Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (Courtney Solomon, 2001) is an adaptation of the oldest and most popular English language role-playing game.

It is a worthless piece of cinema and a worthless adaptation of its source material.

Personal information about film reviewers is normally unnecessary. Who is a failed filmmaker? Who came to cinema late in life from another arena and has no understanding of the art form? Who has done jail time? All these things are unimportant. As any details of this reviewer’s personal life would be…normally. This time out though, my role is not just a reviewer offended by bad cinema, although I am that. I am writing this piece as a player, writer, and editor of Role-playing games for over 15 years.

The biggest flaw with the film is not its crippled script or flat direction or flailing acting. It is its basic conception.

Follow me to Understanding Role-playing Games. This is not an easy task. Ten Role-players will provide 10 different explanations of their hobby. In addition it is often difficult to help the uninitiated overcome their preconceptions about RPGs (brevity encourages me to use this common contraction). Role-playing has been accused of brainwashing, violence and suicide causation, cultism and Satanism

In fact it is simply a form of unscripted free form drama, designed as a mild distraction from reality, a more social form of video gaming if you will. A slightly more serious Theater Sports or Whose Line Is It Anyway? a more elaborate, mature version of the schoolyard’s Cops and Robbers. Each participant plays a character in a fictional world, react to and interact with events and people in that world. This all takes place around a table, or similar arrangement, although on occasion some whole body acting is required. Randomizing (e.g. dice) is sometimes used to add an element of dramatic uncertainty to the character’s labors. The performers are also their own audience.

A huge percentage of both good and bad RPGs “borrow” heavily from other sources. White Wolf’s “classic myth” series, in particular their massive hit Vampire; The Masquerade owes much to Anne Rice’s work and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 should have been sued until it bled by Neuromancer author William Gibson. Conspiracy X is a thinly veiled “tribute” to The X-Files. In addition there are a wealth of licensed products enabling players to actively participate in their favorite milieu; Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Chaosium’s award winning Cthulhu and Elric cycles and Dune to name a few. Dungeons and Dragons itself boisterously co-opted entire worlds from Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings, Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books and anything else author Gary Gygax had read since his adolescence.

So what we have here is a game that offers very little in the way of a distinctive milieu and relies on active human interaction and the spontaneous flow of ideas. This has been adapted into a passive, pre-scripted visual presentation. This is deeply stupid, not to mention risky. However an enjoyable narrative, engaging characters, spectacular visuals and competent direction could have triumphed over these shortcomings.

But we do not live in that world.

From the first misstep (“Dungeons and Dragons? Never heard of it, here’s 20 million.”) this film is the cinematic equivalent of a pelvis-shattering tumble down darkened cellar stairs. And it left me wanting to kick the corpse.

It is badly written. Not “I’m Ed Wood, and I have a different frame of reference” bad, rather “I’m not getting paid as much as I’d like for this, I don’t understand fantasy and you’re all social misfits anyway, so who cares” bad. And that’s the worst kind; if you screw it up but you cared, well at least you cared, right? Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright can add this to their history of spastic gaming movies, having previously participated in a rewrite of the inept Jumanji.

The characters are either ridiculous parodies or poorly explained ciphers. Marlon Wayans’ Snails (the other thief) is an incongruous amalgam of racial stereotypes, half sword-toting gangsta, half effeminate black Jerry Springer guest. Ridley (the first thief and protagonist) is blessed with the best acting in the film courtesy of Justin Whalin. He isn’t blessed with any kind of depth or consistency however and almost everything about his character is left unexplained, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make the character mysterious. We never learn what drives him to effortlessly excel over everyone and everything he encounters. Other thieves, warrior and mages all fall before him. Does he thirst for vengeance after years of torture, like Conan? Is he gifted with an ancient mystical knowledge like Luke Skywalker? Is he perhaps more than he seems, like Bladerunner’s Rick Deckard? I don’t know but that’s okay because neither do the screenwriters. Ridley is just good at this stuff, okay? The other thing he’s good at is pseudo-political whining. Ridley’s confused (and confusing) objections to the world’s unfair and frankly impossible political system is quickly tiring and a giant step backwards for fantasy socialism.

In this badly thought out world, we are presented with a situation where a young Monarch is fighting for the rights of the uneducated, disempowered commoners (whose fault is that your majesty?) against the greedy, self made wizards. Are these mages born to power or can anybody join the school? If it’s the latter, then why is everyone so resentful? If they are part of a dynastic bloodline then why is the Princess opposed to them? This is reminiscent of George Lucas’ Star Wars at its most flailingly idiotic. Why is there any kind of political content in what should have been a straight ahead, episodic, adventure film? Is this an attempt to appeal to the more socially aware members of this film’s non-existent audience?

The mages themselves are disturbingly inconsistent, politically unaligned they seem to follow whoever yells at them the loudest during meetings. The magic is represented by a lot of tossing about of fairy dust and inexplicable hollering. All of this magical might is totally ineffectual against a pair of incompetent thieves who act like escapees from Gilligan’s Island.

Gilligan’s Island, just waiting for an adaptation, isn’t it Hollywood?

The film’s efforts to be light-hearted fun fall as flat as it’s darker moments. The balance it is drunkenly striving for can be achieved; An American Werewolf In London, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and its dumb younger brother The Mummy all prove that. But this script would have hamstrung almost any director and Courtney Solomon’s obvious uncertainty only makes the situation worse.

