Hasbro, and its subsidiary Wizards of the Coast is suing Sweatpea Entertainment over who currently controls the film rights to Dungeons and Dragons.Does Hasbro have a case? Sweetpea Entertainment (Courtney Solomon's company that acquired the rights in 1994) has released two other films during this time without so much as a word from Hasbro. So my thoughts on the issue would be that Hasbro's silence on the two later films would be enough to give Sweetpea the all clear. However Hasbro is trying to claim a differentiation between a theatrical release and a movie that was made for T.V.
But the question among fans of fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons, and role playing is not about who should make the movie. The real question is this; are Hasbro and Sweetpea really fighting over nothing more than a polished turd? Which while interesting is still a shiny piece of crap.
I'm not saying that there can never be a good Dungeons and Dragons Movie. I am sure many people thought that there could never be a good Lord of the Rings film, but many years and awards later we have seen it can be done.
So before I give up all hope I have a few ideas on how a quality D&D movie could be made. But first things first let's go back to the beginning and look at what went wrong.
The first Dungeons and Dragons Movie
We can break a film down into three levels; the script, the acting/directing, and of course the special effects.
After having watched it and combed through a multitude of reviews in which people lamented on how they would never get back the time spent watching this movie I would agree that this movie failed on all three levels.
No one was expecting an award winning script. There are certain aspects of fantasy that are standard, and not everyone is able to turn a trope on its head. But this movie doesn't even strive for originality. Its stock situations; saving a kingdom, the naive boy becoming the hero, the black side kick (who many people compared to Stepin Fetchit) were so cliché as to be insulting.
Even worse there were times it felt like scenes were actually lifted from other movies and just given a fantasy edge. One scene was reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Considering the vast quantity of material available from TSR as source material, to steal from other popular movies was just lazy. Or were the editors and director so enamored with their project to not see the similarities?
The fact that they didn't use any apparent source material is where this script fails. TSR created hundreds of books, supplements, and manuals to help with storytelling and world building. And yet the writers ignored any of these tools and gave us a sort of amorphic world in which we are not really sure how Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and Humans interact with each other. The Lord of The Rings Trilogy gave us a sense that this world existed before the movie, and would exist after. That this was a world of ancient struggles, and we were only visiting it for just a brief moment. The Dungeons and Dragons movie does the exact opposite. The world felt very much like it was created for the film, which it more than likely was. Furthermore, while we are told a little about the politics and the class struggles of this world we as an audience are never really given a reason to care.
I do get the sense that there was an attempt to capture the varied emotions and experiences of the gaming table by creating tonal shifts. But the writers failed miserably, and we are left with a movie that inexplicably changes tone in the third act, leaving us all a bit confused as to what movie we are watching.
With such an awful script you could hope that it would be saved by the actors and the Director. No such luck here. The Director, Courtney Solomon a person who having never been to film school… or possibly any school, had no business directing or producing this movie. Courtney Solomon secured the option for the film, the reasons he managed to gain these rights are perhaps lost to history, as there are a number of different stories. In the end movie goers and D&Ders alike were let down.
As a side note I once read an interview where it turns out that when they were first shopping this movie a round James Cameron approached TSR at the time asking if his cinematographer could direct it. Lorraine Williams (one of the worst people to happen to Dungeons and Dragons in my opinion) turned him down. I have been looking but am unable to find this interview again.
The dialogue felt chunky and awkward in the actor’s mouths. Like they weren’t familiar with the words they were saying. This ties directly into world building, you can’t expect us to believe you live in this world when you don’t believe it yourself.
Perhaps just as distracting are the extras who feel more like they are meandering for the sake of the camera, when they should be the denizens of this fantasy world.
Visual EffectsWhere to begin? As a fantasy epic the visual effects should help drive the film. Relying heavily on early 90's CGI for the vast city scape and magical affects, we are left with the feeling that we are watching a video game (cheesy would be a compliment). Now I will admit I did enjoy the dragons, but the dragons are all of fifteen minutes of the film. Other than the city scape and the dragons there is actually very few special effects. And what visual stimulus we get that should help with the atmosphere only leaves us wondering (it was noted in one review that a dwarf in the bazaar looks like he is carrying a plastic axe).
A clichéd script, uninspired actors, special effects that aren’t worthy of an Atari Game come together to ruin this film and cast a taint on the Dungeons and Dragons film franchise.
The Second Dungeons and Dragon's movie
I don’t how or why but for some reason they actually made a sequel to the first Dungeons and Dragons movie. Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, was made for a fraction of the budget of the first one. And in some ways this direct to television model worked out better.
This sequel takes place one hundred years after the first in the same amorphic world. Where the previous script failed to take advantage of the source material this one does not. The equipment used by the main characters would be recognized by even the most casual gamer. Even how spells are used and the behavior of the villains and various monsters all follow closely with the source material. In fact the script follows too closely giving us archetypes of the classes instead of well-rounded characters. Even going so far as to almost openly explain to us what is in the players hand book.
The most common comment I noticed among all of the reviews was that it felt like watching a table top game in progress, where the character classes utilize their strengths to overcome obstacles.
