One of the great points of contention which came about from the OGL Crisis was what fans should do about the movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Long time players have wanted a good movie based off a D&D setting to get the taste of the debacle from 2000 out of their mouths. At the same time, the shenanigans involved with the OGL generated a lot of searing contempt for Wizards of The Coast and Hasbro, enough to put fans in the agonizing position of seeing the dream realized or sticking to their guns and not giving WoTC one red cent. Then there’s the interview in Variety where directors John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein gleefully proclaim, “We also love emasculating leading men!” Our buddy and former boss Rhi Bevan wrote up a fairly glowing pre-release review of the movie, and it’s possible that Honor Among Thieves will do well enough on its own that D&D fans may not be necessary to hit the break even point. But what happens after all this? What happens when the movie moves over to home video and streaming and the box office receipts are all counted? Will there be more movies like it?
For me, the truly pertinent question is, “should there be more movies like Honor Among Thieves?” And I’m going to take the position, directly contrary to Daley and Goldstein, that no, it shouldn’t be only comedy and winking nods within a B-tier action movie. Honor Among Thieves may work, but it’s not the only way it can work.
Consider for a moment that Hasbro, being a corporate entity which is fully committed to transmedia opportunities in much the same way a junkie is committed to getting their next fix, has already made movies off existing franchises like Transformers (with relatively high success) and G.I. Joe (not quite as much success). Those were toy lines, and while they had some lore behind them, they didn’t have the sort of deep background lore that fills Dungeons & Dragons so pervasively. To put it another way, there have been two straight-up novels based off G.I. Joe dating from 2009, despite the toy line dating back to the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Dragonlance setting alone has well over a hundred novels stretching back almost forty years. It’s an incredibly dense amount of lore, worldbuilding, and metanarrative evolution. And, being fair, they did make an animated movie (direct-to-video, of course) in 2008.
Compare the two movies and you see something weird. The storyline in G.I. Joe was middling, but the production values were pretty high. But for Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, it was almost the reverse with a fairly good story and shoddy animation work. Net result: roughly $150 million for G.I. Joe, and apparently a number so low even the Internet can’t immediately find it for Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Would it have been better live-action? Or, failing that, put under the direction of well established animation directors like Don Bluth or Ralph Bakshi? It’s hard to say, but we may have a clue. The cast themselves seemed to take the roles seriously. According to the IMDb entry for the movie, Kiefer Sutherland (who voiced the wizard Raistlin Majere) read up on his character to the point where he was worried about pronouncing the incantations correctly, leading to multiple takes in the booth. Compare that to the various phoned-in performances from the cast on G.I. Joe and the problem becomes obvious. With sufficiently high production values, enough eye-candy to dazzle the audience, nobody will care about ridiculous plots or weird character names. In some respects, we already kind of knew that.
From The Ancient Texts
What, if anything, is the difference between a film like the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie and the Lord of The Rings trilogy, the trilogy status notwithstanding? They’re both in the heroic fantasy genre. They’re both big budget projects. Hell, they both have renowned British actors playing powerful wizards. Yet the former is widely considered to be a complete disaster while the latter is one of the most beloved fantasy films (or set of fantasy films) to be made in this century. How does one explain this?
Probably the first and most important issue is the director. Peter Jackson was already well established as a director, having made movies like Meet The Feebles and The Frighteners before embarking on Lord of The Rings. In contrast, Courtney Solomon had no prior directorial experience. If the trivia section of IMDb is to be believed, he was essentially bullied into directing Dungeons & Dragons by former TSR CEO Lorraine Williams because she refused to sign off on any other director handling the project. It should be pointed out Solomon had bought the film rights from TSR in 1990, so actually raising the money for production was a long and ugly slog even before the cameras rolled.
The second important issue comes down to the cast and their commitment to the project. Jeremy Irons outright said he took the role for the paycheck. Marlon Wayans was also shooting Requiem For A Dream at the same time as Dungeons & Dragons, so his scenes were shot in a short time frame. And Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was essentially riffing off his work as host of a British game show. Compare those examples to the principal cast of Lord of The Rings. They filmed a massive trilogy by living in New Zealand for almost a year and a half, trained with weapons to the point of being convincing, and got right back in front of the cameras after suffering injuries from stunts they performed themselves. You didn’t see those guys ducking out for other projects. They committed to the roles, they committed to the project, and it absolutely shows in the work. Actors playing minor characters might not have stayed the whole time (Cate Blanchett shot all her scenes as Galadriel in about a month), but even they committed to their roles. They put in a high degree of effort to make their performances the best they could be, much like Kiefer Sutherland did when preparing for the role of Raistlin, and it paid off for them.
