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 an 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 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.
This article was originally published to Muse Hack.
Thanks to our friends at Muse Hack for letting us share this content.
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