Edited by Robert Beach
WB has announced that they are planning a remake/reboot (/whatever your preferred nomenclature is) of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. While not a total sideways move, this does indicate a few major red flags as far as studio thinking goes. My biggest take away form this is that somebody at Warner Brothers thinks that either the Warcraft movie or that Magic: The Gathering movie Fox is making have the potential to be major hits and take a chunk out of the fantasy market.
Even in fantasy’s biggest studio boom of the ‘80s, there weren’t very many lasting franchises that emerged from that era. For every Conan or He-Man that cropped up in the ‘80s, there was a Krull or Willow or Hawk the Slayer, even the solid fantasy flicks like Legend or The Dark Crystal didn’t end up as actual franchise with more installments down the line. That’s probably why the animated Dungeons & Dragons show in the ‘80s hasn’t really endured as a fondly remembered classic like Thundercats or Voltron. I actually think the animated series would be the best way in which to approach an adaptation. The idea there was that a group of Earth kids were warped (Jumanji-style) into the world of D&D. It was clever that each kid was assigned a class opposite to their personality, but given that the show was for children, and the game is for older kids, I’m not surprised it didn’t grow a long lasting following.
It wasn’t until Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings hit theaters in the early 2000s that fantasy started to get actually impactful installments. Coincidentally, that was the last time someone tried to adapt Dungeons & Dragons to the screen. Of course, like a lot of ill-advised 2000s fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons fell flat, though in this case, part of that can be owed to D&D’s biggest obstacle for adaptation: there’s no central storyline or characters to be adapted. This is probably why Warcraft is getting to theaters first despite its relatively young age; it actually has a firm canon with a lot of key stories and major characters. I’m not saying Dungeons & Dragons is somehow lesser than Warcraft because its approach to character and narrative are more diffuse. It’s harder to convert D&D into a focused narrative experience. The key word here is experience, and the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons is predicated more on the luck of a roll and forging your own path than it is through the flavor text of the world at hand. The story of any given Dungeons and Dragons campaign is designed to be compelling play into, not to watch from the sidelines.
Still, if there was ever a time to break the Dungeons & Dragons curse, it’s now. On the one hand, audiences have shown themselves to be a lot more receptive to less story-driven experiences these days. Experiments like long form storytelling through streaming content, shared cinematic universes, and anthology storytelling show people are ready to accept a story that might swap character, continuity, or style in exchange for narrative. More than that, though, the fantasy genre is in total disarray. The two mighty juggernauts of the genre, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, are pretty much finished with The Hobbit killing off any residual LotR interest and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is looking less and less like a sure thing as it looms closer towards us (after all if it was a sure thing WB wouldn’t need to green light a Dungeons and Dragons movie to try and hold onto their fantasy blockbuster money.)
Even putting aside those two franchises, the forces that dictate fantasy seem thoroughly unmoored in the current landscape. There’s the ongoing cavalcade of Disney-led fairy tale adaptations, the bizarre impact of Game of Thrones realism, the growing influence of video game fantasy aesthetics from stuff like Assassin’s Creed or World of Warcraft, and the bubbling underground of urban fantasy that manifests in shows like Supernatural or The Vampire Diaries. Fantasy aesthetics are essentially a free for all with no dominate forces emerging to really define the 2010s. If ever there was a confused quagmire screaming out for a powerful leader with both brand recognition and a defined visual style it’d be now, I think Dungeons and Dragons could be that leader.