Finally, the nature of the source material was handled very differently. Peter Jackson had to condense three novels down to movies with “reasonable” run-times, and even then he was consistently around the three hour mark in all three of them (the extended cuts push watching all three movies into a nearly twelve hour experience). And while some purists might bemoan the lack of Tom Bombadil or the barrow-wight scene being cut, the movies managed to hit the high points of the trilogy’s narrative pretty darned closely. To borrow from William Goldman, Peter Jackson gave us “the good parts” version of the story. In contrast, the script for Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t seem to know where it came from, nor does it seem to give a tinker’s damn. It has no connection to any existing setting put out for D&D, it’s not self-aware enough to make even winking nods at game mechanics, and it made no effort to pretend it was anything but heroic fantasy schlock that basically had the D&D branding slapped on it.
Given those two extremes, it seems that Honor Among Thieves is trying to split the difference. On the one hand, it’s at least making an effort to indicate it’s happening within the Forgotten Realms setting. On the other hand, it seems to be going for a comedic angle, mainly because the directors openly believe that the fantasy elements of the setting are absurd and that a “serious” movie based off D&D is impossible due to that inherent absurdity. In their considered opinion, since D&D games are fundamentally goofy and silly, a D&D movie must conform to that paradigm. In my considered opinion, they’re not trying hard enough.
Verbal and Semantic Components
There was a highly spirited discussion around the GameLuster watercooler GIF on our Discord server about the upcoming Honor Among Thieves, given that our former EIC had written a pre-release review of the film. One opinion, shared by some, was much in line with Daley and Goldstein’s view: D&D games are wacky and funny, ergo, D&D movies must do likewise. Since “serious” or dramatic D&D games were not fun (by those who’ve played in those sorts of games), a dramatic D&D movie was likewise doomed to failure. And the 2000 movie would seem to give damning evidence to support that position. Being something of a contrarian, I took the opposite position, that it’s possible for there to be a D&D movie which is dramatic and serious and (most importantly) good. The trick is not to make it a D&D movie as such.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that there’s something of a semantic trap which has grown up around the TTRPG space. Invariably, a lot of people talk about “playing D&D” whether they’re actually playing in a D&D game or a game of Pathfinder, or World of Darkness, or Savage Worlds, or what have you. We’re not quite at the point of “Scotch tape” or “Post-It notes,” but that generalization is definitely there when talking about tabletop gaming. This seems to extend to talking about playing in certain settings within a game system. When talking specifically about settings and trying to bring new players more fully on-board, we’re likely to differentiate between Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, and Eberron. But when it comes to casual conversation, we’re more likely to generalize to “just” D&D. Part of this may be an unconscious concession to those who don’t want the gory details of gamers rolling dice and trying not to get Cheetos dust or Mountain Dew on their character sheets and/or laptops. Part of it may be the inherent understanding among players that yes, we’re in that setting, and we don’t feel the need to elaborate. As a social thing, this semantic trap is minor, almost pettifogging. But when it comes to developing a movie or TV/streaming series, it becomes very important.
There’s an important distinction between making a D&D movie which follows the rhythms of a tabletop session or campaign (which really can get kind of bonkers, depending on the players) and a D&D movie which is set within one of its settings or even an adventure module. The former can be done well or poorly, and can just as easily be taken as a critique of the players more than the game itself. The indie film The Gamers and its sequel, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, flips between the game world and the real world (almost like a warped version of The Princess Bride) as we see the players relate to each other through their tabletop counterparts. The premise works, and there’s no reason a more serious or dramatic tone couldn’t be adopted, particularly given the rise of tabletop gaming in theraputic treatment regimens. Imagine mashing up Lord of The Rings with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and you begin to see possibilities. Making a movie within a given setting doesn’t mean that one is automatically beholden to slavishly follow all of the associated rules within the setting. Just within the Forgotten Realms setting alone, you have a massive continent with dozens of nations, hundreds of factions, and room for literally countless stories to overlap without ever actually touching each other. For example, you could have:
- Spy thrillers between the Harpers and the Zhentarim
- Slice of life stories of frontier life in the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale
- Action stories of adventurers trying to track down the next great lost treasure
- Poignant and moving character studies amid the chaos of war (“The Weeping War” period would be absolutely perfect)
- Urban horror and crime drama (in the vein of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer) in the cutthroat city of Westgate
And that’s just in Forgotten Realms, with many other stories possible as well. As for other settings, Ravenloft could be a source of various horror stories from directors like Jordan Peele, John Carpenter, and Guillermo Del Toro, each of them developing multi-episode arcs in the Dread Realm of their choice. Eberron could be the backdrop for the prototypical “chainmail noir” you never knew you wanted, whether dealing in heist-style tales of missing persons and power tattoos or in deep character studies of Warforged, magical automata given sentience in order to fight a long forgotten war who have to come to grips with their own natures. Spelljammer might be the sort of antidote audiences have been looking for to counteract the endless string of insipid Star Wars movies. And yes, these settings could just as easily provide a backdrop for comedies as well as dramas. The one thing you’re never going to successfully make is a D&D movie where the rules are the focus of the story. Hasbro themselves proved that with Battleship. That’s probably one of the biggest, dumbest, loudest action movies of the last twenty years, and there’s perhaps one or two “blink and you’ll miss it” passing references to the actual game. If we look at D&D‘s rules as a means to create characters, and thus to create stories, trying to make a movie about making characters and the accompanying process of making stories sounds almost Seinfeldian in its ridiculousness. And Seinfeld, despite its very long run, really only worked once.
