In the tabletop role-playing game industry, Dungeons & Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, the game that the general population knows by name. The game has had a cinematic adaptation that didn’t work as either a movie or an adaptation. However, the movie wasn’t the first adaptation of the game. In 1985, an animated series based on the game began airing on CBS. The series would last two seasons, with animation by Toei.
The 80s were an odd time for the game. Dungeons & Dragons had managed to break away from specialty game stores to appear in toy stores and book shops. At the same time, parent groups appeared to counter the game’s popularity, accusing the game and its publisher, TSR, of being satanic. One group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons headed by Patricia Pulling, managed to make some headway with law enforcement despite dubious research and math and even appeared on 60 Minutes in 1985. The D&D cartoon thus had some extra restrictions on it beyond the usual Saturday morning ones.
The opening credits of the cartoon told how the characters got involved. A ride at an amusement park deposits a group of friends into a fantasy world, where they’re immediately set upon by two villains, Venger and Tiamat. However, with the intervention of Dungeon Master, the group gains magic items that helps them escape. Each of the main characters represented a different character class. Hank became a Ranger, receiving a magical bow. Sheila, with her cloak of invisibility, became a Thief. Presto received a magic hat to become a Magic-User, the term used for wizards in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ first edition. With the Unearthed Arcana also being released in 1985, character classes from that supplement were also used. Sheila’s younger brother Bobby became a Barbarian with a magic club. Diana received a magical staff, letting her become a Thief-Acrobat. And, finally, Eric became a Cavalier upon receiving a magic shield. After arriving in the world, Bobby befriended a young unicorn colt, Uni. Making a noticeable absence is the Cleric, but given the Satanic Panic around the game, leaving the class out meant feidling fewer calls from angry special interest groups.
Over the course of the series, the group of young intrepid adventurers sought to find a way back to their home. Dungeon Master would appear to provide guidance in the form of riddles, leading the adventurers into situations where they would use their abilities to help others in need. Meanwhile, Venger would appear to try to get the group’s magic items or Tiamat, former Babylonian goddess turned five-headed ruler of the evil dragons, would appear to menace. Dungeon Master was well-meaning but capricious, dangling hope in front of the adventurers, much like some actual DMs. Each of the main characters showed elements of their representative classes, from Sheila’s sneaking to Presto’s magic, though not exactly to the rules. Eric, on the other hand, didn’t show the Cavalier’s valour, though that was a decision made thanks to executive meddling. The rule at the time was to have teamwork, and anyone who went against the group was thought to be in the wrong. Eric was designated the one to be in the wrong, even if his idea, typically running away, was a viable choice.
The mechanics of AD&D were hidden, meant to be more the physics of the fantasy world than anything else. Monsters that did appear did come from the game. No one rolled a die to determine hit or miss, but such a scene would break immersion. Instead, the setting came from the rules, though not specifically Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home campaign. The adventures were aimed at a younger audience, the extreme low end of the “For ages 12 and up” range. However, some of the episodes wouldn’t be odd to have as an evening’s play session, even with D&D‘s fifth edition. Having Dungeon Master be a character in the series was an odd choice, but the role worked and showed potential players how to be a DM and still allow the players to have fun while working through a challenge.
The D&D cartoon was an odd duck in a decade that was defined by odd ducks. Few popular media ever faced a strong challenge by special interest groups as /D&D/ did, and, yet, the game remained popular. The cartoon followed in the game’s footsteps, creating its own niche and presenting a setting usable with the game without getting too bogged down in details.
The Adaptation Fix-It Shop is open again. The Shop looks at adaptations that have major problems and tries to rebuild the concept. Previously, the Fix-It Shop rejiggered the 1998 Godzilla as a action/comedy monster hunting flick and separated the two movies trying to get out from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li.
Today, I delve back into Dungeons & Dragons.
The first inclination is to drop a meteor swarm* on it and call it a day.
