I do not drink often, but one of the occasions when I made an exception was the watch the Dungeons & Dragons movie with Fred. In retrospect, this was a very good idea. It was a terrible, terrible movie, primarily made tolerable by how much Jeremy Irons very clearly did not want to be there.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of really terrible movies, and I have to admit that the majority of the most terrible ones have been ones written to pander to me as a nerd – think Max “I’m the Smartest Cop In The World” Payne, Doom or the entire Uwe Boll oeuvre. These tend to have a common thread between them (which they share with the D&D movie) in that they tend to fall into two camps. The first are so interested in celebrating the subject of the movie that enthusiasm is used as spackle where stronger structural material might be in order. The second aren’t even interested – they just feel like they’re transcribing someone else’s interest, and the net result is something that by some miracle of suck manages to be both bloodless and putrescent.
Superhero movies have been pulling themselves out of this nosedive, and to my eyes it’s pretty clear this has been a result of a decision that these movies should not just rest on their subject material, and should in fact be good movies that happen to be superhero movies. This is not something that’s a function of any one element – writing, direction and performances have all played a part in this change – but there is an ineffable and critical change that happens when you decide the license is not enough (and, as a corollary, a sickening thud when you decide that it is).
All of which comes back to D&D. Like super heroes and video games, D&D has a long history of sucking pretty bad (if you remember the cartoon fondly, do yourself the favor of never watching it again), but like those other properties, the problems are not rooted in the material. There is nothing that keeps there from being a good D&D movie or cartoon, it’s just a function of making sure it’s good first, and D&D second.
If you doubt this, look to comic books. This is a really interesting time for D&D comics because of two things, both coming out of IDW. First, they’ve released collections of the old Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms comics. Second, they’ve released a new series of D&D comics, and the first collection is magnificent.
Now, I read the old comics back in the day, and I enjoyed them a lot, but in retrospect I feel safe describing them as inside baseball. They were fun, but they were mostly fun because I was already a D&D guy. I doubt they’d have moved my needle if they’d been “Generic Fantasy Comics”. In contrast, the new books (penned by the tremendously talented John Rogers) are a lot of fun in their own right. Zippy dialog, great art – all the things that would make it fun even if it weren’t called D&D.
That gives me hope. It’s a concrete illustration of what can be done with this thing I love (totally separate from these games I love). Why is this important? Well, it’s business. This could probably merit its own post, but you’d be better served listening to the latest episode of That’s How We Roll – it’s an interview with Peter Adkinson, and you will learn more about the business of D&D from that podcast than you will from anything else I can think of.
Jeremy Irons at least chews on some delicious scenery. I watch Thora Birch in that movie and can hear her thinking “I just squandered all of my American Beauty good will on this stinker.”
To say nothing of Mr. Tom Baker…
My favourite set of D&D novels is actually not a set of D&D novels at all.
They are The Deed of Paksennarion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon, and were written by her for her neighbour’s kid who was seriously into D&D (and very ill). So Ms Moon borrowed the core books, read them, and then using her expertise as a former Marine officer, skilled equestrian and fencer, and her degree in medieval history, as well as her ability as an author, to breathe life into them.
They are still quite recognisable as D&D (spot the Charm Person spell) – and contain one of the best portrayals of paladins that I have ever encountered (in or out of games) – but they are actually based in a plot that descends more from the intricacies of Frankish law than anything else. This gives them a direction that is lacking from many role-playing games but is necessary when creating other media.
[And while she hadn’t played D&D at the time, she also wrote up some of the encounters in the novels as adventures.]
The two prequels, and sequel trilogy (or at least as much as has been released) are also quite recommended, but a lot less recognisable as D&D.
I haven’t read the new D&D comic but I did read the Dark Sun and was disappointed. The series jumped from one encounter to another until the end when they cram the actual story into a few pages making it confusing.
To add insult to injury they have an adventure in the back saying the characters in the book are early paragon level. In the very back they have the character stated up at level 25.