Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Frat Boy Fantasy and D&D at the Movies

I was planning on writing a simple book review for today's post until I started seeing articles about a plan to make another D&D movie. It sounds like things are still early in the process, but history, combined with the information coming out about the project does not bode well.

A piece on Deadline Hollywood lists the motivation for the project as follows: "Given the heightened interest in sword, sorcery, chivalry and cool creatures within Warner Bros with the HBO series Game Of Thrones and the ongoing Peter Jackson-directed adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it is expected that the studio will expend the necessary resources to create a world around a well-established brand which has generated north of $1 billion in books and merchandise since it was launched in 1974. The studio is going out to filmmakers and I’m told they are treating it as a big priority."

Sure, great. Several fantasy genre pieces have been wildly successful lately, but the only people who think it is just because of genre are ill-informed suits. "You know what the kids love these days? The Harry Potters and dragons!"

The problem is, the core market for a D&D movie (i.e. nerds) are not drawn by genre alone. In fact, I think that in a lot of ways, nerds are more picky about having their genre pieces delivered in a well crafted way than the public at large. My quaintly conventional stepfather will gladly go see whatever studio tripe has enough explosions and star power and enjoy it regardless of quality. My nerd friends, not so much. The reason Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have been so successful is way more than just their genre. The makers of those pillars of fantasy successfully compiled the following formula.
  1. beloved story 
  2. pre-existing fanbase 
  3. excellent writing and production value 
  4. production team who love the story as much as the core audience
When one of the producers for the D&D movie was intimately involved in the previous D&D film trainwreck, and the other says things like "I’ve never played the game, but it is a fantasy universe on the order of The Lord Of The Rings, which was most popular back when players had to use their collective imaginations" you're not off on the right foot. (emphasis added) 

When the writer, who is being touted as a protege of "Oscar nominated filmmaker Frank Darabont", has only ever written three feature-length films (one low-grade psychological horror and two really crappy fantasy pics) with ratings of 55%, 26% and 11% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, you're in deeper trouble. They've got part 1 and 2 of the formula in the bag. The problem is, when you fail at parts 3 and 4, you are left with a dedicated fan-base thoroughly unhinged about your decision to prostitute their beloved story. You become the thing nerds like me hate most: a bully. Except that instead of stealing lunch money, you are stealing their stories and their memories. The very things they used to hide from bullies like you. Unless you have existing clout on the level of George Lucas, raping a beloved piece of nerd culture is not something to mess with.

Unfortunately, the recent successes of fantasy flicks seems to make such atrocities more tempting. It is sparking a rise in what I call "frat boy fantasy" (whatever you do, do not Google the term! The more common use is decidedly NSFW). In my parlance, frat boy fantasy refers to movies that provide the trappings of fantasy without the soul. Big battles, big special effects muscle-bound protagonists, scantily clad women, all hanging on an even more scantily clad plot. There is no story arc. Nothing to make you actually care about the characters. The producers just throw money into VFX, set-piece battles and bump up the exposed flesh. Newsflash: If you don't care about the characters, that big speech the protagonist inevitably gives before the climactic battle falls on its face and takes the whole battle with it.

Frat boy fantasy is fantasy that the white baseball cap crowd can enjoy without having to engage their imagination, feel like they are in danger of stooping to nerddom, or really think at all. Some examples of this phenomenon include: The Immortals, the remake of Clash of the Titans, the remake of Conan (the original Conan almost fit, except the attention to back story made you actually care about Conan). Frat boy fantasy takes an existing, known world and hangs it on an ill-conceived and often generic storyline. The brand is merely pimped to sell tickets, regardless of how necessary that branding actually is eg. Aeon Flux. Given the track record of the production team assembled, I suspect this is exactly the route the new D&D film will take.

Even without these red flags, translating D&D to the screen would be very difficult. Basing a film strictly off the rulebooks means that you just make up the characters, and if that is the case, why make it D&D at all? Why not make an independently generated sword and sorcery epic? (cf. Ladyhawke, Willow, or even Reign of Fire) Perhaps the best way to make a D&D film would be to base it on some of the novelizations of the game. Of course, then you have to deal with beloved characters hobbled by really horrible writing. Still, I think that if you could get around the sociological quagmire that is making a story with dark elves that doesn't do this:

you could mold something decent out of the Icewind Dale trilogy. Chris Hemsworth would be great as Wulfgar, and Rose Leslie as Cattie Brie. Bruenor just needs someone gruff who can handle dwarfy makeup. Drizzt would be tricky (see photo above) as would Regis unless you dipped into folks who have already played hobbits. The real trouble would be passing off some of the awful name choices like Dendybar and Crenshinibon (I swear, R.A. Salvatore shouldn't write while hungry!) Even better, I think some of the video games like the recently re-released Baldur's Gate would make for AH-mazing film opportunities. Can you imagine a set-piece battle with Minsc and Boo!? I can, and it is GLORIOUS! Sadly, I have little faith that such honest treatments are in store for this film.


  1. I think they should make the original Dragonlance trilogy into live action movies. That could be pretty spectacular.

    1. Yeah, Raistlin and Fizban would be pretty rad on screen. Again though... Have you tried reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight as an adult? In my experience, it really did not hold up. The story's good. The writing's awful!


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