A Knight of The Word
Robert A. Heinlein wrote in his novel, Time Enough For Love, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.” The list ended pithily, “Specialization is for insects.” It doesn’t specify necessarily how well somebody should be able to do these and other tasks, but a surface understanding of the task and its desired outcome is at least expected. So you can imagine how utterly baffling it is that Daley and Goldstein are taking such undisguised pride in “emasculating” their male characters.
Part of the basic premise of D&D is playing a heroic role within a story. Whether it’s in the front lines as a fighter, in support like a wizard, or behind the lines as a bard, all of the characters work to a common goal to the best of their ability. They may have personal goals in addition to the common goal. There may be conflicts between the characters about how to attain those goals. There are undoubtedly flaws and handicaps which the characters have to deal with, either their own or with their comrades. And sometimes, serious setbacks happen, whether mentally or physically. But ultimately, whatever their role, each character is an exemplar to those around them.
Consider the first installment of The Avengers. Bruce Banner (played by Mark Ruffalo) makes a very cogent observation about the nature of the Avengers as they’re gathered together for the first time. “I mean, what are we, a team? No, no, no. We’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We’re… we’re a time-bomb.” And he’s right. Between certain individuals, there’s respect, but there’s also a lot of pride, a knowledge that each of them in their own way is unquestionably a badass. And it takes a kick in the head (metaphorically speaking) to get them to focus, to gel as a team rather than as a group of highly competent individuals running around the place. They might get beat up, bruised, and bloody, but they carry on. Even under the effects of mind control, Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) is still a competent and decidedly lethal presence, and only gets more so once he’s gotten his “cognitive reset.”
Now try to picture one of those characters sitting around and simpering about how weak and helpless they are. How they’re going to leave the real fighting to somebody else while they try to stay out of the way. The story falls apart. You don’t have “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” at that point. You’ve got “Some Of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes And A Boat Anchor Tied To Them Because Reasons.” Some have argued that, based on the trailers, Honor Among Thieves bears a closer resemblance tonally to Guardians of the Galaxy. Even there, I will argue that you don’t see any emasculated characters in that movie. You don’t see Quill whining and moaning about the way his plans keep failing so spectacularly. You don’t see Gamora tittering and giggling while Drax or Rocket does something stupid. The tone may lean more towards comedy, but there’s a lot of pathos and pain which informs that comedy.
And yet, for reasons completely unexplained, we don’t have a recent equivalent of The Avengers in the heroic fantasy genre, and have not had it for a very long time. Certainly not with an obvious connection to Dungeons & Dragons, either by setting or direct mention. Lord of The Rings proved you can do heroic fantasy, make it good, AND have it make bank at the box office. But it’s clearly difficult to do right even once, as evidenced by Peter Jackson trying to go to the well a second time for The Hobbit, making what should have been a two and a half hour heist movie into a bloated trilogy that didn’t respect its own source material. My great fear is that people will settle for what Honor Among Thieves delivers and not expect better. That they won’t demand dramatic stories and genuinely complex characters who wield swords and sorcery in equal measure. Worse, assuming Honor Among Thieves does well at the box office, Hollywood will undoubtedly greenlight a bunch of projects which will be trying to imitate that movie. And that will potentially lead to a rush for licensed properties which will be badly tarnished by the shameless cash grabs with their brand slapped over the title.
As a writer and storyteller, I know how hard it can be to make a good heroic fantasy story just on the printed page. I know that making movies is a titanic effort with a lot of moving parts. And yet, there’s evidence it has been done before, which should indicate that it can be done again. For every cheesy 80s fantasy movie like The Beastmaster, we have something like Conan The Barbarian. For every crappy adaptation like Eragon, we have a good one in Lord of The Rings. I have to believe that audiences who can willingly suspend disbelief about billionaires who make flying power armor and surgeons who create causality loops with McGuffins of Ultimate Power can do the same for resolute paladins in battered plate mail and wizards who select grimoires with the same consideration as John Wick when preparing his arsenal for a job. Whether it has the Dragon Ampersand in the logo or not.