The first inclination, while satisfying, is wrong. While Dungeons & Dragons had many problems. Its 2005 direct-to-video sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, was a far better movie and a far better adaptation, just lacking the effects budget the first movie had. The sequel works as a template on how to fix the the original. There’s also the issue of the original movie having decent set pieces that just didn’t work with all the others.
Let’s get some of the problems out of the way. Role-playing games add an extra twist to adapting that most media doesn’t, as mentioned before. While most novels, comics, TV series, and even video games have a plot, RPGs leave that up to the players. Characters are the same; in an RPG, the players create them. Settings may or may not be included, depending on the game. Dungeons & Dragons, in most editions, has The World of Greyhawk as a default setting, but with little information beyond names like Drawmij, Mordenkainen, and Zagyg. Other settings were produced and sold, and Dungeon Masters (DMs) were given world-building tips, much like Way with Worlds, to help create their own. That leaves game mechanics, which did appear in the movie.
Wrath of the Dragon God showed that it is possible to do a D&D movie. Wrath had a lower budget, but made up for it with more attention to game elements and easing those elements into the narrative. The sequel created its own setting and characters, using ideas presented in the Third Edition core rulebooks, and building on them for the plot. Wrath is proof of concept; a D&D movie can be made that isn’t bad.
With the above in mind, what can be done to repair the Dungeons & Dragons movie? The core plot is about five adventurers who band together to stop an evil wizard from overthrowing the queen. It’s a good plot, one not used too much lately in movies. The devil’s in the details, though. In a D&D game, evil wizards capable of succeeding in overthrowing a monarch tend to be capable of tossing fireballs without breaking a sweat. While a group of adventurers can defeat a much higher level opponent if they team up and work together, an evil wizard should be portrayed as smart enough to have lieutenants, henchmen, and minions in between him and any resistance. In the movie, the villain was powerful enough to command dragons and beholders, one of either can be a difficult foe for a group of adventurers.
It could be that the plot needs far more time to resolve properly than a movie can provide. Stopping anyone from taking over a kingdom can be a full campaign spread over several months of play. The same thing happened with the Dragonlance animated film; a ninety minute animated movie wasn’t enough to cover a novel. Even with the expanded DVDs of the Lord of the Rings movies, a lot had to be left out just to get the story told. Epic fantasy just doesn’t fit in a tidy 90-120 minute time slot. Three ways around the problem; the first, look at going to television. TV allows for 13-20 45-minute chunks of time, providing far more time to properly tell a story. The anime Record of Lodoss War lasted thirteen episodes, each one being 25 minutes long, and it was based on an RPG campaign.
Second method involves multiple movies. There’s a risk inherent to the approach; if the first movie isn’t a draw, the story ends incomplete. This seems to be the fate** of The Mortal Instruments. The City of Bones underperformed at the box office. leading to the sequel to be first pushed back and then cancelled, leaving the story unfinished. The goal for the repaired Dungeons & Dragons, under this workaround, is to keep the production costs down without looking cheap to maximize the box office returns. It will be a balancing act to keep the effects looking good while still not breaking the budget.
The third approach is to cut through the backstory and start in media res. The evil wizard is making his move and the adventurers have to act and act now! Details can be filled in as flashbacks and the Seven Samurai-like gathering of the heroes avoided or truncated. The key events are the discovery of the plot, the investigation into how the plot will be enacted, and the stopping of the plot and the wizard. The heroes have a time limit.
While a TV series may be the best approach, to properly fix the movie would be to keep the format***. Multiple movies aren’t a guarantee; unlike Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t based on a series of bestselling books. Even Star Wars was filmed to be a stand-alone work if it didn’t do well. That leaves option three, cutting out or cutting down unnecessary events and trimming the gathering of the heroes. The goal, now, is to get something that feels both epic in nature and still personal. To elevated, and the audience doesn’t have a character to follow. Too close, and the saving of the kingdom becomes overwhelming.