The screenwriting even has some grammatical errors, or perhaps I misunderstood the line “You wouldn’t happen to be single do you?” Maybe the “Do You?” was an offer of sexual favors.

But what about the rest of the film? It can’t all be bad, surely? Really? Why can’t it?

The acting, with the exception of Ridley, offers a full range from merely incompetent to actually dangerous. And you know you’re in trouble from the start. In the opening scene the major antagonist, Profion (Jeremy Irons) strides into his underground dungeon and prepares to cast an elaborate magical ritual that will set the film’s entire (confused) plot in motion. Unfortunately the direction and Jeremy Irons’ performance are more reminiscent of a man striding out of the shower in his bathrobe and preparing to eat half a grapefruit for breakfast. But Irons picks it up from there, by the end of the film he has chewed on enough scenery for 10 sequels. Isn’t it fun! I got paid a lot and I don’t care and neither should you! Look at me, I’m so jaded I can’t even overact entertainingly.

Thora Birch, fine in American Beauty not only looks like she stepped out of a different film but possibly even a different species.

Bruce Payne’s Damodar is a new member for life of the Un-frightening Villain Club; our motto; “if I actually said my tag line in real life, you’d bitch slap me.” Founding member Anthony Hopkins.

The characters all behave exactly as if they are being badly Role-played by a group of Cola-ripped teenagers in a midnight gaming session. Great to do, bad to watch.

Technically the film is almost as bad. Like most mid-budget American films it has a murky sound mix. It is hobbled by an endless stream of increasingly irritating CGI flyovers of cityscapes that look like they are straight out of a computer game cut scene. The music. Well luckily we’re all idiots so the signifying of every event with overbearing musical cues will come in very handy.

Like all “first wave” RPGs Dungeons and Dragons has a lot of focus on conflict and combat. So the action scenes at least should be okay, right? No, you fool. Crippled by fear of an anti-violence backlash, the filmmakers present us with fights resolved by clenched fists or the flat of a sword or the pommel of an axe. The only creatures to actually suffer realistic violence are the spectacularly unrealistic Dragons, who are universally mistreated by everyone in the film, ally and foe alike.

More than any other RPG, Dungeons and Dragons is about meeting, fighting and killing creatures, literally hundreds of monsters have been created for the game. Naturally the film fumbles that ball as well, we are given a brief glimpse of some non-combative Tolkein-lifted Orcs, a swag of shiny, fake looking dragons and some emasculated Beholders. If you don’t know the game the presentation of these creatures will fail to push any buttons. If you do know it, you’ll just be irritated.

As I watched this I tried to imagine who it was aimed at. If I were 13 would I have enjoyed it? Maybe. But I would be at another film, because I would have no idea what Dungeons and Dragons is. A work of art (or craft in this case) need have no audience in mind (hopefully it will find or even make its own) but a commercial venture must know its target. This film will completely miss the adolescent audience whose understanding of Role-playing is limited to the very different style found in computer games. Committed Role-players have in the main moved on to more challenging and deeper games than Dungeons and Dragons, so it will hold little interest for them. 40 year old hard-line fans will be alienated by the film’s stumbling lack of commitment to its setting and its frequent outright ignorance of the game. Non-Role-playing fantasy fans will stay away in droves with their beloved Lord Of The Rings only a few months away, or perhaps they will just rent Dragonslayer again. Any anticipated broader audience has no terms of reference for fantasy action other than Xena, and the only show to successfully pull off Xena is Xena.

Despite the fact that Hollywood sees them as the Holy Grail, adaptations are difficult to make well, or profitably. The successful ones either have little to do with their original, like Charlie’s Angels, or are from a source only remembered by a small group of die-hard aficionados, like The Addams Family. Of course this begs the question, why not make an original piece? In the land where “no one knows anything” it doesn’t matter how many cash-hemorrhaging wastes of celluloid like Wing Commander, Wild, Wild West or Battlefield Earth (tremble humans, for we already have a sequel in the works) are released to thunderous disclaim and sweeping audience un-interest, the fearful studio execs will still okay them. Because they don’t understand good cinema or original creativity. Oddly, I expected better from New Line, but I guess that’s my problem isn’t it?

So in the end we have a bad adaptation of a mediocre product. Dungeons and Dragons, despite its still semi-healthy sales, is largely a dead issue in the Role-playing community. Its resolutely old-fashioned “first wave” approach is quaint and even vaguely embarrassing in a market of non-confrontational, systemless, free form, troupe-styled “fourth wave” games. The game should hold the same place in history that punk does. Initially intense, groundbreaking and cutting edge and without it we’d all still be listening to disco (or playing board games/parlor games/tabletop miniatures). But like punk, Dungeons and Dragons should be integrated, absorbed, learnt from and left as a fond memory.

In the Dungeons and Dragons film we have a watered down adaptation of a watered down adaptation. Of course the masses of people that found the dumbed-down parody of Scream too much of a challenge and flocked to its even dumber parody Scary Movie, prove the financial viability of this concept.

But what Scream at least had, was competence.

I’m of the opinion that any kind of “true” adaptation would have been difficult to achieve for even a master filmmaker. First-time Director/Producer Courtney Solomon is apparently a long time Role-playing fan; he has done the past-time and cinema a great a disservice with this cynical and lazy piece. His love of the genre would have been better served by an original fantasy work. Something western cinema could well do with.

About The Author

Mark Angeli is a filmmaker by desire, a new media commentator on demand and a future-ethics lecturer by necessity.