully. The sheer batshit craziness of their creation means they’re damn near perfect for a fun fantasy adventure: there are loads of environments to explore, forgotten dungeons full of treasure half a mile from every town, and hundreds – if not thousands – of different monsters to fight. They were designed for games, not a traditional three-act film, and their very incoherence is what makes them work in that context. But, like so many video game adaptations have shown, what works in a game doesn’t necessarily work in a film. And the three D&D films have actually been aware of this.
All of the Dungeons & Dragons films have toned down the madness inherent in the source material, diluting the crazy, colourful vibrancy of those worlds in favour of a more logical setting, but that also means reducing the story to a drab, predictable, sub-Tolkien fantasy. The 2000 film, the first big stab at high fantasy on film since the boom of the 80s, bore basically no resemblance to the game, and only really used the name for the sake of brand recognition.
There’s too much strangeness to throw at a movie audience, but in a sprawling, 30-hour video game, there’s plenty of time
The most recent one, The Book of Vile Darkness, came closest to actually being a representation of Dungeons & Dragons on film, with an adventuring party, a Bag of Holding, and a plot drawn from the moral difficulties often faced by paladins. And even that took place in the usual boring, muddy, faux-Medieval kingdom typical of mediocre fantasy. All this isn’t to say that you can’t tell a good story in a Dungeons & Dragons world, because that is demonstrably untrue. Planescape: Torment is arguably the finest story ever told in a video game, and even though the narrative is dark, depressing, and pretty bleak (even in the best ending), it still doesn’t hesitate to embrace the weirdness of its setting – and Planescape is weird even by Dungeons & Dragons standards.
The first character you meet is a floating skull who likes to insult you, and your other companions include an autonomous suit of armour and a chaste succubus. This would never work in a film, even a three-hour one, because that’s simply too much strangeness to throw at an audience in too short a space of time, but in a sprawling, 30-hour video game, there’s plenty of time for the player to adjust to the world. More than that, though, much of what makes the story work is that it is a game and not a film: it takes advantage of its nature as a role-playing game to tell a story fundamentally about role-playing games. That just wouldn’t work on film.
The production of the next D&D film is currently caught up in legal wrangling over the rights, but it’s a foregone conclusion that it’ll come to light sooner or later. Epic fantasy is big business now, considerably more so than even at the height of Conan’s popularity in the 80s, and the current Hollywood franchise model almost entirely revolves around capitalising on the audience’s nostalgia by adapting recognisable brands from their childhood. It was this desperation for established brands that led to trash like Battleship and The Lone Ranger, and even Dungeons & Dragons, traditionally considered the nerdiest of all nerdy pursuits, is a safer bet for a $200 million blockbuster than a completely new property. (Although, for the record, LARPing is nerdier.)
In all likelihood, when the new Dungeons & Dragons film emerges it’ll have a similar relationship with the source material to the 2000 film, using the name but very little else. And while that does make sense from the point of view of the plot, it’s still a shame that we probably won’t ever get to see a proper attempt at translating a game of Dungeons & Dragons to the big screen, even if the result would probably be a train wreck. There’s really no way to win: one way the film turns out an incoherent mess, and the other it’s a brown, boring Tolkien knock-off.
Still, whatever happens, it can hardly be worse than Bruce Payne with blue lipstick.
Featured image: New Line Cinema
Inset images: Zinc Entertainment; Interplay