The wizard’s plot to take over the kingdom needs a bit of work. Summoning a flight of evil dragons is epic, but one dragon could turn the heroes into cinders without effort. Controlling one is enough and keeps the menace of both the dragon and the wizard intact. A quest to retrieve a means to call a good dragon to counter the wizard’s will allow the dungeon half of the title to appear. The wizard’s motive is power and riches, something the kingdom has in plenty.
Now that the villain’s plot is more or less set, a way to stop or at least neutralize him is in place, it’s time to get the heroes going. Two rogues, a mage apprentice, a dwarf fighter, and an elf ranger discover the scheme and work together to recover the MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning before the evil wizard can overthrow the queen. Let’s use a plot point from the original movie, the apprentice discovers that her mentor is part of the evil scheme. Instead of discovering this after stopping two half-competent thieves, she does this and then discovers them looting the lab. This gives her leverage; help her stop the evil wizard or be turned over to her mentor. The rogues, being greedy but decent people, help because while the kingdom, a magocracy, benefits only wizards with non-magical types on the edge of society, having an evil wizard in charge is a change for the worse.
A mage and two rogues aren’t an effective combat force. Earlier editions of D&D saw magic-users who could die if their cat familiar played too rough. Rogues do their best fighting when their opponents can’t see them. The group takes stock and heads to the best place to find someone who is good in a fight, a seedy tavern. “You all meet in a tavern” is a cliché, but works to get players together fast. By choosing a dive where brawls are known to occur nightly, the group can invoke the cliché without engaging it. They’re looking for the last man standing, who turns out to be the dwarf fighter. They explain what’s happening, tell the dwarf there will be lots of fighting, and work out the next step, which is to somehow summon a good dragon. The dwarf knows someone, a ranger, and leads the group to the elf. At this point, the group is as connected as it can get, and time’s wasting.
The dungeon is the location where each character can show off their abilities, though this needs to be subtle. It’s also a chance to bring in some classic monsters that wouldn’t necessarily fit into the plot, though the choices need to be careful. As tempting as it is to toss in a rust monster to scare the dwarf fighter, the creature can look a little silly. The rust monster was based off a toy that Gary Gygax used as a miniature. But, if the rust monster can be brought in and made fearsome, it is iconic to the game and easier to avoid or defeat than a beholder.
The MacGuffin of Good Dragon Summoning now in their hands, the heroes rush back to the capital, but dark clouds loom overhead. The wizard finishes controlling his dragon and sends it out to wreak havoc on the city. The heroes must now use the MacGuffin to call a good dragon while fighting off the wizard’s lieutenants and minions. It’s close, but the good dragon arrives and attacks the evil one. The heroes slip into the city as the wizard closes in on the queen, leading to the final fight. Pyrotechnics go off as the heroes battle the villain while the dragons fight in the background, reflecting the fortune of the heroes. Ultimately, the heroes win, the kingdom is saved, and triumphant music plays.
Plot aside, that leaves the effects, another point of failure. By reducing the number of dragons, that should give the effects team both the time and money to focus on just two instead of two flocks. The dungeon can be built on a set instead of on location, unless a decent catacomb can be found for less. Some set pieces from the original are lost, including the Thieves’ Guild maze, which was a high point of the film. That maze, though, just duplicates the dungeon, and can be let go. The final battle needs to reflect spells that are in the game, and the mage apprentice should run out of spells or be down to utility types like light or mage hand.
Will the above work? It depends on the cast, crew, and budget. Wrath of the Dragon God did show that a D&D movie is possible, provided that the plot can handle the effects budget available. A less ambitious plot could help, as could reducing the time spent on subplots that lead nowhere.
Next week, the June news round up.
* Ninth level magic-user spell that summons a meteor shower on an area that used to have opponents in it.
** A TV series, Shadowhunters, is in the works, however.
*** Besides, D&D has already had a TV series, albeit animated.
The new year brings new news.
