With the news that Chris Pine will be starring in the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie from Paramount (coming in May 2022), folks have started to comment on the viability of D&D films in general. One specific criticism I’ve seen recently is that D&D is not enough to carry a film on its own; unless it shows the characters as players as well as their in-world characters, such a film is inevitably just going to be a generic fantasy film with D&D attached to the name.
Now, there’s some merit to this idea. Certainly the earlier D&D films were just this; generic and poorly executed fantasy films set in a quasi-medieval setting.
Of course, the “real world players brought into a fantasy world” trope has itself been done before. It was the core concept behind novels such as Quag Keep and the Guardians of the Flame series. It was most famously used in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series in the 1980’s (with the tweak that the characters weren’t playing an RPG, but riding a ride in an amusement park).
But I would argue that an appreciation for and understanding of the original source material (in this case the D&D rules) could turn a D&D movie into something more than generic fantasy. There are more than enough tropes that are specific to D&D that could make it identifiable to an audience which is also familiar with them.
For instance, one of the central identifying mechanics of D&D is Vancian magic. That is, spells have to be memorized, that there are a limited number of them that any given spell caster can cast per day, and that they have very specific effects. This could give such a film a very different look and feel compared to something like Conan the Barbarian, which had a very “soft” sort of magic that just sort of happened because of the will of the spell caster.
Another very recognizable D&D trope is that of the character class archetypes. Again, this is something that Dungeons & Dragons cartoon did explicitly (perhaps a bit too explicitly), but it shouldn’t be that hard to create characters which are recognizable representatives of the classic D&D classes; fighter, thief, wizard, cleric, etc.
There are other elements that could brand an otherwise generic fantasy film as a D&D film. There are iconic monsters like the beholder, magic items like the bag of holding, etc. Of course, none of that will matter to people who are completely unfamiliar with the game, but those aren’t the people that are going to care about Dungeons & Dragons being in the title, either.
One other thing to consider is the long shadow that D&D has cast over the fantasy genre in general over the last 40 years or so. Things that we now think of as commonplace fantasy tropes (monstrous races like orcs organized into identifiable societies, or a quasi-medieval setting, for instance) were either invented by or cemented into the popular imagination by the game. D&D-specific elements that 40 years ago wouldn’t be considered “generic fantasy” would be so thought of today, precisely because D&D has become in many ways the definition of “generic fantasy”.
All in all, I’m going to put the new Dungeons & Dragons movie in my “cautiously optimistic” column until I see more about it. Films in general, and fantasy films in particular, have advanced a lot in the last 20 years. I could see a D&D movie working.
Or it could be another Book of Vile Darkness. You never know…