Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Lost in Translation 11 – Save Versus Illusion

Several weeks ago, this column looked at Dungeons & Dragons. During the 80s, one of the goals the creators had was creating a D&D movie. Gary Gygax, co-creator of the game, would mention the work being done towards this end in his guest column in Dragon, TSR's role-playing magazine. In 2000, the movie became a reality with Dungeons & Dragons.

The story revolved around two thieves who, while breaking into a wizard's lab to engage in some creative wealth distribution, ran into the mage's apprentice. She managed to stop the thieves; but, while doing so, overheard her master conspiring with the Big Bad of the movie to overthrow the queen. The three escape, running into a dwarf fighter (easily distinguished by his strength, armour, and lack of charisma). The foursome, who quickly become a quintet after a tavern scene, band together to thwart the villain and protect the wizard kingdom by going on a quest, gaining assistance from the elves. Alas, one of the thieves heroically sacrifices himself by fighting the villain's chief henchman (in a very one-sided battle) to let the rest of the party escape.

The main problem with converting a tabletop RPG to a movie is that the core audience may get several steps ahead of the heroes and can point out flaws both obvious and subtle in any plans they make. On top, the core audience will be expecting the story to reflect the in-game physics, the game's rules, accurately.  Dungeons & Dragons tried hard to keep the game's mechanics in place, but rules designed to facilitate role-playing and problem solving don't always match up with the needs of storytelling and narrative flow. This became obvious when the party had to sneak past an eye-conic monster, the Beholder. For those not aware of what the monster is in-game, it is a challenge to medium level player characters (PCs), with eleven eyes, each capable of emitting its own effect ray, including an instant death beam. Assuming that the characters are the same level and taking an early scene where the mage cast a lightning bolt (a 3rd-level spell), the party is roughly around level five or six. (Higher, and the wizard would have tossed a more dangerous spell. Lower, and the wizard couldn't have cast the lightning bolt.) Five characters of fifth or sixth level would have been badly injured during a fight with just one Beholder. But, narratively, the monster has to be bypassed. The solution – an old trick; toss a rock past the guarding Beholder to make it zip off to go look. The patrolling Beholder was there to show how powerful the villain was, not to be fought, but the effect was the equivalent of the Dungeon Master (DM) realizing that he upped the difficulty too high and gave the PCs a chance to avoid getting killed when the quest barely began.

Related to the game mechanics is the setting. Technically, D&D can be used for any setting the DM creates. However, over the years, both TSR, the original publisher, and Wizard of the Coast, the company that bought the D&D property when TSR folded, have released various settings for the game, including Greyhawk (created by Gary Gygax for the original white box D&D), the Forgotten Realms (created by Ed Greenwood as his home campaign's setting), Krynn (created by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman for the Dragonlance novels), Dark Sun (a post-apocalyptic setting that started PCs at third level because of the lethality), and Spelljammer (D&D in space!). Choosing any one of these settings would have added familiarity to D&D players watching the movie (though not necessarily the general audience). The decision, though, was to create a new setting, one where wizards ruled, with no ties to any of the existing settings. There may have been a plan to release a setting to go along with the movie, though no such product was ever produced outside a few articles in Dragon.

Casting turned into another issue with the movie. The main character was played by Justin Whalin, whose previous work was the role of the replacement Jimmy Olson on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He turned in a solid performance, though the script toyed with him multiclassing. His sidekick Snails was played by Marlon Wayans, and his death brought the wrong feeling to the audience. ("Yay, he's gone!" is not the emotion a director wants from an audience when a character important to the hero dies.) The wizard apprentice was played by Zoe McLellan, who also turned in a solid performance. The main villain was played by Jeremy Irons, who seemed to know just what sort of movie he was in and chewed the scenery. (He may have been channelling Raul Julia during filming.) The supporting cast did what they could for the most part, with Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor) playing an elven elder cleric. However, Thora Birch… Wooden is a good word. Whether it was from not having experience acting to a green screen or having problems with her wardrobe (her shoes looked difficult to move around in), her acting was stiff, reminicent of a high school play.

Did the movie succeed? Not really. Between some of the casting, the lack of familiar setting, and the difficulty of replicating game mechanics* and the necessity of game play to a different format caused several problems that couldn't be overcome. The cast all seemed to be in a different style of movie, from epic fantasy to fantasy comedy to B-movie serial. The early CGI effects were noticeable and could detract from the action. It's hard to tell if the people involved cared; there were attempts at bringing out iconic elements of the game and Gary Gygax had a cameo. Overall, the movie fell flat. A direct-to-DVD sequel that came out in the Oughties resolved many of the problems, though had a low budget to add a new issue.

(Anecdata time. I showed the movie on DVD to a friend who happily watched bad movies and MST3K and owned a copy of the Hong Kong live-action Dragonball movie with the reusable grenande. He couldn't get through it; the movie didn't fall into the so-bad-it's-good range he preferred.)

Next time, a reboot train to the stars.

* This isn't to say that all game mechanics aren't realistic. Avalon Hill's James Bond: 007 RPG reflected the action in the movies well and still holds up with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Other RPG designers have worked to have their mechanics reflect their subject (as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG did successfully). D&D, however, evolved from tabletop wargaming and still has artifacts from its heritage.

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