The pacing is much better, albeit much, much slower. But in the end it did suffer plot wholes that only a D&Der would be able to fill in from their vast store of knowledge.
The casting was much improved. Though none of the main actors were well known they definitely could pull off the stilted dialogue. The direction was better too. I felt far more attached to these characters then I did with those of the original movie.
But whatever points this film gained in acting and direction it loses in special and visual effects. The overall feel is that of bad cosplay, coupled with computer effects generated on someone’s mac.
The overall impression is of a made for SyFy movie. Everything looks cheaply made (including the sets) and that it was taped using couple of hundred dollar Canons.
The Third Dungeons and Dragons Movie
I didn’t watch this movie when it came out, but I forced myself to watch it earlier today and tried to keep an open mind. I actually became excited with the opening Epilogue.
This third film in the Dungeons and Dragons line has little to do with the previous two, and has a darker and more adult tenor with violence, nudity, and sex. If given a better treatment this film could have been THE Dungeons and Dragons movie. The script has have given us an amorphic world (again), with some history, but it still feels very much crafted for the movie. World building is pretty much nonexistent.
The protagonist is supposed to go through dynamic shifts that happen too quickly, and as always the characters are mostly archetypes and stock. The only exception is the love interest that apparently falls in love with the protagonist’s penis. At least that is my assumption because she has sex with him and suddenly she betrays her master for his love. There is not enough time for the epiphanies and realizations to happen within the time frame set by the film.
And like the second film, the script itself relies too much on its audience’s familiarity with the genre. SO we are given classes and races... but really have no idea what that means in the grander scheme of things in this world. Nor are we given any indication that the world exists outside of what this group is trying to accomplish.
I enjoyed the actor’s portrayals with the exception of the protagonist, who sounded mostly like a whiny little boy who didn’t get his way. There are of course just as many reviews of this film that believe the acting was completely atrocious, though I think some of this may be a result of really bad dialogue. I may have just been enamored with the fact that Dungeons and Dragons had sex, nudity, and prostitutes.
This third film had the lowest budget of them all and it shows. The costumes all resemble Halloween costumes, and many of the weapons look like they are either foam or plastic.
The set designer seemed to switch between using a set recycled from the original Star Trek series, and using interiors inside a museum or government building.
Perhaps the most egregious assault on the franchise is the way in which the battles are played out. They are at best poorly choreographed, with better battle scenes being simulated by little boys and girls outside playing pretend.
Its one saving grace is that computer effects having gotten both cheaper, and more sophisticated.
What Can Be Done?
I have no clue who will win the lawsuit, though I have to say considering the train wreck that Solomon made out of the entire franchise I am routing for Wizards of the Coast. Nor do I know what either side will do or have done when writing the script. I only know what I would do.
First I would have to look at the difficulties of writing the script, what obstacles stand in my way.
One of the obstacles is definition. What is a Dungeons and Dragons movie? For that I have to decide what makes me, or any others, love Dungeons and Dragons, and what it this game is at its heart. Dungeons and dragons is community. It is a group of people coming together in common cause and sharing something. Transferring that feeling of camaraderie, community, and shared experience to the screen is perhaps the biggest hurdle.
But it is not impossible. One way this can be done is with well-rounded and complex characters. Ideally a character would come into being that a potential audience would see some of themselves in. And Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro has created many tools for helping with character creation. I would start by using these tools. So right away we have characters being generated while using the tools available. Using this method the characters created would hopefully give them the appropriate feel.
My next step would be to give them a world, and not just any world I made up. Wizard's has over half a dozen worlds to choose from. Why reinvent the wheel and struggle with world building when these worlds have been built and have gained an incredible degree of depth, detail, and history.
And finally the main plot. I would go through many of the modules and use one of those.
Now that I have characters, a world, and a plot (gained from a module) I would blend it all together, and of course cut out what didn't work.
And after that, I would edit, and edit, and edit, and peer edit, and edit. Honestly I wonder how much peer editing the previous scripts went through. Next would come something else I don't think the movies went through, seated readings. Have some people sit around and read each part, while others sit and listen. This is an awesome way to check pacing, plot holes, and gaps, particularly if those who are listening are not familiar with the subject matter. The editing process is just as important as the writing process. And in the end can only make for a stronger script.
With the script fixed now I have to deal with both the acting and direction. And sad to say there really is no reason for the poor acting, or the poor direction. Film and acting schools produce quality individuals every year who, for all intents and purposes, are starving for work. SO instead of hiring friends actually hold auditions and hire these talented individuals.
And of course finally the visual effects. Where to begin... Well if I can't afford the effect, rewrite the script so I can use the effect I can afford. Second there are times when refferring to something happening s just as good as showing it. If I can't afford decent gore for torture don't show the torture, but I can let the audience hear the torture. Computer effects have become cheaper to use, but there should also be a balance between modeling and computer effects.
And never ever use plastic weapons. Ever. They look tacky. If I could only afford so many replica swords and such than I would have to cut down on when and how they are used.
Looking back I think it all comes down to the script. If the script is written well, edited, and geared for a lower budget to begin with then making it a decent film at a higher budget should be easy.