Paint the monster green and...well, you get the picture
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the new Dungeons & Dragons movie looks a lot like a Marvel film. Though I’d argue it has a much more alluring color palette than your standard, often dry, modern comic book adaptation, the latest trailer for the tabletop-based movie otherwise reveals the calculated Hollywood formula we’re all familiar with by now. And based on comments from those making the film at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, there’s a very direct reason for this: This movie is being produced with Marvel films in mind and a narrow focus on special effects.
The trailer for D&D’s second chance on the big screen dropped on July 21 of this year, revealing the actors, a taste of the plot, and the title: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. It arrives after a Mordor-bound journey that started with a legal dispute back in 2013, charting out across a Hollywood trip through the many circles of production hell before the oh-so precious intellectual property landed a script with Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley behind the pen. The duo had previously worked on Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well as many other films, and they’re directing this upcoming adaptation of the world’s most popular roleplaying game, with Jeremy Latcham, who produced many defining modern Marvel films.
D&D emerged in the mid ‘70s and has faded in and out of popular consciousness over the decades. In the last five or so years, particularly after the fifth edition of the game was published in 2014 with a set of rules that managed to be more learnable yet still dynamic enough to suit the diehards, the game, and roleplaying games in general, have exploded in popularity, with podcasts that capture actual in-game sessions of D&D and last for hours, raking in millions and millions of views and passionate fans. It’s not hard to see why commercial interests have seen an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. The hobby has arguably never been hotter.
You might be wondering, even if you’re a long-time D&D fan and roleplayer like myself: why does this movie exist? Do we need an adaptation of a game that was largely inspired by other pseudo-medieval fantasy works, a game that’s usually enjoyed in a very long-form, non-linear format, often in private settings? And hasn’t Critical Role and others proven that there’s an audience for a slightly more theatrical version of just the hobby itself? And fine, if there is to be a movie, should it look so much like every other modern action Hollywood production?
At the D&D movie’s panel during this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Jonathan Goldstein, the co- writer and director of the upcoming film, shed some light on what makes him most excited about producing this film and adds a bit of insight into why they’re making it in the first place:
It’s the chance to bring to life these creatures, these places, these people that we’ve only been able to sort of imagine in our heads and to give solid matter to that. I mean it’s such a thrill. You’re gonna see things today and then eventually when the movie comes out, you know, that you’ve been playing or hearing about or imagining for years and now that we have the visual effects technology, and also practical effects, in the movie we’re able to bring this to life and that’s just so exciting to us.
Arguably, we’ve already had the “perfect” D&D movie thanks to Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings in the 2000s—which, if I’m being honest, do chart a bit too close to “action movie” for my taste, but otherwise were a memorable display of special effects talent across many disciplines and were a very solid tribute to the original works.
If D&D’s thematic and fictional inheritance can be traced back to a single point, we probably arrive at Tolkien. Quite literally in D&D’s case: The reason we call “Halflings” in D&D “Halflings” and not “Hobbits” is because Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t too amused with D&D creator Gary Gygax’s appropriation of ol’ J.R.R’s setting. Several other terms in early D&D were changed as a result of this legal complication and it’s a reminder that, despite the innovation of D&D as a roleplaying game, it largely existed as a way to inhabit the fantasy world established by The Lord Of The Rings.
D&D kind of is to Lord Of The Rings what, say, Uncharted is to Tomb Raider, which itself is a gender-bent simulation of Indiana Jones.
In general, pseudo-medieval fantasy is nothing new to movies or television. Again, Peter Jackson’s films remain a dramatic high point; Game of Thrones had eight mostly-celebrated seasons of prestige television; recent productions like Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher novels dive into a more overlooked set of stories. Pop culture’s no stranger to seeing this thematic palette get a satisfying live-action treatment, be it the very origins of the genre, modern works, or cult classics.
So, it’s a little odd to hear one of the writers and directors talk about how we’ve only been able to “sort of imagine” these kinds of worlds. They’ve been on the screen in various formats for decades. And, it’s strange to hear someone say that in a remarkably successful hobby that is currently undergoing a massive resurgence, that we can only “sort of imagine” these things at best.
Apparently we’ve only been able to “sort of” imagine something like this until the movie came along
Your average D&D session is bound to last three to four hours. Campaigns can last for years. Critical Role’s finale of their second campaign was SEVEN HOURS LONG. I don’t think people are “sort of imagining” here, in need of something brought to “life.” Role players are kind of already living it.
This is to say nothing of the legacy of art that has filled D&D books for years, or the literary work that has existed in classic and modern fantasy novels. Pseudo-medieval fantasy has been celebrated on the screen and on the page in both linear and interactive media for decades and this film looks to be another example of pop culture categorizing movie adaptations as the crowning cultural moment when an existing, thriving art form becomes “real.”
