From dragon dung to box office gold: one studio's journey

Dungeons & DragonsWho would have thought that a movie like Dungeons & Dragons (2000) could still hold a surprise after all this time? As a former player of D&D, I handed over my gold pieces to see the movie back in the day and was, well, overwhelmingly underwhelmed. That would have been the first and last time I watched the movie if not for the review copy of the  Blu-ray double feature of Dungeons & Dragons and its sequel (oh yes, it had a sequel) Wrath of the Dragon God (2005) which crossed my desk recently. And I’m glad it did, because I learned something surprising about the movie: the name of the studio behind its production.

New Line Cinema.

It’s not an earth shattering surprise, I know, but it is interesting that back in the 90s New Line Cinema had the rights to adapt two fantasy icons for the big screen, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the most loved and widely read work of fantasy fiction (with the exception of the Bible of course) and the granddaddy of fantasy role playing games, D&D. Within one year of releasing Dungeons & Dragons to widely and deservedly scathing reviews, the same studio was making fantasy cinema history with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Go figure.

Although the budget for Dungeons & Dragons didn’t compare to the financial resources at Peter Jackson’s disposal, New Line wasn’t skimping either with the US$35 million available to director Courtney Solomon, the man ultimately responsible for putting the dung in Dungeons & Dragons  the movie. The telling difference between these two effects-laden fantasies is not the budget however, it’s that Solomon’s movie gives precedence to effects over story whereas Jackson (for the most part) uses effects to tell a story. It’s down hill for Dungeons & Dragons from there. With little thought or effort going into the script and with only the bare bones of a coherent plot and some very cheesy lines to work with, the actors seem to have taken it upon themselves to add some meat to the bones by hamming things up spectacularly.

Jeremy Irons Unfortunately, despite their best efforts (in particular Jeremy Irons as the evil mage Profion, an actor who knows a thing or two about hamming up villainous roles), a diet of cheese and ham is very unsatisfying fare for most audiences.

Few adaptations of games for the big screen successfully negotiate the competing demands of creating a compelling story that also does justice to the players’ experience of the game, and in fact those that do succeed tend to focus on the game’s premise rather than its game play (Prince of Persia is an exception, I think, as it managed to capture the game play fairly well and present a reasonable story). Solomon tried to do both, to tell a story and pay tribute to the game play, and he failed spectacularly. One reason for this is that D&D game play is characterised by a vast and complex system of rules and the attempt to shoe-horn the role player’s experience into a movie simply led to events and situations that feel terribly contrived.

Well, that’s my jaded view of Dungeons & Dragons the movie and its sequel. On a more positive note, and notwithstanding my criticisms, there is some real appeal in these movies, at least for players of the game due (not a little ironically) to the many references to the game. Better still, the Blu-ray double feature includes some interesting specials, most particularly an interview with the late, great Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons gaming system (The Arc: A conversation with Gary Gygax). The Blu-ray release is timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons Online (ddo.com), which is apparently the world’s “best free to play massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG)”. If you’re a player of the MMORPG, you might be interested to know that the Blu-ray set also includes a D&D Online game points gift card.

There is an audience for these movies however, and to be fair I’m going to let Warner Bros. have its say about the Blu-ray debut of the special double feature:

“The imaginary world of the most popular fantasy role-playing game ever comes to life in this special-effects-filled adventure. In the Empire of Izmer, magic is the key to power in both the supernatural and political realms. The Mages are a sect who know the secrets of magic and use it to hold sway over the masses. The youthful Empress Savina wants to use her powers to bring justice and prosperity to all, but Profion is an evil Mage who wants to use his knowledge of magic to overthrow Savina and establish his own despotic rule. Through deceitful means, Profion wins away the special scepter that allows him to control the nation’s Golden Dragons; Savina’s only hope to recover the scepter and the rule of Izmer is to obtain the Rod of Savrille, a talisman that will give her powers over the Red Dragons, even more powerful than their golden counterparts. As Savina sets out to gain control of the Red Dragons, she gains a number of unlikely allies.

Who will be the dominator of worlds? Destiny belongs to those who dare in Dungeons & Dragons, a thunderous fantasy adventure inspired by the popular role-play game. Thora Birch and Marlon Wayans are among the forces of good defending the Empire of Izmer from the diabolical grasp of mage Profion (Jeremy Irons). The past is prologue when the evil returns years later to avenge what transpired in Izmer. Can five young stalwarts thwart the fiendish traps, spectral ghouls and mighty armies of hell? The answer and the thrilling spectacle comes in Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God.”

The Blu-ray double feature of Dungeons & Dragons 1 & 2  was released on15 February and is also now available On Demand and For Download (Including, in the US, on iTunes: http://bit.ly/WBD_Dungeons).

You too can own it on Blu-ray. Go on, you know you want to!

Dungeons & Dragons

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