Death Note: The Musical, coming to South Korea in 2015.
The anime /Death Note/ is being turned into a musical with music by Frank Wildhorn (Broadway play Jekyll and Hyde, Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”) and Jack Murphy. This isn’t the first musical about a serial killer. Sweeney Todd was at one point a ballet.
Warner Bros, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in negotiations for Sandman.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt may star and co-produce the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Gordon-Levitt may even direct the feature. David S. Goyer will also be on board as co-producer.
Sweetpea Entertainment moves for partial dismissal of D&D rights case.
Hasbro has been trying to regain the movie rights to Dungeons & Dragons from Sweetpea Entertainment. Sweetpea was responsible for the 2000 movie plus the far better direct-to-DVD sequel and was working on a script based on Chainmail, D&D‘s progenitor game. At issue is who currently holds the movie rights. The original contract required Sweetpea to release a sequel within five years of the original movie, but Hasbro does not count the direct-to-DVD works while Sweetpea does.
Ghost writing and spin-offs; what happens after an author has died.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Now, though, with best sellers and adaptation rights bringing in money to publishers, the desire to continue an author’s series is growing.
Star Wars comic license being given to Marvel
Not that unexpected, considering that Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm. Dark Horse had a great twenty-year run, though, and set a standard that will be difficult to match.
With the changeover, comes the fun of working out continuity.
Lucasfilm’s Leland Chee (@HolocronKeeper on Twitter) heads the group tasked with getting the canon straight. The story group will have to work out how the movies, TV series, comics, books, role-playing games, video games, and toys all work together. Interestingly, West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game is still an influence on Star Wars despite WEG’s bankruptcy in 1998.
Magic: The Gathering being adapted as a movie.
This isn’t as dire as it sounds. As a collectable card game, Magic: The Gathering has a setting that has been developed since 1993, and storylines in each expansion set. As long as Fox, the studio making the movie, can keep the familiar elements and introduce them to people who haven’t played while still keeping fans of the game not-annoyed, the adaptation stands a chance.
The Wonder Woman prequel TV series has been cancelled by the CW. The network left the possibility of a future Wonder Woman series open. It looks more that the CW doesn’t want to botch the series and is being cautious.
Batman finally to be released on DVD.
The Adam West TV series will, at long last, see a DVD release. Warner and Fox have worked out the legal differences over rights. No specific date has been set.
Batman/Superman movie delayed until 2016.
Warner delayed the release of the movie, still untitled, until May 2016. Start of production won’t start until second quarter of this year.
It’s a new year, it’s a new review. To ease back into reviewing, let’s look at somewhat lighter fare.
In 1984, the idea of a pre-packaged campaign world for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was still new. TSR had a house settings, The World of Greyhawk, based on Gary Gygax’s home campaign. The idea first came from Tracy and Laura Hickman, who wrote two modules for TSR hoping to be paid for them after Tracy lost his job; instead, he was hired. He worked with several people at the company, including Margaret Weis, decided to create a new setting, one not seen before, one where TSR could tie together a campaign setting, a series of modules, and a tie-in novel trilogy. The result was Dragonlance.
To make Krynn, the world where the Dragonlance campaign would be set, different, the creators removed all divine magic from the world’s recent history. The result of the removal would mean that classes that depended on powers granted by deities – clerics, paladins, and druids – would be severely hampered at the start. The first modules, the name for published adventures, focused on the return of the gods of Krynn and set up the epic battle between Good and Evil. The modules’ events were mirrored by the first Dragonlance trilogy, written by Weis and Hickman.
The novels and the modules were based on the playtest campaign, where TSR staffers took the roles of the main characters – Tanis Half-Elven, Caramon and Raistlin Majere, Goldmoon, Flint, Tasslehoff, Tika, Laurana – and the results noted. Some changes occurred. Tasslehoff, one of the halfling-like race of kender, had managed to pick up a ring of invisibility; the writers realized that the combination would get a little to close to a certain hobbit for Legal’s comfort. The first novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, hit the New York Times bestseller list.* The novel did two things; it let players, including the Dungeon Master, get a feel for both the world and the plotlinem; and, it served as an introduction to AD&D to people who had never played but were curious.
