Fantasy movies have had a rough history in Hollywood. Cheesy special effects, ren faire level costumes, and dialogue that sounds like a high-school dropout’s take on Shakespeare plagues these offerings. Plots tended to be very basic, but that’s never really hurt a movie if everything else works (looking at you, Star Wars). Add in a few decent sword fights and a voice cameo by Sean Connery, and a few are even watchable.
But not D&D movies.
I’m not going to belabor what anyone aware of the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie’s existence already knows: it was awful. It was a movie that felt like it hated both its source material and its intended audience, whether that was the intent or not. Bad costumes, hammy acting … sorry, said I wasn’t going to beat this dead horse despite some really tempting chances to get repeated critical hits.
But that all changed with this year’s unexpected gem: Honor Among Thieves.
I was as skeptical as anyone when I heard about this movie coming up on the horizon. I had paid money to see the 2000 version (which amazingly got two sequels!!) in theaters, and I wasn’t sure anyone in Hollywood understood, at its core, what D&D actually was.
Honor Among Thieves understands D&D.
Without getting into any spoilers, here is their formula:
- Make a good movie – Strip away all the D&D elements, and you’re left with basically a 1980’s style action comedy. With a little 1930s re-theming, it could have been an Indiana Jones movie, and that’s far from a criticism.
- Put away the lampshades – D&D diehards will get all the references. Casual moviegoers won’t care. You don’t have to delve into obscure D&D lore or infodump about the wider world. Honor Among Thieves didn’t try to educate or wink at their own inside jokes. My wife and I had different experiences seeing this movie because I could tell you everyone’s class, race, and what spells/magic items they were using, while she mainly enjoyed it for the story as presented. CRUCIALLY, it worked both ways.
- Write movie characters, not D&D characters – sure, deep down, all the cast has a character sheet somewhere that gives their stats and abilities. But they’re more than “hero” or “class name.” Each has backstory, motivation, and emotions that flesh them out just like any good movie, and if those details happen to fit this fantasy world, that doesn’t detract from the presentation. Same goes for the villain(s).
- Keep it fun – I can’t stress this enough. D&D is a heroic fantasy game. It’s meant to be fun. The storytelling framework and game mechanics all serve the purpose of being entertaining for the players. That same philosophy should apply to the film version, and Honor Among Thieves nails it. It’s a romp. It’s self-aware, but not wink-at-the-camera self-aware. It’s not embarrassed about being based on a kids’ game (even though I daresay more adults than kids play it nowadays).
- Make sense – In a world where magic is everywhere, “A wizard did it!” seems like an easy cop out. But D&D is a game with rules, and Honor Among Thieves doesn’t cheat. It doesn’t pull out last-second macguffins and deus ex machinas to solve the heroes’ problems.
Honestly, most of that list feels pretty basic. A lot of it boils down to “You people know how to make good movies, just make a good movie about D&D.” And I think where the problem had come up previously was trying to cram D&D into movie format rather than trying to write a movie with a D&D theme. When “by the exact rules of the books” and “make this a good movie” ever conflict, it felt like Honor Among Thieves fell decidedly on the side of “good movie.” And those decisions paid off.
And when you boil it down, that’s what you got: a good movie. About D&D. It’s about time.