But in case you thought that this movie exists to do nothing more than show how hard a computer can crunch pixels at a special effects studio, Daley, Goldstein’s partner in cinematic crime followed up his remarks at the panel by stressing the talent behind the practical effects, name-dropping ILM and Legacy and, if you weren’t won over enough, “Baby Yoda.” He was then lore-scolded by Goldstein three times for not saying “Grogu.”
The trailer, complete with the sound of electric guitars and Robert Plant’s wailing, you know, things folks associate with roleplaying in a magic-rich, low-tech twist on elements of European medieval history, has the usual Marvel visual beats as well as textual ones; one-liners must always follow a serious line of dialogue; scenes are filmed with the grace of a GoPro strapped to a roller coaster; the heroes maybe don’t know what they’re doing. We already have the Led Zeppelin song, so cue the Stephen Lynch tune while Chris Pine does his best James Hetfield impression with a lute: “It’s D&D!”
My man is going for it in that first frame. pic.twitter.com/K7bVYCIdEh
— Josiah Ambrose - Dungeon Dad (@DungeonPapa) July 21, 2022
But what about the substance? What’s the story we’re telling? Every D&D fan loves a great monster to make attack rolls against, but these experiences and stories have the capacity to really move people and even speak to some delicate emotional parts of someone. Well, producer Jeremy Latcham’s comments at this year’s SDCC really demonstrated where they’re at with this. And, I think, saving final opinions for when I’ve seen this film in final form, Latcham’s comments stray close to an important element of the hobby right now that rightly deserves recognition and is perhaps not going to get it. Latcham told the audience at this year’s panel::
The theme that I think always binds us when we watch a movie is this sense of [...] found family. Of finding like this group of people and kind of connecting with them and that’s what makes [Guardians of the Galaxy] Guardians, that what’s makes the Avengers the Avengers [...] you look at like these groups that come together and the personalities clash and they face a giant obstacle and they have to kind of become a family over the course of it. I know it sounds like kind of you know, but I’m a very emotional guy, so it is kind of just the thing I love the most.
As if it were a playbill at the Met Opera: There’s the plot of the film for you.
Regardless, the subject of found family in relation to D&D is quite interesting to me, especially right now when the hobby has been so openly celebrated by queer community. Be it the countless individuals, myself included, who have had the experience of finding themselves in a roleplaying game, the phenomenon is not necessarily new; we’re just more honest about it. The fantasy realms of D&D and other games can rapidly become a place where we might meet our identities, sometimes for the first time, or be able to hide them without suffocating them into silence.
For roleplayers of queer identities, D&D is often the “action movie,” we’ll never get: a place where all the main characters can look and sound and dress like us. And it’s not merely the singular escape of one person, but rather the collective escape that we share with others. We can process our feelings about a world that wants us to not exist, yet we persevere. We can learn to form friendships and bonds with people after a lifetime of not having the best versions of ourselves put forward. That is a sense of “found family” that an Avengers movie can only provide by drowning it in headcanon—and even then, we’ll be accused of making everything about us when so little is. D&D is when it can be about us.
Video games have offered this as well, but in a roleplaying game where you’re seated around a table or a screen with other people, it is likely to be the first time you hear new pronouns directly used to refer to some portion of “you,” or refer to certain clothes your character may be wearing, gender-defined relationships you may have with other characters. It’s the first time someone may be called a “brother,” “sister,” “wife,” or “husband,” “she/her,” “they/them,” “he/him” and have it just fit in a way you could only dream it would. It is an environment where the language of gender becomes as playable as any stat block. Sometimes it’s just for fun. Sometimes that fun is you telling yourself something important. Something to keep listening to when the game’s over.
A modern movie about this hobby, this franchise, should be about that. We’ve had the perfect fantasy film already. So, if there’s talk of “found family,” we need to be aware of the people who are finding family and identity right now through D&D. It’s what’s going on in the hobby and has been going on since it started. I don’t know if that memo got to Latcham, Goldstein, and Daley.
That malleability, the sense of possibility, of getting to roleplay and explore identity with others, for those who are not merely misfits in high school, but misfits in society, often at the end of draconian legislative attempts to stamp us out of public spaces, is worth exploring. The table is ours. We answer to ourselves and the dice—and we can always fudge the numbers.
Be it queer-only actual play podcasts that chart out across epic adventures for hours at a time every week, or powerful new RPGs like Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the modern TTRPG renaissance is profoundly queer and, from the looks of things, this film is not brave enough to take the same chance. For now it’s concerned with being another Guardians Of The Galaxy. Hope you like classic rock, because it’ll likely be another skin-deep thrill ride more suitable for a theme park, perfect for all you Star Wars weekend fans.