A lot of the success of Dragonlance came from the characters. All of them were flawed in some way, and not all of them were good.** There was friction within the group, characters made poor decisions that came from their motives and goals, yet the fellowship could still come together to thwart evil. The setting expanded, in game material, in novels and short stories, in video games, and in comics. When D&D went to its third edition with new owner Wizards of the Coast, Margaret Weis Productions licensed and released a compatible version of Krynn.
In 2008, Paramount licensed the rights to make an animated Dragonlance feature from WotC. The movie, based on Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was to be the first of a trilogy based on the original Chronicles. With Kiefer Sutherland as Raistlin and Lucy Lawless as Goldmoon, the production team went for star power to draw in viewers while filling the rest of the cast with experienced voice actors***. The animation team made sure that the characters resembled their likenesses from the Larry Elmore covers. However, the movie had some issues. The animation, a mix of 2D and 3D techniques, clashed. The main characters were 2D, but had to fight such three-dimensional monsters as draconians and dragons. The 2D animation also became choppy in parts, jumping without a in-between work. The differences were jarring. The visuals for several spells also didn’t match the what the original descriptions in the Player’s Handbook. In particular, Fireball doesn’t smash into targets; it explodes instead. The Fireball spell as cast by Fizban resembled the lower level spell, Flaming Sphere.
Another problem was the running time; ninety minutes was just not long enough to cover Dragons of Autumn Twilight properly. The novel spent time with world-building, setting up the intricate balance between the different races and nations, introducing the elements that made Krynn a different campaign setting. One character’s death was moved to a different part of the story after the passage through Mount Nevermind, the home of the tinker gnomes, was removed entirely. The death becomes far more dramatic, though. Insufficient running time is an ongoing problem for novels depicting epics. Books can pack in a lot of information in their pages; it takes skill to be able to figure out what can and cannot be removed, and is much easier when there is no Book 2, 3, or, in the case of A Game of Thrones, 7. Blade Runner and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World both managed to extract the core story from the original works. Unfortunately, Dragons of Autumn Twilight became shallower with the removal of material.
A third issue came from the rating. Dragons of Autumn Twilight is a swords and sorcery tale. Swords and axes mean bloody corpses, and blunt weapons like maces and staves aren’t much better. The movie received a PG-13 rating because of the “fantasy action violence”, and while charred, featureless corpses were allowed, blood was reduced, to the point where swords were clean even after striking goblins. Fortunately, the draconians could be stabbed; on death, the creatures turned to stone. Still, to avoid the R rating, the blood needed to be cleaned up some.
With Dragons of Autumn Twilight not faring well, it appears that the next two books, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning will not be adapted, at least as animated features. Cindi Rice, the co-executive producer, estimated that a live-action adaptation of the book would cost around US$75 million. While that is far less than many of the blockbusters that failed in 2013, Dragonlance doesn’t have the namespace among the general public that would get studios to take the risk to finance the adaptation.
The animated Dragons of Autumn Twilight comes out as a “nice try”. Ignoring the animation issues, the running time was the biggest drawback, not giving viewers the time to properly experience the setting or the story.
Next week, the adaptational news round up.
* TSR’s publishing arm did well with fiction and was willing to take risks that other publishers wouldn’t. The Edgar-winning novel, Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, was first published by TSR after McCrumb passed her manuscript along to Margaret Weis.
** Or even Good; Raistlin, in particular, started with a Neutral alignment and shifted to Evil over the course of the novels.
*** This isn’t to say that the leads weren’t inexperienced. Both Sutherland and Lawless had a number of voice acting prior to Dragons of Autumn Twilight, though they weren’t primarily known for such work.